18 November 2014

Das Berliner Requiem: First & Second Reports on the Unknown Soldier under the Triumphal Arch

From the classic, 1970s, DG recording by David Atherton and the London Sinfonietta, these are two of my favorite pieces ever and come from Kurt Weill's Das Berliner Requiem (1929), a cantata setting of poems by Bertolt Brecht, which itself, more than anything else, is about the German experience of the aftermath of World War I. As you will see....

As it is ever inappropriate to divorce the salt and pepper at the dinner table, I refuse to divorce the first Bericht, or Report, from the second, in this truly incredible one-two punch (a dreadful pun, here) of Weill-Brecht, in this strange and beguiling, this deeply upsetting and unsettling, this compelling piece. Its ferocity may surprise you. And so, first, The First Report on the Unknown Soldier under the Triumphal Arch. All translations, which follow Brecht's original German, are mine, flaws and all.

IV. Erster Bericht über den Unbekannten Soldaten unter dem Triumphbogen

Wir kamen
von den Gebirgen

und vom Weltmeer,
Um ihn zu erschlagen.

Wir fingen ihn mit Stricken, langend
Von Moskau bis zur Stadt Marseille

Und stellten auf Kanonen, ihn erreichend
An jedem Punkt,

wo er hinfliehen konnte,
Wenn er uns sah.

Wir versammelten uns vier Jahre lang,
Legten nieder unsere Arbeit

und standen
In den zerfallenen Städten,

uns zurufend in vielen Sprachen
Von den Gebirgen bis zum Weltmeer,

Wo er sei.
So erschlugen wir ihn im vierten Jahr.

Dabei waren,
Die er war geboren zu sehn

Um sich stehend zur Zeit seines Todes:
Wir alle.

Und dabei war eine Frau, die ihn geboren hatte
Und die geschwiegen hatte, als wir ihn holten.

Der Schoß sei ihr ausgerissen,

Als sie ihn aber erschlagen hatten,
Richteten wir ihn zu, dass er sein Gesicht verlor

Durch die Spuren
unsrer Fäuste.

So machten wir ihn unkenntlich,
Dass er keines Menschen Sohn mehr sei.

Und gruben ihn aus
unter dem Erz,

Trugen ihn heim
in unsere Stadt und

Begruben ihn unter dem Stein,
und zwar unter einem Bogen,

Bogen des Triumphs,

Welcher wog tausend Zentner, dass
Der Unbekannte Soldat

Keinesfalls aufstünde
am Tag des Gerichts

Und unkenntlich
Wandelte vor Gott,

Dennoch wieder im Licht

Und bezeichnete uns Kenntliche

Zur Gerechtigkeit.

IV. First Report on the Unknown Soldier under the Triumphal Arch

We came
from the mountains

and the oceans,
To strike him dead.

We caught him with ropes, strung
From Moscow to the city of Marseille

And aimed cannon, so as to reach him
At any point

to where he should flee,
When he saw us.

We gathered for four years,
Laid down our work

and were
In the ruined cities,

calling to each other in many languages,
From the mountains to the oceans,

Where he was.
So we killed him in the fourth year.

It was to be
That he was born to see

Standing before him at the time of his death:
All of us.

And there was the woman who bore him
And who was silent when we got him.

Let her cunt be ripped out.

And when we had slain him,
We turned on him so that he lost his face

Through the traces
of our fists.

So we made him unrecognizable,
That he was no man's son, anymore.

And dug him out
from under the steel,

Carried him home
to our city and

Buried him under the stone,
and indeed under an arch,

called the
Arch of Triumph,

Which weighed a thousand talents, so that
The unknown soldier

Under no circumstances
should rise on Judgment Day

and, unrecognizable,
Walk before God,

Yet again in the light

And call us the knowable

To justice.

Great poem: Bertolt Brecht, 1919
Serviceable translation: Attributed to L. Steve Schmersal, November 2014

The reason I am thinking about this now--and writing about it at all, here--is because this second (or fifth) movement, this Bericht, this Report, this recitative, this solo, sung, here, by the wonderful Benjamin Luxon, is sung almost entirely over a Hammond organ, and my friend, the composer, Gordon Beeferman, has just acquired a Hammond, which required me to regale him about this piece for not a little while. Gordon, I write this for you.

In Settling the Score, Ned Rorem writes about how some composers are constitutionally fast or slow (off-topic, but I feel the need to share, Rorem also says that one can hear Weill in Bach but not the other way round--a fascinating and paradoxical assertion) and that Weill is of the fast variety, that even in his slow music you hear the stillness of atoms spinning, spinning, spinning.

This observation is nowhere more legible than in his setting of Brecht's great poem to--or "report on" but always very much report to--the Unknown Soldier, in which Weill makes the Hammond sound like a squeezebox, devolving, dissolving in its own solution, into a single note repeated figure before the woodwinds take over. The suspense of the stillness of atoms spinning. The master at work.

Rorem also suggests Britten's War Requiem owes a certain allegiance to this uncategorizable, ineffable, nearly inscrutable work. Don't think. Just ride the sounds and the meanings dissolving into sounds, vocabularies, and histories to which we have almost no real access, except through imagination. Just try to be quiet. Amen!

V. Zweiter Bericht über den Unbekannten Soldaten unter dem Triumphbogen

was ich euch sagte
Über Ermordung und Tod
des Unbekannten Soldaten

Und die Verwüstung
seines Gesichts,

Auch was ich euch sagte über die Bemühung seiner Mörder,
Ihn zu hindern am Wiederkommen,
Ist wahr.

er kommt nicht wieder

Sein Gesicht war lebendig wie das eure,
Bis es zerschmettert wurde und nicht mehr war.

Und er ward
Nicht mehr gesehen auf dieser Welt,

Weder ganz noch zerschmettert,
Weder heute noch am Ende der Tage

Und sein Mund
Wird nicht reden

am Jüngsten Gericht.
Es wird kein Gericht sein,




Ist tot

und tot

ist der Stein

über ihm,

Und ich bedaure

Jeglichen Hohn,

und ziehe zurück

meine Klage.

Aber ich bitte euch,
da ihr ihn

Nun einmal erschlagen habt,

Fangt nicht von neuen an
Zu streiten, da er doch tot ist.

Aber doch bitte ich,
da ihr ihn also

Erschlagen habt:
Entfernt wenigstens

Den Stein über ihm,
Denn dieses Triumphgeheul

Ist doch nicht nötig
und macht Mir Kummer,

denn mich,
Der ich den

Schon vergessen hatte,

erinnert er

an euch,
die ihr noch

Lebt, und
die ihr

Immer noch nicht
erschlagen seid.

denn nicht?

V. Second Report on the Unknown Soldier under the Triumphal Arch

I told you
About the murder and death
of the Unknown Soldier

And the devastation
of his face,

Also what I told you about the effort of his murderers,
To prevent him from coming back,
Is true.

he will not come back

His face was alive like yours,
Until it was broken, and was no more.

And he was
Not seen in this world,

Neither whole nor crushed,
Neither today nor at the End of Days,

And his mouth
Will not speak

on the Day of Judgment.
There will be no judgment,




Is dead

and dead

is the stone

above him,

And I regret

Any scorn,

and withdraw

my complaint.

But I ask you,
because now that

You have slain him:

Do not start anew
To argue, because he is dead.

But I ask, because you
Have so slain him:

Remove, at least,
The stone above him,

For this howl of triumph
Is unnecessary and makes

Great sorrow
for me,

The one
who had the slain man

Forgotten, it reminds
Me daily

of you
who still

Live, and who
Have still

not been


Great poem: Bertolt Brecht, 1919
Serviceable translation: Attributed to L. Steve Schmersal, November 2014

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