By any normal standard, Dorothea Röschmann’s lieder recital at Zankel Hall was a shining success. The German opera star performed 21 gems from the standard art-song repertory by Schubert, Liszt, Strauss and Hugo Wolf with grace, style and affecting attention to the texts, which were, of course, all in her native language.
The audience, which filled almost every one of the 599 seats in this relatively intimate space reclaimed from the bowels of Carnegie Hall just ten years ago, were paying studious attention to the poems in their programs, to judge from the rustling of pages between every number. But you had to wonder which side of the en face texts they were reading.
Very few Americans today know German. Instruction in the language was suppressed after our entry into World War I. Even German music was prohibited in concerts. Then Hitler and the Holocaust put a taint on German culture that has never really faded. Only 14 per cent of U.S. high schools teach German. And in colleges and universities, fewer than 100,000 pupils get a taste of the language of Goethe.
So it was a reasonable assumption that a preponderance of the cultivated music lovers in Zankel Hall that wintry night in January were reading the English translations of the lyrics and not the German originals. Did this matter?
I think it did. I can remember back to the Sixties, when an audience at an Elisabeth Schwarzkopf lieder recital was filled with German-speaking immigrants who were visibly responding to her expressive attention to individual words and poetic nuance. Many of them, one supposed, were aware of Schwarzkopf’s Nazi-sympathizing past but came to hear her anyway, out of loyalty to the high German culture they had imbibed in their youth, the last moment when German culture was the treasured property of every educated person in the West.
It was an unintended consequence of the Nazi plague that it killed off the non-German world’s interest in its German heritage almost as effectively as it liquidated millions of Jews and other non-Aryans. Who today reads Faust in the original? Or. For that matter, who reads it in English? And if they do, what can they possibly make of this monumental work, which once was routinely included with the Iliad, the Odyssey and the Divine Comedy as one of the greatest epic poems in all literature.
Goethe in translation is a radically diminished author. The late Charles Rosen insisted to me that it was impossible to “get” Goethe except in German. This problem was on full display at the Röschmann recital. Fourteen of the songs, fully two-thirds of the total, were set to short poems by Goethe, three of these elusive lyric masterpieces cropped up twice on the program.
Here is the translation provided by Carnegie Hall to Liszt’s setting of a 24-word poem which, by a dubious but attractive legend, Goethe wrote in pencil on the wooden wall of an alpine hut during the evening of September 6,1780:
Over every mountain-top
In every tree-top
You scarcely feel
A breath of wind;
The little birds are hushed in the wood.
Wait, soon you too
Will be at peace.
This is a fairly accurate, if unnecessarily “poetic” rendering of Wandrers Nachtlied II (Hiker’s Nightsong II). At least, it captures the poignant repetition of “peace” and the haiku like turn on it in the last line: the “peace” of death as suggested by the peace of Nature. But if you were to read this as a self-standing English poem, I don’t think you would be tempted to set it to music. And Dorothea Röschmann would not be singing those words to 600 rapt concertgoers 233 years after you its author, seized by romantic inspiration, allegedly scribbled it on a board by your pallet bed on the slopes of the Kickelhahn.
Here is the actual poem, routinely acclaimed as the greatest achievement of German lyric poetry, which Liszt, as well as Schubert, Fanny Mendelssohn (sister of Felix) and Charles Ives set:
Über allen Gipfeln
In allen Wipfeln
Kaum einen Hauch;
Die Vöglein schweigen im Walde.
Warte nur, Balde
Ruhest du auch.
Even if you think you cannot read a word of German, you can still get an idea of what is going on in the poem by looking at it carefully. It should be obvious from the spelling alone that this is rhyming verse with the scheme abab cddc. The poet is addressing someone he knows well (Du is the familiar form of the pronoun “you”) But he starts with what looks like a very simple description of a mountain scene: over all the summits is peace. Then his view moves from the distance closer in, like a panning camera, to the treetops. Note, too, the very distinctive rhyming pair, Gipfeln and Wipfeln, peaks and treetops. The rhyming and the syntax keep knitting an apparently simple effusion about nature into a complex, tightly woven verbal device.
With the first word of the fourth line (only the ninth word of the poem!) he introduces an anonymous addressee in a two-word line that also injects the first human note (the camera is now in closeup range), who links the idea of feeling not only in the physical present but also to the poet. Like him, the absent addressee would, if present also feel hardly a breeze.
This clause, which has the first verb in the poem, slides across two lines, joining the poem’s two quatrains and the two halves of its rhyme scheme, softening the structural formality. At the same time, Goethe’s attention has moved from the immense, physically inanimate images of mountain and treetops, to the living emotion he shares with a friend (lover?) and then to much smaller living creatures, little birds (Vöglein: lein is the diminutive, the umlauted o makes the word plural), who are silent in the woods. And then we have the quietly dramatic shift, which transforms a delicate and intricate nature poem into a solemn reassurance of impending “peace.” Ruh reappears in the last line as a verb, ruhest, you will soon be at peace yourself, too. The verse expires like a whisper.
What I have been saying is pretty much a commonplace reading of the poem, a reaction any German-literate person would share. The simplicity and the sinewy artifice are stupendously apprehensible, working together in the service of deep feeling conveyed with masterful sobriety. The ideal concertgoer would know this and be ready to appreciate how Liszt or Schubert interpreted the text in sound, adding a layer of musical meaning with a repeated phrase or a rise, or a fall, a sudden diminuendo. The singer, meanwhile, repeats the poet’s words, in her own voice, with her own urgency and feeling, responding to the accompanist’s rendering of the composer’s notes and to the text that gave birth to the song.