Saturday, February 7, 2009

Michelangelo, Schiller, Rilke & humanist elegies

Johannes Brahms' choral-orchestral masterwork is Ein Deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem). He wrote several other choral "tone-poems"--single movement major works for choir & orchestra--that have not found their rightful place in the repertoire. Three of these works are choral settings of great German Romantics: Goethe's Gesang des Parzens (Song of the Fates), Hölderlin's Shicksalslied (Song of Destiny) and Schiller's Nänie (Elegy). (The most famous example is Brahms' Alto Rhapsody, an extended scena for alto & male chorus on an excerpt from Goethe's poem "Harzreise im Winter"). Telling that the three choral tone-poems take up the humanist thread of memory and elegy so exquisitely woven in the Requiem.

As the singers of the Virginia Chorale, our fabulous pianist, Charles Woodward, and I were rehearsing Nänie today (for our upcoming Romantic Celebration concerts Feb 21-22) I was struck by a particular manifestation of that humanist thread of elegy. Brahms wrote Nänie as a tribute to his friend, the painter, Anselm Feuerbach. Schiller's poem is a dense web of mythological allusions, lamenting the tragedy of life cut short, the double-edged sword of martyrdom, and the transience of mortal life itself. Brahms' setting, true to form, seizes on the salient universal/humanist qualities of the Greek references (Orpheus and Eurydice, Adonis & Aphrodite, Achilles & Thetis) and offers us a splendidly-faceted gem.

Schiller's poem resembles a sonnet, and following four couplets which depict the Grecian heros and the mothers, lovers, and deities who lament their passing, there is a "vanishing point" as the final quartet (that is, the last four lines of the poem) begins. Following music inspired by the poem's coupling of narrative & dramatic images, Brahms turns inward and sets the text "Dass das Schöne vergeht, dass das Vollkommene stirbt (that beauty must pass away, that the perfect must die) with particular poignancy and intimacy, preparing the way for the affecting coda and close of this marvelous, unjustly neglected masterwork.

The intimacy with which Brahms sets the above line brought to mind one of Benjamin Britten's most affecting songs. Britten's first mature song cycle is the 7 Sonnets of Michelangelo, and the first written expressly for his collaborator and partner, Peter Pears. The final song of the engaging set of sonnets is an elegy, "Spirto ben nato." The final couplet of this sonnet (for the artist's lover, Tommaso Cavalieri), inspired one of the first of Britten's many memorable cadences:

What law or earthly government, what cruelty now or to come,
Could forbid Death to spare such a beautiful face?

The sonnet says in words what Michelangelo's sculptures evoke. Through artistic genius, a human subject is eulogized and immortalized. Grief, death, and loss are given voice, given shape and form, and universalized through artistic inspiration.

Rilke's famous sonnet on the "Archaic torso of Apollo" is also (and always) relevant. In addition to the classical subject (the Greek god of the Sun, and father of Orpheus), Rilke shares with Michelangelo, Schiller, Britten & Brahms an inspired humanism that infuses a particular subject with universal significance. All of these examples work on the level of artistic metaphor, as the nature of artistic creation itself is a human effort to best mortality. Rilke addresses the audience with a memorable closing couplet that makes explicit the artist's (usually tacit) desire to move, inspire &/or affect:

For there is no place that does not see you:
You must change your life.

To me, all of these classical, humanist poems and pieces are mitigating agents of openness. They rise above the cool allure of atheism that rejects the balm of ontological security, while resisting the pull of triumphalist fundamentalism which often avoids engagement with the unpleasant facts on the ground to which such elegies give voice.

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