Posts Tagged ‘ Johann Sebastian Bach ’

Vivaldi is 340 years old today

Long live the Red Priest.

Vivaldi’s importance is not simply (?) because he wrote music which ranks among the most sublime ever composed. But also because he ignited Bach (who learned of him through scores from Italy) into creating one of the greatest achievements of our species. Bach had already mastered German counterpoint (an art form that probably surpasses the iambic pentameter for its intellectual possibilities). With Vivaldi’s rhythmic propulsion and harmonic simplification, Bach was able to forge the basis for German art music, a form that lasted for more than a quarter of a millennium and remains one of the summits of human achievements. Here is what Bach first did with his encounter with Vivaldi:

But Bach over the years could marinate Vivaldi, and it would the influences would turn into something as unbelievable as this:



Suzuki conducts Fasch, Hasse and Bach, Sunday October 9

Mourning in Dresden at Juilliard with Suzuki

For those in the New York City area tomorrow, Sunday, October 9, and interested in German Baroque music, you can do no better than attending the concert at Juilliard’s Peter Jay Sharp Theater, entitled Mourning in Dresden, directed by Masaaki Suzuki. I was able to see this evening the performance at Yale’s Battell Chapel in New Haven, and so I can attest that the concert is a moving and perfectly executed performance of two great Baroque choral masterpieces.

Suzuki has been at residence at Yale Music School for several years now, and there is really no one who can meld talented voices together to achieve the near celestial sound that can be gotten from German Baroque music, particular Bach’s. And with Yale’s Schola Cantorum he has one of the best young choral ensembles one could hope for. They are combined with Juilliard’s period instrument ensemble, Juilliard415. Suzuki leads them for superb performances of Hasse’s Miserere in C Minor and Bach’s Trauerode.

The concert begins, however, with a woodwind concerto: Fasch’s Concerto in D Minor for Two Flutes, Two Oboes, Two Violins, Two Bassoons and Basso Continuo. The piece is a well composed and elegant secular chamber piece by one of Bach’s contemporaries, Johann Friedrich Fasch. Fasch in fact had studied in Leipzig, and even applied for the position that Bach was awarded at the Thomaskirke there. Fasch, like Bach around the same time, was struck by the instrumental music of Vivaldi and this concerto shows that influence. It is elegant, follows the fast-slow-fast requirements of the genre, but retains that underlying haunted sadness that remained in Protestant German music even in the middle of the eighteenth century. The soloists are quite good and Suzuki has so incorporated into his being the particular rhythmic flow (for lack of an academic expression) of German Baroque music that one can appreciate the elegance while also understanding the seriousness of the endeavor.

Hasse himself was probably even more influenced by the Italians than Fasch. He spent much of his early career in Naples and even studied with Alessandro Scarlatti. It was by marriage he returned to Germany, having been appointed Kapellmeister at the Dresden court. While there, he met and became friends with Bach. There he composed the Miserere, which reveals all the eclectic influences from his international experiences. The work was instantly acclaimed. It was written at the time that other other “sacred” pieces (such as Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater) were incorporating the influences of Italian opera, but this piece hews closely to choral style of the late Barorque in Germany.

It is of course Bach’s Trauerode that makes this concert worth going out of one’s way to attend. The work is a funeral cantata, Laß, Fürstin, laß noch einen Strahl (“Let, Princess, let yet one more ray”), BWV 198, on the death of the Electress of Saxony, Christiane Eberhardine.  This was not a simple commission for Bach. The princess was beloved by her subjects, for having refused to convert to Catholicism, even though her husband did in order to vie for additional realms in Poland and Lithuania. The Lutheran population of Saxony regarded her as a saint, and the University of Leipsiz commissioned both the text and musical score for her public commemoration. The text, by Johann Christoph Gottsched, is secular (it mainly details the sorrow of her subjects, considered geographically), unlike the near poetical simplicity of Luther’s biblical translations that Bach weekly set to music in Leipzig. But perhaps that caused Bach to redouble his musical prowess for the sake of the great Lutheran heroine. It is one of the great choral works of Bach, a piece so brilliant, that only the likes of Suzuki coud make its execution seem both flawless and effortless. But the work is both steeped in the Germanic past and hinting at the new. To me, the work always seemed as though it were in part looking forward to the classical norms of block instrumental writing. At the same time it employed vocal soloists to perform in old time recitatives and arias  with particular groupings of instruments to highlight special voicings. Suzuki makes the whole thing work as a whole. And his tempo (rather on the faster side) and dynamics (exciting but under control) make the piece seem both modern (that is, not hidebound) and profound (that is, not swept up in modern “cleverness”). One is alway struck by the instrumental and then choral attacks in the first movement. They cause one’s heart to beat faster.

Bach of course was particularly adept at both vocal and instrumental colors and combined them in interesting ways. Early on the set pieces of his cantatas reveled in demonstrating the virtuosity. By the time of the Trauerode Bach was secure enough to use his tonal color magic without calling attention to itself. And this is seen in the cello choir backing the alto soloist, the flute and oboe backing to the tenor and the bass voice with pure basso continuo. By the way, the basso continuo of Juilliard415 consists of organ, harpsichord, double bass and two theorbos. This is a luxury one doesn’t usually get to enjoy. And speaking of luxuries, the Hasse performance uses the talents of young countertenor Bradley Sharpe to good advantage. All of the vocal soloists are worth noting: Soprano Adde Sterrett in the Hasse and Natasha Schnur in the Bach piece; mezzo Adele Gravowski in Truaerode; tenors James Reese in the Hasse ad Daniel McGrew in the Bach and baritone Matt Sullivan in both works.

In order to get the word out in time I will truncate my usually overly long critiques. If I have missed something (or misstated it), I’m happy to have any comments. One thing I know I will not be contradicted on, this is a performance well worth attending.


Underwhelming “Psycho-Magic”: Jodorowsky’s Dance of Reality

Publicity photo of director Alejandro Jodoworsky with Jeremias Herskovits, who plays his doppelgänger as a young boy. Actress Pamela Flores, who plays Jodowrsky's mother, is obscured behind them.

Publicity photo of director Alejandro Jodoworsky with Jeremias Herskovits, who plays his doppelgänger as a young boy. Actress Pamela Flores, who plays Jodowrsky’s mother, is obscured behind them.

Trinity College’s Cinestudio tonight showed Alejandro Jodorowsky’s latest film La danza de la realidad (“Dance of Reality”). This film. made last year, is the 83-year-old director’s first film in 23 years. (The Rainbow Thief (1990), which was only theatrically released in France (in 1994) was the last previous.) The current film is based on (the first part of) his self-described “psycho-magical” autobiography of the same name. With all of this going for it, it is no wonder that critics hailed its emergence. After all, who wouldn’t want a triumphant Schwanengesang?

After 2 hours and 10 minutes of running time, my two physical states were exhaustion and astonishment. The astonishment was that the film so under-delivered on the considerable hype that I wondered whether I missed some (very) secret hidden message or technique. The exhaustion resulted from watching a series of scenes, painfully drawn out, that seemed to have no other purpose than to demonstrate so sort of cinematic magic, without the foundation necessary for successful magic—offering a reason that the audience wants to believe.

The family reunited: Herskovits, Flores, Brontis Jodorowsky. Still from the film.

The family reunited: Herskovits, Flores, Brontis Jodorowsky. Still from the film.

The movie is such a self-indulgent chaos that the charitable thing to do would be to pass over it in silence. Of course all attempts at autobiography is self-indulgence as a matter of definition. To sell an autobiographical project, it is necessary to offer the audience a reason to forgive the self-indulgence—for example, to gain an insight into the mind of a thinker, to find a new way of thinking, to understand the historical context of the author, for examples. None of these are readily evident here, particularly because this autobiography is “magical” rather than factual. It’s not that it takes liberties with past events; it is a wholesale invention of the past. Jodorowsky has said in connection with this film that the past can be changed. And indeed it can. If it is drastically changed, it is not normally packaged as autobiography, however magical.

They came as though it were the "Night of the Living Dead" except there was no explanation, except later. Why the umbrellas? It's all a magical mystery.

They came as though it were the “Night of the Living Dead” except there was no explanation, except later. Why the umbrellas? It’s all a magical mystery.

All of this would be a mere quibble if the film (I have not read the book) made some sort of point, whether moral, historical, aesthetic or otherwise. As far as I can tell (and I watched it a second time to make sure), it does not. In fact, it seems to supply the definition of something I have long tried to understand: post-modernism, which seems to be unstructured rejection of modernist (or any other movement’s) principles, without supplying anything in return other than self-promotion (where the “genius” really centers). Indeed, this film offers bits of modernism without any sort of unifying theme or vision. It seems nothing more than a pastiche, or perhaps a series of pastiches not connected even by an underlying motif. Narrator Jodoworsky tells us early on his relationship with his younger (movie) self: “All you are going to be, you already are. What you are looking for, is already in you.” This would be a more compelling philosophy if there were more devotion to literal truth to prove it. Instead Jodoworsky uses clichés and references (visual and musical) to other film makers and artists to make a point that he himself doesn’t even attempt to make in this film. I’ll return to the derivative nature of the parts in a moment. But I’ve put off explaining what the film does do long enough.

Fellini anyone? Except in pastel and never part of the fabric of the film.

Fellini anyone? Except in pastel and never part of the fabric of the film.

The film is evidently the current Jodowrsky’s vision of what his childhood would have been like, if he could have devised it himself right now. Not to make it better, certainly. But to explain his current philosophy, which is a jumble of mysticism, judgmental apolitical jargons and above all the belief that his creation of “magic” can cover the t deficiencies. He tells of is coming of age in the small coastal town of Tocopilla, Chile, the son of Ukrainian Jewish emigrants. His father (played by Jodorowsky’s son, Brontis Jodorowsky) is an authoritarian Communist, who runs a small dry goods store, Casa Ukraine. He has no sympathy for the proletarian rejects of the copper mines, the men who owing to mining accidents lose their limbs and their livelihood. He is, really, a petit bourgeoise, who looks to Stalin as a model, not so much for his desire to advance the dictatorship of the proletariat, but simply for his status qua dictator. Unless we miss this point, at the end of the film his wife (played by Pamela Flores) shows him blown up pictures of Stalin, Carlos Ibáñez del Campo (Chile’s fascist dictator) and Jaime Jodowrsky. Jaime shoots his own portrait and all three pictures catch fire. This is not a “spoiler.” Did anyone not see this ending coming?

The movie begins as a coming of age story, where Jodoworsky must endure the abusive rearing of a father, who believes he must make a man of his son. I am not trying to shoehorn this part of the movie into some “genre.” The film itself does the shoehorning. It is so filled with cliches in this regard that it could have been made in Hollywood. But then it veers off into a spiritual/political journey of Jaime himself. That journey is remarkably unconvincing. He begins as a brutal husband, with a Fellini-esque prostitute/mistress. Meanwhile the wife/mother has spent (and will continue throughout the film) singing her part. This is inexplicable, unless we have seen some of the commercial material that comes with the movie. It turns out that Jodoworsky’s mother was a frustrated opera singer. So maybe reality is supposed to supplement this magical autobiography? And maybe postmodern art is not self-contained; it requires the commercial apparatus to explain it. But the father’s quest continues. For reasons that are not explained, Jaime decides to aid a group of poverty-stricken plague victims by providing them water. (We know only of this group because them come en masse from the desert. When he delivers the water they demand (his firefighters are too cowardly to do so), the victims rip his donkeys apart for meat. When all of this is over, Jaime contracts the plague. On his return home, everyone shuns him, except his (abused) wife, who cures him, by (I kid you not) urinating on him and invoking God in the process.

Now cured, Jaime decides to assassinate fascist Ibáñez. I won’t go into this. If you are still paying attention at this point, you will see an unbelievable story about a partisan’s dedication to deliver his country from fascism. It doesn’t work, of course. For reasons that are equally unbelievable. And so Jaime must bear the burden of being a Stalinist unable to pull the trigger on a fascist. But after a religious pilgrimage (of sorts) Jaime gets to make atonement by being tortured by the fascists. And we get to see it: Jaime has his testicles shocked (with a close-up) until the partisans release him as a hero and take him home.

In any Christian parable there must be a widow figure who just needs a good man, no matter how deformed.

In any Christian parable there must be a widow figure who just needs a good man, no matter how deformed.

While Jaime is having his adventure, little Jodorowsky actually worries that his father has forgotten him. There is no psychological reality in this film, perhaps because it is “magical.” But that’s a hard debate to undertake on the basis of a movie. What is not disputable is that this film is made up of derivative parts of other movies. The early scene with the seagulls attacking young Jodorowsky is only one example. The music is an easier example (for me).

The film opens with Louis Prima’s “Sing, Sing, Sing.” (It sounds to me like Benny Goodman’s Carnegie Hall version.) The auteur equates money with life, then with Christ, then with Buddha. And then Jodoworsky himself (as narrator) equates money with conscience and conscience with death. And so you would be excused for thinking that there would be some point about money that might be made in this movie. You would be wrong.

It's hard to understand how this happened. But the petit bourgeoise Stalinist was  circus performer in the past.  When, where, why? It is a metaphor I guess.

It’s hard to understand how this happened. But the petit bourgeoise Stalinist was a circus performer in the past. When, where, why? It is a metaphor I guess.

But the big problem of the movie is that it looks like a bad copy of Fellini. The music, the tropes (massed groups, parades, the “freaks”). You would be excused for wondering why the amputees had a brawl, if you never saw a Fellini movie. But the difference is that Fellini had a consistent point of view in each movie. Plus Fellini had a joie de vivre that Jodorowsky eschews for other music: Bach, Strauss, even Irving Berlin. It’s all a big pastiche, governed by promotion.

See it for yourself. You might lose patience (around the one hour mark). But however much you want it to be a good movie (and I did), it won’t happen. It is all self-promotion. Maybe that is all art is in our time. I am still optimistic that that is not the case. But this is not evidence in my favor.

From radical to commercial in one generation

I was surprised to find that the opening bars of the version of “Star Spangled Banner” performed by Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock is used by Major League Baseball as its unofficial theme. I doubt that the favorite sport of George Will and Henry Kissinger was making some radical critique that reactionary forces have distorted our country’s ideals in this time of national polarization just as they did in 1969, the last time we were so riven. It probably is simply just another example of something I observed: that in our hyper-commercialized form of popular culture, where “art” is simply “content” which has been successfully marketed by profit-driven actors rather than cultural critics, it takes only about 50 years for advertisers and corporate image polishers to take even the most radical forms of expression and turn them into commercials. At one time abstract expressionism was thought shocking, but now it decorates the offices of even the most staid Wall Street firms (provided of course that the colors match the surroundings). I noticed that around the mid-1990s Saks of Fifth Avenue (the one in Manhattan) started playing Charlie Parker (just barely heard of course) in the background. (I wonder if the stores around the country did so at the same time or have caught up.) Munch’s Scream and Van Gogh’s Sunflowers of course have been decorative items for a long time.

Maybe the time period has something to do with the length of copyrights. Or maybe pop culture simply takes 50 or so years to assimilate innovations. It took Hollywood until about the late 1950s before it began using riffs from atonal compositions made in Vienna at the beginning of the twentieth century, even though composers like Korngold, who witnessed and participated in it in Vienna, composed film music.

I suspect that time frame will speed up in the near future because fewer and fewer oases of non-commercial art exist, because popular art is largely conceived from the beginning as a commercial endeavor (with product placement, embedded advertisements, considerations of licensing possibilities), and because a generation has grown up immured against the idea that art is something outside of mass, commercial entertainment.

This may not be an entirely new development. Hemingway, for example, designed For Whom the Bell Tolls for a movie with Clark Gable in mind. Maybe it was inevitable with the twentieth century’s mass distribution inventions: movies, recordings, broadcasting. Maybe it would never have occurred to anyone to make “absolute music” independent of considerations of what records would “sell,” and more importantly, how much profits could be generated. Maybe Bach today would be writing television theme music, Virgil writing ad copy and Bernini trying to make cars look sleeker.

Even so there still seems to me to be a disconnect between the beer swilling fans in Boston screaming “Yankees suck!” and the “turn on, tune in, drop out” crowds at Woodstock. Maybe the forces of conformity have simply changed society. God knows there has been no real anti-war movement, despite over a decade of conflicts around the world. So maybe the forces that allow Hendrix to be play while watching the interminably slow pace of baseball has simply homogenized us all. It doesn’t matter what is sold, we will buy it as long as it is packaged in the way we have come to expect.

This is why they continue to play art music

Martha Argerich, Evgeny Kissin, James Levine, Mikhail Pletnev are the soloists in this performance of Bach’s Concerto for four keyboards in A minor, BWV 1065, at the Verbier Festival on July 22, 2003. The chamber orchestra included Sarah Chang, Gidon Kremer, Mischa Maisky and Boris Pergamenschikow.


Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!

The “Electronic Poem” is 55


The centerpiece of Expo 58, Atomium. (Wikipedia.)

Fifty-five years ago this week the  Brussels Worlds Fair (known as Expo 58) opened (April 17 to October 19, 1958). The opening celebrated the reconstruction of Europe, and pointed to a hopeful future, and of course the emphasis was on technology and science. The architecture was largely modernistic, the most unusual building being the Atomium.

Le Corbusier himself designed the building for the Philips Corporation, the Dutch electronics company, which in the 1950 formed Philips Records. We might nowadays say it was looking to provide “content” for its record players. Philips produced records consisting of mainstream classical, jazz and pop music. In 1957, for example, the Kaye Sisters and Frankie Vaughan appeared on Philips Records; in 1958 Vic Damone and Doris Day did so.

The Philips Pavilion at Expo 58. (Wikipedia.)

The Philips Pavilion at Expo 58. (Wikipedia.)

Le Corbusier handed off much of the work of creating and managing the construction of the building to Iannis Xenakis, an architect who would later become renowned as an avant-garde composer. The two conceived the idea of a building that would showcase a piece of electronic music by  French-American composer Edgard Varèse (often referred to as Edgar Varèse). Given what it conceived the tastes of its record buyers amounted to, it is not likely that the concept immediately appealed to Philips. Nonetheless, the artists prevailed, and a great building looking like a futuristic cathedral was designed to house a enclosure much like the multi-chambered stomachs of ruminants.

The internal design intended to create a cavern that allowed the music to be “spatialized.” Over 250 speakers were installed, controlled by relays and switches to perform the electronic piece written by Varèse.

Portrait of Ferruccio Busoni, oil on canvas by Umberto Boccioni (1916) (Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna di Roma, Italy). Click to enlarge.

Portrait of Ferruccio Busoni, oil on canvas by Umberto Boccioni (1916) (Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna di Roma, Italy). Click to enlarge.

Varèse’s training as a composer largely came from the great Ferruccio Busoni. Busoni was an accomplished concert pianist, music historian, teacher and, above all, composer. Busoni is not as widely appreciated today as he ought to be. He fits neither into the new music of the Second Viennese School nor the Impressionism of the French new music that followed Debussy, and the inability to categorize him has contributed to his neglect. Although his music is undeniably forward-looking, it reaches back to the origins of German art music. In fact, he is probably known most of all to piano students who learned Bach through his arrangements. Through Busoni Varèse met Hugo von Hofmannsthal and began an opera project with one of his librettos, but it never came to fruition.

Photograph of young Edgard Varèse. Date unknown.

Photograph of young Edgard Varèse. Date unknown.

Varèse spent most of World War I in the United States. He would thereafter return to Paris, but again resettled in the United States. He composed a number of highly influential works for small instrumental groups as well as musique concrète pieces and electronic works. Many of the pieces depend on intricate rhythmic patterns and overlaps. But the rhythms are highly controlled, more like the way temporal space was divided in the Baroque than the percussion of the Jazz Age. In retrospect the number of his works is surprisingly small in light of their collective influence.

By the 1950s Varèse was internationally known for his experiments in sound. It was for this reason he was selected by Le Corbusier to provide the “music” for the Philips Pavilion. The work he created is known as Poème électronique, the “Electronic Poem.”

Varèse and Le Corbusier at the Philips Pavillion in 1958.

Varèse and Le Corbusier at the Philips Pavillion in 1958.

The piece is comprised entirely of electronically generated sounds. For all that, first time hearers today will think that its physical composition was surprisingly primitive. All that resulted were three monophonic magnetic tapes. The spatial effects inside the cavern were created by the relays that controlled the volume of the speakers. If you listen to it for the first time today, you should use a set of headphones to try to re-create the spatial effects.

The work is short and unusually linear. Sounds arise and decay into great silence. It is the sound of what we once thought of as the “future.” It now reminds us how machines and electronics have contributed to our alienation.

Like all great modernist pieces it requires repeated listenings. Once you are familiar with the structure, you see that it is a sui generis creation, but unlike an abstract painting each part can call up the whole in one’s memory. At Expo 58 abstract art and black-and-white film accompanied the performances. The programmatic guide to the piece suggested that it “represents” man’s rise from the void, through the gods to civilization (and beyond?). It is best to treat the piece as an expressionistic musical work, however, and forget the program. Part of experience is the texture and color of the noises. It will seem warm despite the alienating sounds. The warmth comes from an intelligence who guides the sounds.

The two million visitors who experienced the piece 55 years ago probably had a more visceral experience inside the Pavilion. But the piece still provides an arresting encounter with the new. No matter how many times you have heard it.

On Beauty’s Transience with Freud, Goethe and Especially Hofmann von Hofmannswaldau

“I am consumed like rotting compost,” says Job. Engraving by Alexander Mair, Germany, c.1605. Click to enlarge.

Around 1600 the Baroque Era arrived in Italy ushering an increasingly exuberant style of visual and performance arts. Of course by 1600 the works of Boccaccio and Petrarch were by then a century and a half old so the amorous and erotic were not new to literature, although they because more prevalent. Germany, by contrast, saw no sudden cultural change then. Of course, the capital accumulated by the great traders and the wealth collected by the church from all Europe made possible lavish architecture, sculpture, murals and paintings in Italy that could never be rivalled elsewhere, particularly in Germany which still had not much emerged from the wealth-dissipating economic patterns in effect since early Medieval times. And not long after the beginning of the 17th century, the great religious war (or wars) would devastate much of Germany to the middle of the Century. And while its music was influenced by Italy from the beginning of the century, its literature and engravings long-continued in the memento mori themes from the Middle Ages.

Sleeping Venus by Artemisia Gentileschi. Oil on canvas. c 1625-30. Click to enlarge.

And so we see for the first half of the  1600s Italy celebrating Life and Love and Eroticism and Germany musing on Death and Destruction. This of course is a simplification, and not a very profound one at that. Of course these themes are never completely separated. The death of young lovers actually makes their love more transcendent. And Death can actually be an act of Love by God (Ich habe genug, BWV 82, is Bach’s great contribution to this view). And even in Italy both Love and Death were embraced Monteverdi, for example, wrote one book of madrigals, one of his last, best and longest (Book VIII), devoted to Love and War. But often in Monteverdi war is simply a metaphor for the quest for love. In any event we can say, as accurate as any statement of cultural tendency can be, that the Germans in the Baroque while Italians celebrated the earthly beauties and joys, Germans from North to South spent most of their artistic energy examining humanity’s possible response to the reality of Death. Of course, Germany, which was the battle ground for one of the most devastating wars in European history for the first part of the Baroque, had every reason to focus on death. It was everywhere. And through the rest of the 17th Century and even (or especially) in Bach, the sadness caused by that war with it train of famine and pestilence is never far removed. Even in Bach’s day, to remove oneself from the prevailing seriousness, piety and pensiveness meant moving to Italy, as did Handel. (A century earlier, during the Great War, travel between parts of German and Italy was still possible. Heinrich Schütz, for example, travelled from Dresden to Venice in 1628 to meet Monteverdi.)

Only known portrait of Christian Hoffmann von Hoffmanswaldau. By unknown engraver. Click to enlarge.

Today’s poet, Christian Hofmann von Hofmannswaldau (in English references usually spelled with two double  fs) (born on Christmas 1616, died on April 18, 1679), came from Breslau (today Wrocław), now in Poland, then it was the capital of Lower Silesia, but in the day was part of the Holy Roman Empire within the Kingdom of Bohemia. In 1526 it went by inheritance to the Habsburgs.Hofmannswaldau’s father benefitted from the Habsburg connection. Between 1526 and 1540 he was Secretary of the Silesian Chamber. Later he would be a member of the Imperial Council.

By the time Hofmannswaldau was baptized in 1616, Breslau had become Protestant (or at least tolerant, supporting free exercise of religion). Two years later it joined the Bohemian Revolt and war ensued. Although Breslau was now against the Habsburgs neither it nor Hofmannswaldau was t much affected by war during Hofmannswaldau’s childhood. The disaster to Breslaw (and Silesia generally) would come later when the Protestant forces of Sweden occupied it. During that time Breslau lost 18,000 of its residents (45%) to the plague. In 1635, Silesia was returned to the Habsburgs by the Peace of Prague. Persecution of Protestants and desecration of the churches predictably followed. The Hofmannswaldaus seem again not to have been effected, possibly owing to their Habsburg connection, but in any event by 1636, Hofmannswaldau himself went abroad for education, and abroad he would meet two Silesian poets who would affect the rest of his life.

In 1636 he matriculated at the Academic Gymnasium in Danzig (today Gdańsk). There he came in contact with the “father of German poetry,” Martin Opitz. Opitz was already of great renown, having in 1624 written Buch von der deutschen Poeterey (The Book of German Poetry), which defined the prosody, diction and style of the new vernacular poetry. He had studied non-Latin verse (French, Italian and Dutch) as far back as Gymnasium days and concluded that German was suited to poetry. For his requiem on the death of the Archduke of Austria, Ferdinand II named him poet laureate and ennobled him. He had arrived at Danzig (at the invitation of King Władysław, to be his secretary) the year before Hofmannswaldau and would live only a year after Hofmannswaldau left. Opitz died in 1639 of the plague.

Hofmannswaldau studied law from 1638, first in Leiden and then Amsterdam. It was in Holland that he met Andreas Gryphius, the first real genius of German lyric poetry. He had also studied in Danzig and knew Opitz, and like him was named poet laureate and ennobled by Ferdinand II. Though the same age as Hofmannswaldau he had already published a collection of poems (mostly in German) in 1637. Gryphius did not have the Habsburg protection in the early part of the war and saw much devastation, and the banishment of his brother when the Habsburgs returned in 1635. His poetry is suffused with melancholy that Hofmannswaldau never experienced.

After law school Hofmannswaldau traveled through France, England and Italy. He returned to Breslaw in 1641, and by 1647 became an Alderman. A decade later he was with the legation to the Viennese Court, where the Emperor appointed him to the Imperial Council (just as his father was). By 1677 he became Bürgermeister of Breslau, where he died three years later.

Although Hofmannswaldau was not published in his lifetime, his poems were known in manuscript and collections of his verse were published beginning immediately after his death. He wrote in the style of dramatic (or melodramatic) expression of Italian verse and was particularly known for his eroticism. His early poetry involved “hero letters,” poetic letters of legendary figures together with brief lives. He would later write Hero and Clergy Odes in the style of Ovid. He also undertook translations of classical poetry and prose. And he translated Guarini’s highly popular play Il pastor fido (The Faithful Servant). (When Handel later wrote in 1712 the early London opera based on the play (HWV 8), he used an Italian libretto by Giacomo Rossi.) Hofmannswaldau was perhaps most popular, however, for his secular songs with frankly erotic descriptions.

Hoffmann’s poetry was first published in Breslau in 1679, shortly after his death. For the next several decades editions of his work would be published in Breslau. Collections were also published at the beginning of the eighteenth century in Leipzig and Frankfurt.His extravagance and eroticism guaranteed his popularity until the middle of the next century when German classicism came down like a blanket on all forms of exuberance.

Vanitas with Death and a Maiden by Andries Jacobsz Stock. Engraving c. 1620-21. Click to enlarge.

Regular readers of these musings on poetry (and other posts) will expect our selection to be one less dramatically exuberant and more contemplative (for lack of a better word). And so we have a little lyric on the fleetingness of things beautiful, specifically the beauty of a lady. Hofmannswaldau catalogs the physical charms of the mistress, which willl be rendered to dust or worse, much as in other poems he catalogs them to describe his desire. (See “Arie,” for example: “Ihr hellen Mörderin’ …” Your eyes, those bright assassins ….)

The Death and a Maiden theme, known from the Renaissance, would be come widely prevalent in Germany during and for a long while after the religious wars in literature, art and even music. (Much later Schubert would write a string quartet so named.) After the war, the theme became more didactic, often a lesson on the vanity of beauty itself. And here Hofmannswaldau uses the last stanza to contrast the fleetingness of beauty with the permanence of the heart. Cynic that I am, I often wonder at these Death and the Maiden pieces whether the narrator is not a jilted lover who takes pleasure or consolation in the inevitable decay of the charms of his would-be lover. The last stanza here argues a more pious (although not particularly religious) intent.

The Death and the Maiden theme and the transitoriness of beauty are particularly German themes (especially in Romantic literature and music). And as with all things German, Goethe has his say about it. In the theatrical prologue to Faust (I) the poet announces the fleetingness and its opposite in this couplet:

Was glänzt, ist für den Augenblick geboren,
Das Echte bleibt der Nachwelt unverloren.

[What glitters is born for the moment,
  The Real lasts for eternity.]

Goethe’s alter ego sounds quite the materialist scientist here, no? Something like Faust himself? A closer reading suggests that Goethe’s Poet was simply spouting metaphysical “truths.”

Sigmund Freud commented on the German tendency to contemplate how impermanent beauty is. It comes from a short essay entitled “Vergänglichkeit” from a book with the (English) title The Land of Goethe 1914-1916: A Patriotic Memorial Book (Stuttgart and Berlin: German Institute: 1916). Freud recalls strolling with a young poet friend in a summer field admiring blossoming nature. His poet friend was able to admire it, but not enjoy it because he was brought low by the idea that all of the blooms would be dead by winter, just as all human beauty eventually dies, as does everything that man creates. Freud observed that there are two reactions to the contemplation of Vergänglichkeit: One is the painful Weltüberdruß, the world-weariness, of the poet. The other is the irrational impulse to protest against the reality. (Like Dylan Thomas’s “rage against the dying of the light”?)

Freud explains that the world-weariness comes from the inability of the libido to disengage itself from objects of its love even when there are other objects to replace it. Nor can the libido return to the ego in these cases. (There is much more of this, and if you are a fan of psychoanalysis, you might want to read it.) The interesting part for us here, however, is Freud’s own reaction to transience of beauty. Freud says that it does not diminish its value, but rather increases it. A fleeting beauty is a rare one, its limitation increases our enjoyment of it. As for Nature, its summer beauty returns. But as for human beauty, its brevity should add to its charms. Even if everything human disappears, and even life itself on this planet, we should not despair because beauty itself is only defined in terms of its importance to our emotional life, and this need not outlast us.

Vergänglichkeit der Schönheit

by Hoffmann von Hoffmannswaldau

Es wird der bleiche Tod mit seiner kalten Hand
Dir endlich mit der Zeit um deine Brüste streichen,
Der liebliche Korall der Lippen wird verbleichen;
Der Schultern warmer Schnee wird werden kalter Sand,

Der Augen süßer Blitz, die Kräfte deiner Hand,
Für welchen solches fällt, die werden zeitlich weichen.
Das Haar, das itzund kann des Goldes Glanz erreichen,
Tilgt endlich Tag und Jahr als ein gemeines Band.

Der wohlgesetzte Fuß,  die lieblichen Gebärden,
Die werden theils zu Staub, theils nichts und nichtig werden,
Denn opfert keiner mehr der Gottheit deiner Pracht.

Dies und noch mehr als dies muß endlich untergehen.
Dein Hertze kann allein zu aller Zeit bestehen,
Dieweil es die Natur aus Diamant gemacht.

The Transience of Beauty

[translated by DK Fennell]

Some day anemic Death with clammy, frigid hand
At last, when time is ripe, against your breast will brush, 
And pale will be your lips that now with coral blush;
Your shoulders’ balmy snow will turn to freezing sand.

Sweet glimmer of your eyes, the vigor of your hand,
Before such mortal things that bow to him, decline.
Your hair at present rivals even gold in shine
But final time will render it a worthless band.

That well-turned little foot, your elegance of style
These will become in part just dust, the rest but void;
No more will any man revere you as sublime.

Yet this and even more than this at last will end.
Your heart alone is able to outlive this fate,
For Nature cut a diamond made to last all time.

Note: I was unable to find the original published version (which I try to obtain for these little posts) either in print or in the comprehensive German Baroque Literature set of microfilm of Yale’s collection. So I take the above German text from a (somewhat) modern anthology: The Penguin Book of German Verse, ed. Leonard Forster (Baltimore: Penguin: 1957). I made one emendation. I changed “izund” in the Penguin text to “itzund,” which I believe is the form regularly used in Baroque verse; see, e.g., Bach (“The Coffee Cantata” as well as Sacred Ode, BWV Anh 36) and Schein (“Itzund ich mich vergleiche”).