Gounod “Funeral March of a Marionette”

I haven’t vanished in an alpine crevasse, I’ve simply been busy singing! The business has been part rehearsals, part teaching, and part working on some things for the future.

The rehearsals have led me to a small musical discovery, in fact. We have been working up Gounod’s Faust, and as I hung about on the side of the stage waiting for an entrance, I heard some very familiar music in the Walpurgisnacht scene. What was that? It sounded like the theme music to Alfred Hitchcock Presents, his successful 1950s television series.

Well, to make a long story short, it was. Or rather, it was a fragment of music which Gounod later expanded into a piano work called Marche funèbre d’une marionette. It’s this version which was then used on the television show.

Oddly, however, I haven’t found a version of the opera online which uses this music. There are other versions of the Walpurgisnacht scene, with a solo for Mephistopheles and/or long ballet music (those French operas all had extended ballets which are cut these days. It saves money in avoiding orchestra overtime and not having to hire dancers.) The version we are doing contains a section of men’s chorus which begins with “Un, deux et trois”, and that’s where the pertinant music is found.

 

A Special Grave in the Jewish Cemetery

IMG_0811While I was at the Westfriedhof, scouting out an appropriate bench to photograph and include with the story below, I visited the grave of Yury Shklyar, which I do every once in a while. (I know, it’s weird. I like cemeteries.) Yury was a colleague in the theater for a few years. He had the most tremendous voice I had ever heard in that space, it was just so incredibly big. He sang beautifully, and he was a consummate actor as well. But he tended to distance himself from the ensemble and all their dramas, having been 1) a little older, 2) a lot more experienced, having sung in big theaters all over the world, 3) not a good German speaker, and 4) suffering from stomach cancer. This last item was surely the reason he was in Innsbruck at all, because he was way too good for us. We assume that our Intendantin knew full well that he was ill, and brought him here for the health care and so that his family would have some security in the West. He and his wife had two sons, Russia was sending troops to Chechnya, and the older one was nearing conscription age. What I mean to say is, he needed a secure, full-time engagement in a western European opera house, for the benefits and for his family’s sake.

Während ich im Westfriedhof war, eine geeignete Bank zum Photographieren suchte und mich mit der folgenden Geschichte befasste, besuchte ich das Grab von Yuri Shklyar, was ich immer wieder tue (Ich weiß es ist komisch. Ich mag Friedhöfe). Yuri war vor wenigen Jahren ein Kollege im Theater. Er hatte die gewaltigste Stimme, die ich je in diesem Raum erlebt habe, sie war einfach so unbeschreiblich groß. Er sang wunderschön und er war ein ebenso vollendeter Schauspieler. Aber er blieb auf Distanz zum Ensemble und seinen Geschichten, da er 1) etwas älter war, 2) wesentlich mehr Erfahrung hatte, da er weltweit in großen Theatern aufgetreten ist, 3) nicht gut deutsch sprach und 4) an Magenkrebs litt. Letzteres war sicher der Grund, warum er überhaupt in Innsbruck war, denn er war wohl etwas zu gut für uns. Wir nehmen an, das unsere Intendantin wohl wusste, dass er krank war und sie ihn hierher wegen der medizinischen Versorgung brachte und um seinen Familie in den sicheren Westen zu bringen. Er hatte seinen Frau und zwei Söhne, Russland entsandte gerade Truppen nach Tschetschenien und sein älterer Sohn war im Einziehungssalter. Was ich damit sagen möchte: Er brauchte ein sicheres Vollzeitengagement in einem westeuropäischen Opernhaus für das Wohl seiner Familie.

In his last months at work, before the illness kept him away, we shared the stage in a few roles. The very last roles I can remember him singing were Bartolo in Le nozze di Figaro, and Uncle Bonzo in Madama Butterfly, the latter of which I think he may have viewed as a waste of precious little time. He was even more withdrawn than usual that season. He may very well have known his fate. He used to sit backstage and say nothing between scenes. During one performance I approached his chair and told him how much I loved his acting, because to me it really was a treat to watch his face slide through different emotions and reactions, even when he was not singing. He scowled at this, and said “Acting” while practically rolling his eyes, which implied that acting didn’t mean nearly as much to him as singing did. I explained myself (maybe a little too forcefully) that, to me, the opera stage was full of decent singers who did not act, and that I appreciated much more a singer who did. He paused, sighed, and said “Thank you.”  I am sure, in hindsight, that he said that simply to get me to leave him alone.

In den letzten Monaten seiner Arbeit, bevor seine Krankheit ihn daran hinderte, standen wir in einigen wenigen Rollen gemeinsam auf der Bühne. Die letzten Rollen an die ich mich erinnere, waren, als er den Bartolo in „Figaros Hochzeit“ und Onkel Bonzo in Madama Butterfly sang, letztere, denke ich,  dürfte er als Verschwendung seiner wertvollen noch verbleibenden Zeit betrachtet haben. Er hatte sich in jener Saison noch mehr zurückgezogen. Ich glaube, er ahnte wohl sein Schicksal. Üblicherweise saß er zwischen den Szenen schweigsam hinter der Bühne. Während einer Aufführung ging ich zu seinem Stuhl, und sagte ihm, wie sehr ich sein Schauspiel liebte, da es ein Genuss war, seinen Gesichtsausdruck im Wechsel verschiedenster Emotionen und Reaktionen zu beobachten – auch wenn er nicht sang. Er verfinsterte sich, sagte, „Schauspielen“ und rollte dabei verächtlich mit den Augen, was sagte, dass Schauspiel ihm nicht annähernd soviel bedeutete, wie Gesang. Ich erklärte (möglicherweise etwas zu eindringlich), dass aus meiner Sicht die Opernbühne voll anständiger Sänger ist, die allerdings nicht Schauspielen und dass ich Sänger, die das auch können, bevorzuge. Er hielt inne, seufzte und sagte „Dankeschön“. Ich bin mir rückblickend sicher, er hat das nur gesagt, um wieder seine Ruhe zu haben.

But I’m glad I’d told him, because it was the last interaction to speak of that I had with him, and shortly thereafter he went on sick leave. Two or three months later, he was dead. The death announcement was the first time many of us heard that he was Jewish.

Aber ich bin froh, dass ich ihm das gesagt habe,  denn das war unsere letzte Begegnung bei der wir miteinander sprachen. Kurz darauf ging er in Krankenstand. Zwei oder drei Monate später war er tot. Viele von uns erfuhren erst durch die Todesnachricht, dass er Jude war.

Here is a taping of a full live performance of Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia in the Mariinsky Theater, St. Petersburg, with a white-wigged Yury as Bartolo and a very young Anna Netrebko as Rosina. Skip ahead to 1:40:20, the end of Rosina’s “voice lesson” scene for a little of his comic genius.

Hier ist ein Mitschnitt einer vollständigen Aufführung von Rossinis „Der Barbier von Sevilla“ im Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg mit Yuri als Bartolo und der blutjungen Anna Netrebko als Rosina. Ab 1:40:20, das Ende von Rosinas “Gesangsstunde”, kann man Yuris komisches Talent sehen.

We were lucky to have him. May he rest in peace. Maybe he’s premiering Rossini’s latest opera in the Afterlife.

Wir waren froh, dass wir ihn hatten. Er ruhe in Frieden. Vielleicht singt er Rossinis neueste Oper im Jenseits.

You Have To Hear Yourself With The Ears Of Your Enemies.

Moser1 ∏ Christian Steiner, EMI Classics(Photo from EddaMoser.com )

Even if you have never heard of the German soprano Edda Moser (and that’s OK;  I don’t really keep track of sopranos myself, and I’m in the business), if you are a singer you really should read this interview she gave to Lars von der Gönna recently for the Westdeutche Allgemeine Zeitung. I don’t know if I am allowed to post this in translation but I found it so good that it deserves to be read by English-speaking singers as well. So, for now, here it is. Pass it on as you see fit. Die deutsche sopranistin Edda Moser hat neulich ein Interview gegeben, die sehr informativ und lesenswert ist. Ich empfehle, daß jeder Sänger diesen Artikel lese. Deutschsprachige Leser können gleich zum WAZ Link für die Originalfassung.

———

This is a lovely garden.

EM: I think so too. We see deer down there in the morning, when I go out onto the balcony after my gymnastics.

You do gymnastics?

EM: Of course! Every morning. I can show you afterward.

Many of your records are currently being reissued. You’re very present in the media. That’s not a given these days.

EM: True. I think that I’m enjoying more attention than I did during my time on the stage.

Because you were not a diva?

EM: Well, I was never sick, I was married, I was never involved in any scandals. Some become legends because they cancel so many times. I went my own way, without making problems. By the way, that’s also the reason I left my husband. He said, “You have to be in the newspapers every day.” But I was only interested in the work. The grace, to be allowed to sing those wonderful roles.

Many of your performances are legendary — above all your Queen of the Night, which contained more than sparkle and coloratura.

EM: Coloratura? I opened my mouth and it was there. But a role like that is so much more. I always prepared myself physically for roles. One has to do that. It doesn’t even occur to most, unfortunately. If I say to my students, “You have to be able to touch your palms to the floor while standing”, they say “For God’s sake, I can’t even reach down to my knees!”. At some point I gave up. (offering candy) YOu have to try this, it’s absolutely sinful. From Italy!

Almond cookies? Terrific!

EM: Yes! Aren’t they marvelous?

You’ve said, “One has to remain at the bottom.” What does that mean?

EM: You have to ground yourself. We live here on Earth, I’ve always sung “grounded”. I try to pass that on to young singers, but it shocked them too much. They don’t understand that one first begins to learn this profession while standing on the stage. I’ve said to them, “Heed my warnings, at least a couple of them. Humility! Discipline! Keep quiet!” You can forget it, no one listens. Some, after they were miserably stranded, came to me later and said, “You were right.” Too late.

To keep quiet — for many years you only wrote what you wanted to say, avoided the telephone — all to keep your voice healthy.

EM: Yes, it was like that. When one sings as a profession, it demands a certain exclusivity. One gets lonely, and it stays that way. There isn’t anything else. On the other hand, I think: it should be that way for many things that one does seriously and dedication.

Did you make sacrifices willingly?

EM: Oh, sometimes I would have gladly participated. Laughing and gossiping. It was simply taboo to really celebrate. I never went to parties. Although I was pretty fetching, as a young singer I was good looking.

You speak directly about the dark side of the opera business.

EM: It could make you cry. Christmas is some hotel in America. Much acclaim at a New Years Eve performance in Vienna, a great pleasure, a lot of fun onstage. Then one minute in (Cafe) Sacher: a good-luck pig, a good-luck penny, a glass of water and then back to the hotel. Over. Done. But it only worked through this kind of discipline. I had some of the most beautiful experiences of my life through singing. For me, it really was a holy art.

So holy and serious, that you wanted to take your life, when a role was taken away from you.

EM: Fidelio in Salzburg! Gewandhausorchester, Kurt Masur. A dream. It was all planned. And then I happened to find out that I was out. Masur deceived me. It was awful. Only the thought of my mother kept me from killing myself.

When you ended your career with a grand “Salome” in Vienna, what was it like for you afterwards?

EM: First it was like death. You are simply gone. The telephone doesn’t ring anymore, no one calls. You are nobody. The sadness is indescribable. And then some idiots come along and say, “But now you’re a professor of singing.” They have nothing to do with one another. It’s the opposite. As a singer you have to be the most egotistic person, and not give a damn about anything but yourself. And when you’re the teacher, you stand completely in the background.

In your career, what did you see as a gift, and what did you see as work?

EM: The work was a gift! Sure, I had the talent. But 98% is work; genius is industry.Don’t think now that I consider myself a total genius. But when I look back, I think: there was genius to my fearlessness. My faith in God was there too.

Why are German singers underrepresented in the world’s opera houses?

EM: Much too much theory. They have to practice a lot more. Vocal training! Sometimes I miss this “I want!”. A singer needs that. When one shows up at the theater sloppily dressed, one doesn’t get past the doorman. I once sang for an agent who started reading his mail while I was singing. I stopped and said, “I’ll wait. Finish reading your mail, and then I’ll continue.” I thought, he damned well ought to listen to me. No one dares (speak up) today.

Is that your advice? : Have courage!

EM: Absolutely. But that only works when one sings well. You have to hear yourself with the ears of your enemies. And I want to give my enemies as little pleasure as possible.

Was there a perfect performance for you?


EM: Yes, there was. Beethoven “Missa Solemnis” with Giulini. Or the St. Matthew Passion with Karl Richter. One knew then, the sky’s the limit!

Was it on the stage that you felt the greatest feeling?

EM: For me, absolutely yes! My eroticism, my believe in true love, that all happened on the stage. We were all in love with each other onstage, Gedda, Pavarotti, Domingo. Oh, Domingo, what a voice, this dark gold! And how he comforted me, when I argued with stage directors. We dined together just recently, when he was here to sing at the Loreley [an open-air arena in Germany].

Speaking of food: you’ve cooked here at your house for Helmut Kohl.

EM: Yes, an underrated man, because he was a great subject for caricature. But what instinct! Very cultured, very humourous. Actually quite modest. Completely insecure with women.

The Queen of the Night, and a politician whose favorite singer was Hans Albers. How did that work?

EM: Kohl knew relatively little about music, he went gamely to festival concerts, found them very nice. But Brahms was a closed book for him, he didn’t even know Schubert’s “Erl King”. I played it for him — and he listened. He was always curious, that was one of his great strengths.

Why are tenors so much more admired than sopranos?

EM: At the Vienna State Opera, tenors are even addressed as “maestro”. It is, if you will, the most unnatural form of singing. Tenors get the highest salaries, I am alright with that. As their partner onstage, even I was intoxicated by these voices.

Anna Netrebko is celebrated all over the world as a soprano star. What’s your view on your colleague from St. Petersburg?

EM: A really wonderful voice. But she’s simply not a lady, that’s her failing. She lacks a certain distance to the public — she brings the art across but not the femininity. If she had this “grandezza”, she would be one of the greatest. This pop-star allure is simply a shame.

And opera stage direction these days?

EM: I can only condemn it. Above all Katharine Wagner. What possibilities she has in Bayreuth — and makes such filth! Meistersinger as  painters, I can only laugh at that. I get the impression that she has no fire in her, she is only mocking. She is arrogant. And the result is boring. Please write that!

Frau Moser, one last, rather indiscreet question; what does one sing, when one forgets the text?

EM: Lalala. Simple. No one notices — you just have to do it expressively!

Kulturblogging: Hildegard Knef

When you spend more than a couple of years in another country, you may begin to realize how much the people around you, while possibly being very much like you, grew up on different pop culture. The American entertainment industry being what it is, they are sure to know many of our well-known pop singers, film actors, athletes and the like, but underneath that they have a whole trove of memories of other famous and successful figures, may of which we Americans have either never heard of, or have forgotten, or whom we did not notice because they worked on the peripheries in the international scene (such as Susanne Lothar). We may not call them minor, because they were not. They just didn’t have a large American following. (Many might leap to the conclusion that, if you’re not big in the USA, you haven’t “made it”, to which I say, open your eyes.)

Knef

So it is with Hildegard Knef. I knew that she had done some work in Hollywood (as “Hildegard Neff”) but did not know that her handprints are there in the concrete, with those of many other stars, in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater.

She started out by being discovered at 18, while training to be an animation artist for the UFA film studio in Berlin, by the head of that studio. A year later she was having an affair with the Reich’s Chief Dramaturg, Ewald von Demandowsky (this would be 1944). She was gorgeous, extremely photogenic, highly intelligent, and one assumes that powerful men were falling over themselves to advance her career.

In a nutshell, her career was tempestuous. In 1948 she signed a 7-year contract with David O. Selznick, wherein she was paid lucratively for English lessons and screen tests, but was cast in no roles. In 1950 (now with American citizenship), she returned to Germany to appear in the film Die Sünderin. With its taboo themes of prostitution and suicide, not to mention a brief nude scene, the film scandalized the country: protests, counter-protests, banning in many cinemas. The Roman Catholic Church in Germany protested primarily that the gist of the film resembled the infamous Nazi euthanasia propaganda film Ich klage an. Twenty five years later in America, a mercy killing could be shown in a film like One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, but coming right out of the Nazi years in Germany, it was apparently  too soon.

She began a genuine singing career with the release of her first album in 1951. Her voice is clear (if unusually low, probably from all the cigarettes) and her singing style is confident and breezy, in that speaking/singing mix that was so popular in the day, but lets out a sort of dignified containment of emotion, a way of revealing pain without the least bit wallowing in it. Ella Fitzgerald later called her “the best singer without a voice”.

Here a song in English, “Too Bad” from 1969. The person who uploaded this put together an amusing collage of internet images to accompany the song.

Ostracized in Germany from the fallout from Die Sünderin, Knef returned to Hollywood and finally got to appear in a row of films, some good, some forgettable. She was the first (perhaps still the only) German to appear in a leading role on Broadway, in Cole Porter’s Silk Stockings. On the success of her international singing career, she returned to Berlin, enjoyed the spotlight on German television appearances, had a child, battled breast cancer, wrote a few memoirs, and generally made for constant headlines in the tabloids.

Here Knef singing “Aber schön war es doch”, from a television broadcast in 1963. The song lyrics tell of bittersweet memories of a last meeting, (“but it was beautiful”), and every detail — with bench, the trees in bloom, the words he’d spoken — is lovingly remembered.

 

“Written off” in Germany, she fled back to Hollywood where she did some film work but never really got her foot back in the door. In the 80s she played Fräulein Schneider in the musical Cabaret at the Theater des Westens in Berlin, and in 1989 moved back to German for good, heavily in debt. In her 60s, she began to be seen as one of those living legends (as so often happens to people who manage to still be around after the dust has settled), was awarded lifetime achievement prizes, appeared on talk shows, put out a (very successful) album of songs. In 2001 she got her German citizenship back. In 2003, she died of pneumonia, at the age of 76, just two weeks after her last televised interview. Working — and being in demand — until the end.

Image found here.

Poetry Blogging: Ilse Weber

“After Auschwitz, writing poetry is no longer possible.” — Theodor Adorno

“The truth is, Adorno couldn’t write poetry before Auschwitz either.” — journalist and publicist Johannes Gross.

I am paraphrasing the Adorno quote somewhat for clarity. In fact, the word-for-word quote most often seen is “To write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric”, although there is a larger context to be found in the paragraphs around it, about the impossibility of the very existence of culture after the Holocaust.

In the nineties, I was invited along to a few family events ( birthday parties, Christmas Eve, that kind of thing) and learned quickly that the composition and recitation of a poem — written in the guest’s honor — was Pflicht in certain German families. The poems were kind, maybe a little humorous but always done with warm feelings and in the simplest of rhyme scheme and iambic tetrameter (well-known example: “I think that I shall never see / A poem as lovely as a tree”)

I bring this up because I have just read Ilse Weber, Wann wohl das Leid ein Ende hat: Briefe und Gedichte aus Theresienstadt.

The letters begin much earlier, in 1933 — Weber corresponded with her good friend Lilian Löwenadler, daughter to a Swedish diplomat and living in England. For five years, these letters are filled with normal banter between two highly intelligent women, involving family, children, Weber’s radio engagements, Löwenadler’s new romance. In 1938 the letters take on a much more urgent tone, as Weber and her husband Willi contemplate the risk of sending her oldest boy Hanusch, age 8, to England with the Kindertransports. Hanusch is indeed sent to Lilian and her new husband, then on to Lilian’s mother in Stockholm.
Ilse Weber is moved with her husband and younger son, Tommy, into the Prague Ghetto, and from there to Theresienstadt. Her letters, once pages long, are reduced to a few lines of allowed information, including the probably mandatory “We are healthy.” At this point, no longer allowed to pour her emotions into her letters, she instead turns to poetry for her small charges (she works as the night nurse in the hospital’s children’s ward), unable to spend more than fleeting moments with her husband and her younger son. She writes about all of this in a simple, naive rhyming style that Adorno might not have known what to make of. Her poems, while in an old-fashioned framework, tell honestly and bluntly of the events surrounding her, her fellow inmates, and the above all the children. Her poems tell of little boys sent by their mothers to return stolen coal, of abandoned suitcases, of homesickness, of death.
Where the poems end, an Afterword takes up the narrative. Willi was deported to Poland with 5000 other men and lost contact with his wife. Just before he left Theresienstadt he gathered up all of his wife’s poems, songs and other papers and buried them beneath the floor of a tool shed. Not long afterward, all the patients in the children’s ward were deported as well. Ilse, not wanting them to make the journey untended, took Tommy and traveled with the children — to Auschwitz. She was last seen with her younger son and about fifteen small children, in the line leading to the gas chambers. An acquaintance from Theresienstadt worked there, and risked his neck to approach her. She asked if they were to take showers, and he told her the truth. He also offered some advice — sit the children down on the chamber floor and sing songs with them. The gas will work more quickly that way. Years later he confessed this chance meeting to her son Hanusch, who after the war was reunited with his father. Willi Weber was able to retrieve Ilse’s hidden papers, and much later Lilian’s husband (she died during the war) found the letters in an attic in England.


Brief an mein Kind
(Scroll down for an English translation)

Mein lieber Junge, heute vor drei Jahren
bist ganz allein du in die Welt gefahren.
Noch seh ich dich am Bahnhof dort in Prag,
wie du aus dem Abteil verweint und zag
den braunen Lockenkopf neigst hin zu mir
und wie du bettelst: lass mich doch bei dir!
Dass wir dich ziehen ließen, schien dir zu hart-
Acht Jahre warst du erst und klein und zart.
Und als wir ohne dich nach Hause gingen,
da meinte ich, das Herz müsst mir zerspringen
und trotzdem bin ich froh, du bist nicht hier.
Die fremde Frau, die sich deiner angenommen,
die wird einst sicher in den Himmel kommen.
Ich segne sie mit jedem Atemzug-
wie du sie liebst ist doch nie genug.
Es ist so trüb geworden um uns her,
man nahm uns alles fort, nichts blieb uns mehr.
Das Haus, die Heimat, nicht ein Winkel blieb,
und nicht ein Stückchen, das uns wert und lieb.
Sogar die Spielzeugbahn, die dir gehört
Und deines Bruders kleines Schaukelpferd…
Nicht mal den Namen hat man uns gelassen:
Wie Vieh gezeichnet gehen wir durch die Gassen:
mit Nummern um den Hals. Das macht’ nichts aus,
wär ich mit Vater nur im gleichen Haus!
Und auch der Kleine darf nicht bei mir sein…
Im Leben war noch nie ich so allein.
Du bist noch klein, und drum verstehst du’s kaum…
So viele sind gedrängt in einem Raum.
Leib liegt an Leib, du trägst des anderen Leid
und fühlst voll Schmerz die eigene Einsamkeit.
Mein Bub, bist du gesund und lernst du brav?
Jetzt singt dich niemand wohl mehr in den Schlaf.
Manchmal des Nachts, da will es scheinen mir,
als fühlte ich dich neben mir.
Denk nur, wenn wir uns einmal wiedersehen
Dann werden wir einander nicht verstehen.
Du hast dein Deutsch schon längst verlernt in Schweden
und ich, ich kann doch gar nicht schwedisch reden.
Wird das nicht komisch sein? Ach wär’s doch schon,
dann hab ich plötzlich einen großen Sohn…
Spielst du mit Blechsoldaten noch so gerne?
Ich wohn’ in einer richtigen Kaserne,
mit dunklen Mauern und mit düst’ren Räumen
von Sonne ahnt man nichts, von Laub und Bäumen.
Ich bin hier Krankenschwester bei den Kindern
Und es ist schön, zu helfen und zu lindern.
Nachts wache ich bei ihnen manches Mal,
die kleine Lampe hellt nur schwach den Saal.
Ich sitze da und hüte ihre Ruh,
und jedes Kind ist mir ein Stückchen „du“.
Mancher Gedanke fliegt dann hin zu dir
Und trotzdem bin ich froh, du bist nicht hier.
Und gerne litt’ ich tausendfache Qualen,
könnt ich ein Kinderglück damit bezahlen…
Jetzt ist es spät und ich will schlafen gehen.
Könnt ich dich einen Augenblick nur sehn!
So aber kann ich nichts als Briefe schreiben,
die voller Sehnsucht sind- und liegen bleiben…

Letter To My Son

My dear boy, three years ago today
You were sent into the world alone.
I still see you, at the station in Prague,
how you cry from the compartment, and hesitate.
You lean your brown head against me
and how you beg; let me stay with you!
That we let you go, seemed hard for you —
You were just eight, and small and delicate.
And as we left for home without you,
I felt, my heart would explode
and nevertheless I am happy that you’re not here.
The stranger who is taking you in
will surely go to Heaven.
I bless her with every breath I take —
Your love for her will not be enough.
It has become so murky around us here,
Everything has been taken away from us.
House, home, not even a corner of it left,
Not a piece of what we loved and prized.
Even the toy train which belonged to you
And your brother’s little rocking horse…
They did not even let us keep our names:
We walk through the streets marked like cattle:
With numbers around our necks. That would not be so bad,
If I were with your father in the same house!
Not even the little one may stay with me…
I was never so alone in my life.
You are still small, and you hardly can understand…
So many are pressed together in one room.
Body against body, you carry the suffering of the other,
And feel the full pain of your own loneliness.
My boy, are you healthy and learning your studies?
No one sings you to sleep now.
Sometimes in the night it seems
That I feel you next to me.
Just think, when we see each other again
We will not understand each other.
You’ve long ago forgotten your German in Sweden,
and I, I can’t speak Swedish at all.
Won’t that be strange? If only it already were,
then I’d suddenly have a grown son…
Do you still play with tin soldiers?
I am living in a real Barrack,
With dark walls and dreary rooms
There’s no sun, nor leaves and trees.
I’m a nurse here for the children
And it’s nice, to help and comfort them.
Sometimes I stay awake with them at night,
the little lamp doesn’t give much light,
I sit and guard their rest,
And to me every child is a little piece of “you”.
My thoughts then fly to you
and nevertheless, I am happy that you are not here.
And I would gladly suffer a thousand torments,
If I could pay for your childhood happiness that way…
It is late now and I want to sleep.
If I could only see you for a moment!
But I can do nothing except write letters,
Full of longing, never to be sent.

“Letter To My Child” existed in copy — a woman who had been imprisoned in Ravensbrück gave a copy of the poem to the Swedish author Amelie Posse, who was visiting camps with the Swedish Red Cross. Posse had the poem translated into Swedish and published in the newspaper in 1945 (the poem’s autobiographical elements revealed a child living in Sweden). So in this way Ilse’s letter did reach her son, three years after it had been written.

Wiegenlied vom Polentransport

Schlaf, kleiner Freund, du bist ja so müd,
es singt der Zug sein eintönig Lied,
die Nacht kommt auf leisen Sohlen.
Du bist noch klein und findest noch Ruh,
mach deine lieben Augen zu,
es geht jetzt fort nach Polen.

Schlaf, Kindchen, wir sind schon so weit,
Ach, längst versank in der Dunkelheit
die Heimat, die man uns gestohlen.
Wir hatten sie lieb, man nahm sie uns fort,
nun sitzen wir schweigend und findet kein Wort
und fahren weit — nach Polen.

Schlaf, kleiner Freund, ich sehe dir zu,
ich will aus deiner süßen Ruh
mir Trost und Stärkung holen.
Die Sterne leuchten hell und rein,
ich will nicht länger traurig sein,
Gott gibt es auch in Polen.

Lullabye of a Transport to Poland

Sleep, little friend, you are so tired,
The train is singing its monotonous song,
The night creeps softly in.
You are still small, and still find rest,
Let your dear eyes close,
We’re going now to Poland.

Sleep, little child, we’re already so far,
Ah, long sunken in darkness
our home, stolen from us.
We held it dear, it was taken away,
Now we sit here silently, and find no words
and travel far — to Poland.

Sleep, little friend, I’ll watch over you,
From your sweet rest I wish
to find comfort and strength for myself.
The stars are shining bright and pure,
I no longer want to be sad,
God is in Poland too.

Image found here.

Happy 100th, Nana

What sibling drama has just happened here? The little girl on the left is my grandmother, with her older sister Helen and her little brother Frank.

Just a few years later, Helen died, and then a baby sister Marie, and then my grandmother’s mother. Here my grandmother, the only girl left in the immediate family, is surrounded by her three brothers and a cousin. Her father soon re-married, to a woman who preferred her own children to his, and this made life difficult. My grandmother left home as a teenager to live with other family, left school at 14, got work in town, met a man who gave her a child but did not marry her until 10 years later, when his mother died.

She was musically gifted, but her circumstances didn’t offer much outlet for its expression, outside of playing the organ in church. (Her child, however, was able to go to college and earn a degree in music education, and have a successful teaching career.)

Not long after her husband died (relatively young) from cancer, a woman she knew in town also passed away, and she contacted the surviving husband to offer her condolences. This led to the next chapter of her life — she married him, and was able to live a much more comfortable lifestyle. They moved out to a converted summer cottage in the country where she kept house, fed the birds, planted bulbs, sewed clothing for her grandchildren, and generally enjoyed life in retirement.

But something about her earlier life never allowed her to stop worrying — about us, about early death, about ruin, should something happen to someone on her watch. I think she was insecure about her security — never certain it wouldn’t all be taken away from her. Whether she really did worry or just learned to express herself in a worry-wort manner, I can no longer say. When we were kids, she drove us crazy with all that. She also had opinions we didn’t always want to hear, but she didn’t seem able to hold a grudge against anyone, even when the neighbor tried to stop the oil trucks (bringing her heating oil) from coming up their shared driveway with a lawsuit (he lost.)

Whatever it was, it didn’t affect her health much, as she lived to the ripe old age of 91, living by herself and getting into town regularly with the shuttle bus, doing the crossword puzzle, keeping up with the local gossip, writing letters to me overseas.

After she died, we found little notes throughout the house, in ceramics and in her desk, giving instructions as to what we should do with said articles after her death. In the last letter I have from her, she asked me to say a prayer for her soul when I sing. I would never have had the heart to tell her that I do not pray, but when I remember, I look up into the flyspace before an entrance and say, “Nana, this is for you.” She would have been 100 years old today.

>Renft

>

A recent blogpost elswhere about “Krautrock” (classic rock music from Germany) got me thinking about a post I had wanted a certain music critic friend to write. He never got around to it so I guess I’ll have to write it myself.
Because: there was a genre of rock music coming out of German-speaking lands which was far superior to the Schlager tripe being fed to television audiences in the BRD (West Germany), and had more heart and soul than the Elektropop that groups like Kraftwerk were playing.  And that was Ostrock, the stuff being generated behind the Berlin Wall. Of special interest is the story of the band Renft, which enjoyed a few short years of real success within the country, before inevitably getting in trouble with the government. The following is from “Stasiland: Stories From Behind The Berlin Wall” by Anna Funder.

Renft may have started off with borrowed western rock songs, but there were so many lies that singing the truth guaranteed them both hero and criminal status. By the end of the mid-seventies the band embodied a lethal combination of rock, anti-establishment message and mass adoration. They were shaggy men with bellbottoms and attitude, they were hot, they were rich by GDR standards, and they were way too explosive for the regime.

Performers needed a license to work. In September 1975 Renft were called to play for the Ministry of Culture in Leipzig to have theirs renewed.

‘I had some western money,’ [ Renft said] ‘so before the licensing hearing I bought a small cassette recorder from an Intershop.’ … While they were setting up to play he turned the cassette recorder on and hid it (behind) his guitar…

But they didn’t get to play. [Ruth Oelschlägel, committee chairperson] asked them to approach the desk. She said the committee would not be listening to ‘musical version of what you have seen fit to put to us in writing because ‘the lyrics have absolutely nothing to do with our socialist reality…the working class is insulted and the state and defense organizations are defamed.”

…”And then she said to us, ‘We are here to inform you today, that you don’t exist anymore.'”
There was silence. One of the band members signaled to a roadie to stop setting up. [Lead singer Christian Kunert] asked, “Does that mean we’re banned?”
“We didn’t say you were banned”, Comrade Oelschlägel said. “We said you don’t exist.”
…[Klaus Renft:] Then I said, ‘But…we’re…still…here.” She looked at me straight in the face. “As a combo,” she said, “You no longer exist.”


Renft records disappeared from the shops overnight. The band ceased to be written about or played on the radio. The recording company AMIGA reprinted its entire catalogue so it could leave them out. “In the end it was as they had said: we simply did not exist anymore” [Renft] said, “just like in Orwell.”

Rumors were put out by the state that the band had split up, that it was in diffulties. It was: it couldn’t play. Some members wanted to stay in the GDR, others knew they had to leave. [Lyricist Gerulf] Pannach and Kunert were arrested and imprisoned until August 1977 where they were bought free by the west.

The band members managed to reconvene and enjoy a few more years of retro-success after the wall fell, although without their poet Pannach, who died in 1999. One by one the original members, their lives shortened by a lifetime of political suppression, alcohol and cigarettes (and possibly the effects of radiation used by the Stasi on political inmates at the Hohenschönhausen prison), died off until there is now only one or two left. Klaus Renft himself passed away in 2006, but the band, now with almost all new members, still plays now and then in venues throughout the “former east”.
Here is one of the last songs they wrote (lyrics by Pannach) before the hammer came down back then.