Saturday, January 30, 2010

Sunday Classics preview: St. Anthony preaches to the fishes, as imagined by Mahler


Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, accompanied by the noted conductor (and spiffy pianist) Wolfgang Sawallisch, sings "St. Anthony's Fish Sermon," in 1974.
"Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt"
("Anthony of Padua's Fish Sermon")

[German text from Des Knaben Wunderhorn]

Antonius, arriving for his sermon,
finds the church empty.
He goes to the rivers
and preaches to the fishes;

They slap their tails,
glistening in the sunshine.

The carp with roe
have all come here,
have their mouths wide open,
listening attentively.

No sermon ever
pleased the carp so.

Sharp-mouthed pike
that always fight
have hurriedly swum here
to hear the pious one;

No sermon ever
pleased the pike so.

Also those fantastic creatures
that are always fast,
the stockfish, I mean,
appear for the sermon;

No sermon ever
pleased the stockfish so.

Good eels and sturgeons
that banquet so elegantly
even they took the trouble
to hear the sermon:

No sermon ever
pleased the eels so.

Crabs too, and turtles,
usually such slowpokes,
rise quickly from the bottom,
to hear this voice.

No sermon ever
pleased the crabs so.

Big fish, little fish,
noble fish, common fish,
all lift their heads
like sentient creatures:

At God's behest
they listen to the sermon.

The sermon having ended,
each turns himself around;
the pikes remain thieves,
the eels, great lovers.

The sermon has pleased them,
but they remain the same as before.

The crabs still walk backwards,
the stockfish stay rotund,
the carps still stuff themselves,
the sermon is forgotten!

The sermon pleased.
They remain as always.

by Ken

Change of plan: What I had originally intended as tonight's preview wound up, when it was more or less finished, blown up to the scope of a full post, so I'm dumping much of that into tomorrow's regular post, which means we're going to need another week to get where we're headed with the Wunderhorn-saturated portion of Mahler's creative career -- perhaps next week, though I worry about straining the patience of readers who'll have had their fill with two weeks of Wunderhorn=period Mahler.

Last night I promised you Mahler's "most wonderful" song, and tonight I offer you "Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt" ("Anthony of Padua's Fish Sermon"). As I said last night, "For sheer wonderfulness, this one's hard to beat." It's a whirlwind tour de force that hardly ever fails to delight audiences.

We can surely hear its "folk poetry" origins in its basically repetitive structure. If we think back to "Das irdische Leben" ("Earthly Life"), which we heard in the initial "preview" post from last week devoted to the world of Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth's Magic Horn), the anthology of "old German songs" assembled by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brenatno, the structure of the poem was ridiculously simple: The child whines for bread and the mother puts him off, over and over and over. In "Anthony of Padua's Fish Sermon," we learn successively about the arrival of the various species of fish, singly or sometimes in groups, to hear St. Anthony's wonderful preaching. They just keep coming and coming, and enjoying and enjoying. In both of these songs Mahler takes full advantage of the opportunity to ininsuate his wonderful musical materials in our imagination, but also rises to the challenge of constantly varying his setting to maintain and enrich the music's hold on the imagination.

We're going to hear a lot more of the song tomorrow, and talk about it a bit more. For now, let's hear the song again. First as sung by a woman, and in a luxuriously spacious, ruminative performance.

Brigitte Fassbaender, mezzo-soprano; John Wustman, piano. Acanta/Black Hole Music, recorded 1986

And finally we do of course need to hear the song in its full orchestral garb. While Mahler indeed initially composed nearly all of his later Wunderhorn songs with piano accompaniment, that represented a step toward realizing them in full orchestral form. And here's a suitably flavorful performance.

Thomas Quasthoff, baritone; Berlin Philharmonic, Claudio Abbado, cond. DG, recorded February 1998


Mahler used the "Fischpredigt" as the basis for the scherzo of his first super-symphony, No. 2, the Resurrection. Without further ado, here's what resulted.

Symphony No. 2 (Resurrection):
iii. In ruhig fliessender Bewegung
(In calmly flowing tempo)

New York Philharmonic, Bruno Walter, cond. Columbia/CBS/Sony, recorded Feb. 17-21, 1958

Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Bernard Haitink, cond. CSO Resound, recorded live Nov. 20-25, 2008


The current list is here.


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