Sunday, January 31, 2010

Sunday Classics: Still Mahler -- Warning: St. Anthony's preaching to the fishes has strong politico-religious importance


From the Christmas Day 1967 Young People's Concert, with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, we first hear Christa Ludwig singing Mahler's "Rheinlegendchen"; then at 3:29 Walter Berry sings the song we began listening to last night, " Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt" ("Anthony of Padua's Fish Sermon"); and finally at 7:18 Ludwig and Berry together sing "Verlorne Müh'."
German-English texts for "Rheinlegendchen":
German-English texts for "Verlorne Müh'":

"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 sturgens
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

In last week's Sunday Classics post, I cited baritone Iván Paley's interesting description of the common thread running through the Mahler songs based on poems from the folk-poetry anthology Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth's Magic Horn): "how man is transformed through the experience of joy and pain." I did, however, add a qualification: "Or, sometimes, not transformed, but then, we can think of 'not transformed' as an extreme point on the continuum of transformation."

The qualification was entered with explicit reference to the song we began listening to last night, the delicious "Anthony of Padua's Fish Sermon." Because, of course, each of the river-dwelling contingents that takes in St. Anthony's sermon brings with it its set of character flaws and vices and then leaves feeling mightily pleased, even uplifted, by the good father's preaching -- and with all those character flaws and vices miraculously intact.

St. Anthony finding himself faced with the problem of an empty church -- hmm, this doesn't by chance ring any bells, does it? Of course, it didn't occur to our Anthony, good Christian that he was, to compromise his mission of faith. He simply went out into the world in search of would-be parishioners, and it appears no other men of faith were working the rivers. Okay, there is the small matter of the after-effect, the utter ineffectualness of his preaching, in terms of in any way changing the bad behavior of his new flock.
Essay Topic 1: On the other hand, look how happy and invigorated St. Anthony left all of his sermonizees. Could we reasonably ask for more from a preacher?

Essay Topic 2: How might all of this relate to the experience of late-20th- and early-21st-century American churches? (Hint: An essay that incorporates terms like moral bankruptcy and Crap Christianity seems apt to be on the right track.)

MAHLER: "Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt"

Christa Ludwig, mezzo-soprano; Leonard Bernstein, piano. Columbia/CBS/Sony, recorded live in Vienna, Apr. 24, 1968

One interesting point about the "Fischpredigt": More than any of Mahler's other Wunderhorn songs, I think, it's pretty neutral when it comes to the gender of the singer taking it on. I imagine that anytime the Wunderhorn songs are performed or recorded as a group, there's a certain amount of tension -- sometimes kept under wraps, sometimes open -- between the male and female soloists for possession of this potential show-stopper.

Since the subject is, after all, St. Anthony's sermon to the fishes, the gentlemen seem to get semi-automatic dibs. When Leonard Bernstein performed, and made his incandescent first recording of, the Wunderhorn songs, in 1967, with the still-married Christa Ludwig and Walter Berry and the New York Philharmonic, the "Fischpredigt" went to Mr. Berry. (We've got video of their performance above.) Now he happens to have been quite an earthy and witty fellow, so this song was right up his alley.

However, one thing we never do actually hear in the "Fish Sermon" is any of the actual preaching. So there's really no reason why it needs to be sung by a man. When the Ludwig-Berry-Bernstein team did a recital of the Wunderhorn songs with piano accompaniment in Vienna in 1968 (happily recorded live by Columbia), the "Fischpredigt" was sung by Ms. Ludwig (as we heard a moment ago!). What's more, when LB did his later DG Wunderhorn recording (both audio and video), it went to the soprano soloist, Lucia Popp:

Lucia Popp, soprano; Concertgebouw Orchestra, Leonard Bernstein, cond. DG, recorded live October 1987

Clearly the ladies have done fabulous things with the song. I'm not sure I've ever heard a more sheerly wonderful performance of this most sheerly wonderful Mahler song than Maureen Forrester's:

Maureen Forrester, contralto; Vienna Festival Orchestra, Felix Prohaska, cond. Vanguard, recorded May 27-June 1, 1963

Still, much as I treasure Forrester's performance, it's hard not to regret that we didn't get to hear it sung by her partner in that memorable Vanguard Wunderhorn recording, the elegant yet commonsensical Swiss bass-baritone Heinz Rehfuss. Of course this works both ways. Here, for example, is a performance that I really like by the bass-baritone John Shirley-Quirk (and I love the seemingly effortless, everything-in-place beauty of the playing of the Concertgebouw -- not only a great orchestra, but one with a long Mahler tradition -- under Bernard Haitink; as in the Bernstein/DG recording, for that matter):

John Shirley-Quirk, bass-baritone; Concertgebouw Orchestra, Bernard Haitink, cond. Philips, recorded April 1976

Nothing to complain about there, is there? Except that this meant we didn't get to hear Shirley-Quirk's Philips teammate, Jessye Norman, do the "Fischpredigt," which I seem to recall hearing her sing with enormous gusto.

MAHLER IN 3/4 TIME (1967)

As noted in the caption for the video clips at the top of this post, they're from one of Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts. Me, I hated the YPCs as a kid, though I realized, when I saw a bunch of them a few years ago, that this must have been in good part the result of being forced to watch the first couple, which really were kind of ponderous, before Lenny B got his rhythm with them. Incredibly, he did them all without a script (or a Teleprompter, when they came into use).

This particular YPC -- as noted, from Christmas Day 1967 -- benefited from some inspired scheduling. The concert was titled A Toast to Vienna in 3/4 Time. (Both the New York an thed Vienna Philharmonic thes were celebrating their 125th birthday.) Presumably the Vienna-born Berry and adoptively Viennese Ludwig were in town for the performance and recording of the Wunderhorn songs. What a cunning inspiration to incorporate these three songs into the "Vienna in 3/4" YPC. One happy result is that 40-plus years later we have this precious Mahler video.

Contrary to what you might think, that wasn't Mahler's first appearance on a YPC program. On Feb. 7, 1960, the year of Mahler's 100th birthday, LB devoted an entire concert to: "Who Is Gustav Mahler?" This was the time of the orchestra's famous Mahler Festival, a key event in the composer's belated path to public acceptance.

The program included bits of the Resurrection Symphony, with soprano Reri Grist and alto Helen Raab taking the solo parts in a duet excerpt from the finale, and of the Fourth Symphony, including the whole of the fourth movement, the setting of the Wunderhorn song "Heavenly Life" (six days after Ms. Grist, LB, and the Philharmonic had ventured to Brooklyn's St. George Hotel to record the complete Mahler Fourth), which was our jumping-off point for these Mahler posts, and which we heard quite a lot of last Sunday. Ms. Raab also sang the "final stanza" of the sublime half-hourish finale of Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), "Der Abschied" ("The Farewell"). (Earlier, tenor William Lewis had sung the shortest and most stylized movement of Das Lied, "On Youth.")

The "Farewell" was an astonishing choice for a concert for young people. The maestro tells his young audience that he was warned he was crazy to think of performing such music for young people, who would find it too slow, too depressing, too boring. As a matter of fact, however, the young people -- admittedly well prepared by their presenter -- seemed to really love it. "I know my kids," Lenny had said.


Earlier in the program, before the performance of the finale of the Fourth Symphony, the maestro had observed: "I think young people can understand Mahler's feelings even better than old ones. Once you understand that secret of his music, the voice of the child, you can really love his music.

"That's the main secret about it. He was struggling all his life to recapture those pure, unmixed, overflowing emotions of childhood. I'm sure you've all had emotions like that, like that filled-up feeling that nature sometimes makes you have, especially in the spring, when you almost want to cry because everything is so beautiful.

"Well, Mahler's music is full of those feelings, and full of the sounds of nature, like birdcalls and hunting horns and forest murmurs, which are all part of his idea of beauty, childlike beauty."

I think Lenny would have agreed that this is only part of the truth about Mahler's music, but it's unquestionably an important part, and one his young audience was well able to absorb as a point of entry for an audience of young people. (Note: Kultur has issued a nine-DVD setcontaining 25 of the YPCs, which Amazon merchants are offering as cheap as $90. Treat yourself.)

By the way, one of the works included in the 1960 Mahler YPC was the beginning of the "Fischpredigt," sung by Ms. Raab.


The period of Mahler's infatuation, if not actual obsession, with Des Knaben Wunderhorn is also the period in which he composed the Second, Third, and Fourth Symphonies. And in case you hadn't figured it out, our not-all-that-secret project these last couple of weeks has been to take some of the Wunderhorn songs, and also applying our earlier contemplation of Mahler's great symphonic adagios, and stitch together sizable portions of these three symphonies.

We've already assembled the second half of the Fourth Symphony this way, throwing in the first two movements as an unearned bonus. And now we can put together two movements of the Second. We've just "acquired" the scherzo (movement no. 3), and I hope you noticed the way it trails off at the end, just the way the song version of "Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt" does. In ending the song that way Mahler presumably meant to suggest: "and so forth." In the symphony, it sets the stage for our old friend the sublime Wunderhorn song "Urlicht" ("Primal Light"), which, as I've mentioned, is meant by the composer to lead without pause into the gigantic finale, the "Resurrection" movement, and which (you may recall) itself begins with no instrumental introduction.

We've already heard "Urlicht," twice, sung about as sublimely as I can imagine -- by Maureen Forrester (with Glenn Gould conducting, left-handed!) and Christa Ludwig. Now, as we put our two movements together, I'd have to say that in this Bavarian Radio performance Janet Baker maintains our standard.

MAHLER: Symphony No. 2 (Resurrection)

iii. In ruhig fliessender Bewegung
(In calmly flowing tempo)

iv. Urlicht ("Primal Light")
[German text from Des Knaben Wunderhorn]

O rosebud red!
Man lies in the greatest need.
Man lies in the greatest anguish.
Far rather would I be in heaven.

Then I came to a broad path.
Then a little angel came and wanted to send me away.
But no! I didn't let myself be sent away.

I am from God, I want to return to God.
Dear God will give me a little light,
will light me all the way to eternal blessed life.

Janet Baker, mezzo-soprano; Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Otto Klemperer, cond. EMI, recorded live Jan. 29, 1965
[Note: This is not Klemperer's 1961-62 EMI studio recording, with the Philharmonia Orchestra. Although eventually released by EMI, this live perfomance was recorded by Bavarian Radio.]

We've also put together the last two movements of the six-movement Third Symphony. We'll revisit them next week, but now we're in position to add one more piece to that gigantic puzzle.

In last night's preview we heard how Mahler took the musical materials of what I've called his "most wonderful" song, "Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt," and transformed them into the scherzo of his mighty Second Symphony, the Resurrection (so called because in the final movement he undertook a huge, heaven-storming musical setting of Klopstock's "Resurrection Ode").

Today I come clean about one of the two early Mahler Wunderhorn settings I made the subject of Friday's preview. Not "Ich ging mit Lust durch einen grünen Wald" ("I walked with joy through a green wood"); that was there for sheer love of the song, and in particular for Christa Ludwig's splendid 1959 recording. (If you missed it, I encourage you to follow the link back to it.)

No, the "plant," as I'm sure seasoned Mahler hands recognized immediately, was the minute-and-a-half ditty "Ablösung im Sommer" ("Replacement in Summer"). Just to remind you how it went, here it is again, in the Berio orchestration.

MAHLER: "Ablösung im Sommer"
("Replacement in Summer")

[German text from Des Knaben Wunderhorn]

Cuckoo has fallen to its death,
From a green willow!
Cuckoo is dead!
Has fallen to its death!

Who then, all summer long,
Will while away the time?

Hey! Mistress Nightingale will do that!
She sits on a green twig!
Small, fine nightingale,
The dear, sweet nightingale!
She sings and jumps, is always happy,
When other birds are silent!

We're waiting for Mistress Nightingale,
Who lives in the green hedge,
And if Cuckoo is done with,
Then she'll begin to pulse.

Thomas Hampson, baritone; Philharmonia Orchestra, Luciano Berio, arr. and cond. Teldec, recorded October 1992

And just as Mahler transformed "Anthony of Padua's Fish Sermon" into the scherzo of the Second Symphony, he used "Replacement in Summer" as the basis for the even larger scherzo of the even more massive Third Symphony.

MAHLER: Symphony No. 3:
iii. Comodo. Scherzando. Ohne Hast.
(Comfortably. Jokingly. Without haste.)

Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Armin Jordan, cond. Erato, recorded live Apr. 20-22, 1994

Royal Scottish Orchestra, Neeme Järvi, cond. Chandos, recorded Oct. 20-24, 1991
(By the way, this may solve the mystery of why the two different orchestrations of the song we heard bear such a strong resemblance. Obviously both orchestrators were bearing in mind Mahler's own orchestration in this movement of the Third Symphony.)


The current list is here.

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At 12:40 PM, Anonymous Bil said...

Comodo Scherzando....

I DO grok the fishes,

"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! "

and don't think Zappa has anything to compare with this KenI

"We're waiting for Mistress Nightingale,
Who lives in the green hedge,
And if Cuckoo is done with,
Then she'll begin to pulse."

Fantastic! thanks KenI, Now that I have seen the 4th I will keep my eyes out of for the 3rd.
(I think it is obvious that your roomate's Zappa DID influence you KenI and that you have a thing for Christa Ludwig and/or George Moore, of course no judgment:)

I really ENJOY this as a welcome freaky musical break background to righting the overnight blogging wrongs of the world.

And as my partner just walked in and commented...
"Groovy music man..."

At 2:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

HELP,,, Ok, so while living in Quebec and listening to Radio Canada but neither speaking or understanding french, they played a version of paduafish where the singer sounds like tom waits on helium, really scary, raspy, evil child like voice,,, I have never heard it since,,, if the forrester version sounded gravelier, that would be it but alas it isn't. going nuts for 15+years trying to find the elusive version


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