German Philosophy with a Drop of Water

 Full moon on a cold morning. © Charles Thibo
Full moon on a cold morning.
© Charles Thibo

Bogenstrich. Liebes-Lied. Liebes-Lied. Bogenstrich. A love song. A love song full of sadness. A piece for piano and cello. The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke published the poem “Liebeslied” in 1907, and the British composer Sir Harrison Birtwistle put his meditations over that love song to music  between 2006 and 2009. He gave it the title “Bogenstrich” (bowstroke), an allegory that Rilke uses in the poem.


Wie soll ich meine Seele halten, daß
sie nicht an deine rührt? Wie soll ich sie
hinheben über dich zu andern Dingen?
Ach gerne möcht ich sie bei irgendwas
Verlorenem im Dunkel unterbringen
an einer fremden stillen Stelle, die
nicht weiterschwingt, wenn deine Tiefen schwingen.
Doch alles, was uns anrührt, dich und mich,
nimmt uns zusammen wie ein Bogenstrich,
der aus zwei Saiten eine Stimme zieht.
Auf welches Instrument sind wir gespannt?
Und welcher Geiger hat uns in der Hand?
O süßes Lied.

But whatever moves us, you and me, takes us together like a bow stroke producing a sound from two strings. On what instrument are we fixed? And which violinist holds us in his hand?

Pristine sounds

The first time I heard this piece, I was taken aback. Why on earth would anyone listen to this plaintive song interspersed with occasional piano keystrokes? Now that I have listened to it for many times, it is this minimalist aspect that I love best. It is pristine, like a drop of cold water dripping from one of those old copper taps into a china bone sink.

I imagine one of these old cottage laundries on an early autumn morning, fog invading the garden, moisture condensing on the window panes and blip! The piano gives us the very slow rhythm of the piece, the violin the atmosphere and the voice a bit of German philosophy in a new form. Quite special, and I admit, it takes some passion for the Neue Musik and sound experiments to revel in this piece. But you have come already this far with me… You are so brave, and I love you for that!

Contemporary chamber music

Sir Harrison Birtwistle, born in 1935, was a clarinetist before becoming a composer. He won a scholarship and entered the Royal Manchester College of Music in 1952 to deepen his clarinet studies and start composition classes. In 1953, he formed with fellow students the New Music Manchester Group to explore the 20th century classical music. The compositions by Edgar Varèse, Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen were some of landmarks that guided him at that time.

He wrote chamber music, choral works, music for stage productions and incidental music. Some noteworthy compositions: The ensemble work “Tragoedia” (1965) reflects Birtwistle’s interest in Greek mythology and the formality of ancien Greek tragedies. His opera “Judy and Punch”, first performed at the 1968 Aldeburgh Festival, is considered by Oxford Music Online as a “landmark of 20th-century opera”. “Pulse Field” (1977) was Birtwistle’s first ballet. The project “The mask of Orpheus”, initially commissioned by Covent Garden, saw its premiere in the London Coliseum in 1987, was widely acclaimed and won for Birtwistle the Grawemeyer Award. Since the later 1980s many ensemble and orchestral works saw the light as well as three operas: “Yan An Tethera”, “Gawain” and “The Second Mrs Kong”.

Re-inventing the German Lied

While my interest in Birtwistle is rather new, his chamber music compositions keep fascinating me, especially when I consider the leap from Schubert and Schumann, bearing the flag of the Romantic Lied, to a modern composer setting poetry to contemporary classical music. The ECM recording featuring “Bogenstrich” gives you the option to enjoy two more interesting works: “Three Settings of Lorine Niedecker” and “Nine settings of Lorine Niedecker”. This may also incite you to discover the American Objectivist poet Lorine Niedecker, an interesting artist.

The newspaper “The Guardian” featured an interesting article on Sir Harrison Birtwistle in 2012.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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2 thoughts on “German Philosophy with a Drop of Water”

  1. I like your article, and I learned a lot of different things! Ah, but that’s the trouble – trying to keep up with you! 😉 Now, as for this minimalist setting of an emotional poem: I only managed to hear a short sample via internet (which I concede is totally unfair to make any assessment), but I still asked myself your very question “Why on earth would anyone listen to this plaintive song interspersed with occasional piano keystrokes?” Sad to say, my answer was not the same as yours. 😉 In this case, I prefer to just read the poem or hear it read. It was interesting to discover Lorine Niedecker. Theoretically, her sparse objective style would be a good match for minimalist music. But again, and sorry to disappoint, I’ll spare myself the exploration and enjoy just her written artform. I think it’s probably ok for me to confess that minimalism is one of my least favourite styles of “classical” music. Nevertheless, your article gave me lots to think about. 🙂

    1. I am glad to hear the post triggered some reflexions – that is all I can wish for! I do not expect my readers to like what I like. As long as I can provide some interesting content I am quite happy. This said, I still prefer Schubert to Birtwistle!! 😜

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