Of gallows, mice and Chinese princesses

roentgen_lieder
Three princesses. © Charles Thibo

Galgenlieder – gallows songs. A German invention. The legacy of German romanticism. The poet, journalist and critic Christian Morgenstern (1871-1914) wrote dozens of such witty, polemic, sarcastic poems, first published in 1905. The language sounds childish, but wordplays, ambiguities, religious or philosophical allusions are hidden in these seemingly inoccuous words. Their generic title “Galgenlieder” stems from the name of a circle of friends, the “Galgenbrüder” (brethren of the gallows), who regularly met at a pub on the “Galgenberg” (hill of the gallows) close to Potsdam. Morgenstern and his friends would drink, sing and recite Morgenstern’s poems.

The legacy of Franz Schubert

The Dutch-German composer Julius Röntgen, whom we have met in two earlier posts (November 2015 and September 2016), set four of these “Galgenlieder” to poems. Two particularly well illustrate Morgenstern’s ironic style. “Das Knie” (The Knee) is about a knee traveling through the world after the rest of the body has been mortally wounded in a war. Röntgen wrote a score for voice and piano that is very close to Franz Schubert’s language in his song cycle “Winterreise”. It’s expressiveness is striking. The other song “Die Mitternachtsmaus” (the midnight mouse) is an allegory on a world without God where man-made (imperfect) laws have to rule to prevent doom. The song is more resigned than pessimistic and again close to Schubert’s language, the piano indicates a glimmer of hope, a distant promise of a peaceful world.

Templates from Asia

The Dutch baritone Robbert Muuse and the pianist Micha van der Weers have recorded quite a number of Röntgen’s songs and released this album in 2016. Another highlight of that recording is Röntgen’s cycle “Chinesische Lieder” (Chinese Songs, Op. 66). The German poet Hand Bethge (1876-1946) wrote several poems inspired by Chinese sources. Here are my two favourites: “Die Geheimnisvolle Flöte” (The Mysterious Flute) and “Die Drei Prinzessinen” (The Three Princesses).

The first song is a sentimental one about a flute melody floating through the air and the poet composing a response to it. The second song’s subject is straight out of the Romantic school: Despair over the present world, irrational hope and doom. Three princesses stand by the sea and wait for a ship to take them away. They appeal to the heavenly powers to end their longing. As the heavenly powers do not react, the princesses grow old and succumb to madness.

Late discoveries and inspirations

I must confess that I waited several months until I listened to this recording after I had bought it, although I do like Röntgen’s instrumental works very much. It partly had to do with the fact that I have to be in a very special mood to listen to German songs. Paying attention to the music and the text is an special effort. I also think that I had to wait until the time was ripe. Today was that day. I listened to these songs all day long, progressively discovering their beauty, their elegance, their deeper meaning.

It was the first time that music inspired me to draw something. I am not too good at drawing… I had to find a simple form matching Röntgen’s language. An ink drawing. Decomposing the pictures I had in mind in simple geometric forms – the three princesses. I’ll work on the midnight mouse now!

© Charles Thibo

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