Robert Schumann: An den Mond
Hey song-of-the-day-ers! Thanks to NYFOS for welcoming me back to this blog to offer you guys songs to listen to this week. I am grateful for the artistic outlet this opportunity is affording me to think about songs in a deep way again. This pandemic is such a scary time for all of us in so many ways. For us musicians, it is scary specifically because these careers and bodies of work we have put together over the years are suddenly in danger of becoming useless. Losing the chance to collaborate with other musicians, to sing for a live audience, to make money are all grievous, but at least the plague can’t touch my ability to obsess over a song until I hear it in my sleep and all its mysteries, charm, and wisdom begin to reveal themselves to me.
The inactive, gloomy distance from music-making of these last two months is not, however, a total waste. Distance from an object is needed to observe it whole, and being forced to step back from the daily engagement with the fine-grained details and technical challenges of a piece of music creates the space in ears and brains needed to absorb and process music differently. Longing for the days of rehearsals and performances leads to reflections such as “what exactly is it I am missing?” What function do music and art really serve? Quarantine has got me thinking that art (and especially music, of course) is a necessary countermeasure—a kind of relief— our minds and psyches need to balance out the mental and emotional mechanics of daily life. The patterns and habits we adopt to negotiate the complexities of society exist to provide a sense of order and stability as we go through our day. We need our relationships and careers and daily tasks to be rationally understood and explainable. But we end up going down the same mental path every day such that we forget that the ruts in the road are not a natural feature of the terrain. The quotidian but confining path is closed due to Covid, but there are some previously unconsidered byways which are suddenly the only option.
In typical NYFOS fashion, I decided to adopt a theme to guide my song selections this week. Art and art-making free our minds of the mental harnesses we strap on to navigate our day. Music is inherently abstract and gives voice to thoughts and feelings that reside beyond the limits of language and rational thought. It invites us to see ourselves and nature not through the lens of structure and reason, but to think and feel in a space unburdened by the demands of daily life, disarmed of the mental armor we bear to shield ourselves from the intensity and complexity of the feelings that reside beneath the surface. In general I think it’s fair to say that we prefer to spend most of our time in the intelligible order of the surface. But no one can deny that there are deeper currents running through us which give our lives meaning. The depth of our souls (or whatever) is the powerful pulsing hot core of our beings that fuels and feeds the life on the surface, but they are more difficult to fathom and name. I find that I use art and music to access this space under the surface of life. The parts on which the sun doesn’t shine, if you will. So I picked songs about the moon.
Our Moon Week opener is a not-super-well-known Schumann jam, An den Mond, from his Drei Gesange, op. 95. The three songs set German translations of Byron poems from his collection Hebrew Melodies. It makes a fun game for a song nerd to scan the original English poem to German song text to the English translation of the German translation. It illustrates the under-appreciated art of translation as well as its inherent imperfection, but at least I know this audience is one of the few who will tolerate such a degrading display of nerd.
Sun of the sleepless! — melancholy Star!
Whose tearful beam glows tremulously far —
That show’st the darkness thou cans’t not dispel
How like art Thou to Joy remembered well!
So gleams the past — the light of other days —
That shines but warms not with its powerless rays,
A Night-beam Sorrow watcheth to behold
Distinct but distant — clear — but — oh! how cold!
German translation by Theodore Körner:
Schlafloser Sonne melanchol’scher Stern
Dein tränenvoller Strahl erzittert fern,
Du offenbarst die Nacht, die dir nicht weicht —
O wie du ganz des Glücks Erinn’rung gleichst!
So glänzt auch längstvergangner Tage Licht,
Es scheint, doch wärmt sein schwaches Leuchten nicht,
Der Gram sieht wohl des Sterns Gestalt,
Scarf, aber fern, so klar, doch ach! wie kalt!
English translation of the German translation of the Byron poem by Richard Stokes:
Sun of the sleepless! melancholy star!
Your tear-stained rays tremble afar
You revealed the darkness that you cannot dispel —
O how you are the image of remembered bliss!
So gleams the light of distant days now past
It shines, but gives no warmth with its faint gleam:
Sorrow observes the shape of that star
Distinct but distant, so clear but ah! how cold!
I hope you enjoyed that as much as I did. I’ll leave a full interpretation of this song and poem to you. I just want to highlight the one line that always surprises me: the moon “[t]hat show’st the darkness thou cans’t not dispel.” The oxymoron is the point. How can something show darkness? But you know exactly what he means, right? We ignore the dark corners on the inside and cast our gaze away from the gnarled and twisted shadows around us. But the moon is a reflective surface, a kind of mirror that shines the light of day back upon us in its absence, but transformed and transforming. Observing our world and ourselves in this colder, more mysterious light strikes me as a metaphor for the function of art. The material and psychic substance of life is always present, but we see different aspects of it depending on how the light strikes it. Moonlight is the light that illuminates the obscure parts of ourselves that hide in broad daylight.
Peter Schreier is a voice that has grown on me over the years. It is limited tonally in some ways, but his immaculate Romantic and Germanic style are authoritative to my mind. The balance of intellect and emotion in this performance is perfectly judged. Schumann originally considered setting these three poems for voice and harp, and the pianist, Norman Shetler, artfully suggests the ancient (Hebräische?) zither/lyre with which the ancient poet would accompany himself. And of course the delicious melancholy that the opening chords cast makes me think of poor old Robert Schumann. I feel your pain, Bob.