mezzo-soprano and piano
composed in 1997-8
dedication: for John Oakley
commissioned by Sue Anderson
first performed by Sue Anderson and Nicolas Hodges, St. Giles Cripplegate, 29 January 1998
recorded by Sue Anderson and Nicolas Hodges on Metier MSV CD92046
Hölderlin, Blake-like in his trenchant aphorisms, Wordsworthian in his nature-worship, is a visionary of the fragment, a seer of incompletion. His drastic personal experiences led him to the abrogation of his previous existence, a repudiation resulting in the confinement, and even torture, which were the common lot of mental patients in his day. Making some sort of recovery, he passed more than half his life in the care of a carpenter in Tübingen, writing occasional poems in a style quite different from that of the great odes and hymns of his early maturity. Such poems, written for the visitors who came to gape at the tamed "madman", were composed in exchange for small gifts; money or tobacco was the bait used to extract these later works, which were often meditations on the seasons, doubtless a subject favoured by these patrons. However, he was accustomed to signing them with strange pseudonyms: Scaliger Rose, Buonarroti, Scardanelli: expressions of the distance he kept from the poet he had formerly been.
I chose five texts which illustrate the range of this great poet, as well as the obsessive nature of his themes. First comes the opening of his ode Patmos, in which, like St. John himself, he senses the divine nature of his vocation. There follows a total contrast; a ruefully humorous yet touchingly erotic daydream, composed of a montage of apparently unrelated images. This poem is almost complete, but its central verse has come down to us only in the shape of a single word: fleissig, "busy". The third text, though written before his breakdown, is prophetic of his ultimate fate: in it, he contemplates the indifference he will be capable of feeling towards those images which once excited him so unbearably. The fourth setting is of a not-quite-conventional poem about spring; like all his later work, it is in rhyme, a technique which never appears in his earlier poems. Finally, there is a powerful declamation taken from his play about the Greek philosopher Empedocles who, despairing of human existence, seeks transcendence by hurling himself into the crater of Etna.
My music attempts some reconciliation of these contrasted yet related themes of dissociation and contradiction, by making voice and piano largely independent of one another in both rhythm and gesture. The piano does not accompany the voice so much as provide a continuous commentary on all the texts; its ten sections change pace and direction without reference to the vocal settings. The title "cantata" further underscores the nature of the piano part as an integral but separate obbligato, as in the solo contributions of instruments in the cantatas of Bach.
The multiple layers of reference and meaning in Hölderlin's poetry defy exact translation. Accordingly I have ventured to paraphrase the texts in order to express something of my response to them, rather than to outline some objective account of their possible meaning. So many of the images have their root in the German language itself: for example in the third setting, the peacefulness of the deer park leads to an assonance between Ruh and Reh impossible in English, while at the same time, without his mentioning it, the poet reminds us by his image of another deer park, where the Buddha experiences his enlightenment too.
Apprehension of the divinity which lies so close to us is hard, but where there is danger, there safety is also found. Eagles dwell in darkness, and the sons of the Alps cross the abyss on lightly-built bridges. Give us wings, in the truest sense, to pass over and return. Thus I spoke: when suddenly, and quicker than I could have imagined, a Spirit caught me up, and carried me away, far from my home. Mysteriously, in a golden mist, with strides of the sun, and amid a thousand peaks, Asia appeared to me, and dazzled, I sought for something I could recognise. In the light, the silver snow glowed, a pledge of eternity, upon unclimbable walls a primeval ivy flourished, supported by a living forest of pillars formed from cedars and laurels: I saw God-created palaces ...
On the fallow leaf rests the grape, promise of wine: so the shadow of an earring outlines itself on a girl's cheek. But I must remain single., how easily the little calf tangles himself up in the chain from which he has broken free.
The sower of seed likes to see a woman, fallen asleep in the middle of the day over a half-knitted stocking. Although the German tongue can never be smooth, how sweetly the kisses fall upon the prickly beard.
Cities of Euphrates! Streets of Palmyra! Forests of pillars in the desert, what are you? Your crests, passing beyond the limit of human breath, were removed by the smoke and fire of heavenly powers. But now I sit beneath clouds, each with its own peacefulness, amid oak trees neatly planted in a deer park, and the spirits of the blessed seem quite strange to me, remote and dead.
When from the depths spring emerges into life, human beings wonder about themselves, and new words strive for spiritual expression: music and song resound everywhere. Life finds itself in harmony with time, so that Nature and Spirit penetrate our being to create a unity in each of us. So everything comes to itself, and most of all through Nature.
Am I completely alone? Has night really replaced day? A mortal eye, which witnessed higher things, is now blinded, feeling its way. Where are you, my Gods? He who long dwelt alive among the living is now condemned by you, who once filled his heart with a world and its divine power: condemned in his very soul to wander, an outcast. Shall he be friendless, who once was the friend of Gods? I am alone, alone, alone, and never will I find you again, never turn towards your life, Nature. Is there no avenger of such a fate? Must I alone bear the scorn, the curse in my own soul: alone even in this?