Saturday, July 4, 2009
"Ich weiss nicht, was soll es bedeuten . . . "
One of the earliest songs I can remember hearing is the German folk song "Die Lorelei." When I was three years old, I had a 45 record of the Vienna Boys Choir singing "The Little Drummer Boy," and on the flip side was "Die Lorelei." I knew nothing about the story of the song or the meaning of its words, but I was enchanted by the beautiful melody, and have never forgotten it. To my surprise, I heard it again today for the first time since childhood, played by a German festival band at a Fourth of July breakfast in the mountains where I now live.
The internet is in some ways the great mender of memories, an ethereal madeleine that both kindles nostalgia and satisfies it, enabling the forlorn seeker to find again that which he thought had been lost forever to time and forgetfulness. When I got home, I googled "Die Lorelei," and found to my surprise that it is a setting of a poem by the greatest poet of German Romanticism, Heinrich Heine. The poem tells the story of the mythical Lorelei, the siren of the Rhine who lures sailors to their deaths with her beautiful singing, but is also a kind of meta-narrative -- a poem that is as much about the poet's memory of the legend as it is about the legend itself. An English translation follows:
I don't know what it may signify
That I am so sad;
There's a tale from ancient times
That I can't get out of my mind.
The air is cool and the twilight is falling
and the Rhine is flowing quietly by;
the top of the mountain is glittering
in the evening sun.
The loveliest maiden is sitting
Up there, wondrous to tell.
Her golden jewelry sparkles
as she combs her golden hair
She combs it with a golden comb
and sings a song as she does,
A song with a peculiar,
It seizes upon the boatman in his small boat
With unrestrained woe;
He does not look below to the rocky shoals,
He only looks up at the heights.
If I'm not mistaken, the waters
Finally swallowed up fisher and boat;
And with her singing
The Lorelei did this.
I could not find the Vienna Boys Choir singing it, but here it is, sung by the great Austrian tenor Richard Tauber. It is exquisite.
In the years I lived in Washington Heights in uptown Manhattan, my downstairs neighbor was a wonderful woman, Mrs. M., who had emigrated to America from Vienna in 1938. As a teenage girl, Mrs. M., the daughter of a Catholic mother and a Jewish father, had frequented the Vienna State Opera especially to hear Tauber sing. Mrs. M. had been a great beauty; in her wedding portrait, which she kept on her old piano, she looked like a silent film star, and her husband, who was Jewish, was no less handsome (when I moved into the apartment above her with my first husband, she was recently widowed).
In Vienna, Mrs. M. had worked in the glove department of a fashionable department store behind the opera house. One day a group of SS officers came in to browse. When they saw Mrs. M., they made for the glove counter, and one of the officers took her hand and declared her to be the very personification of Aryan beauty. They invited her to a party at the officers' hall, but she flirtatiously waved her other hand in their faces, the one on which she wore her wedding ring. The next day she quit her job, and she and her husband left for America. Upon arrival, Mr. M. enlisted with the U.S. Army, and he soon was back in Europe, fighting against the Third Reich. Mrs. M.'s beloved father died at Auschwitz.
Mrs. M. is now in her nineties, and has moved out of New York to live with her daughter far away. She was the best neighbor I've ever had, a wonderfully kind, patient, and tolerant woman, and a true friend. I miss her.
Because Heine too was a Jew (and, later, a convert to Lutheranism, who may have converted not because of conviction, but because he longed to teach at university, a profession forbidden to Jews), the Nazis tried to ban "Die Lorelei." But the beautiful song was so enduringly popular that the best they could do was declare the author of its verses "unknown."