Friday, 3 December 2010

Horror death, Schumann and Frederick the Great

It's September 1730, and this is the fotrtress at Küstrin on the Oder. The man about to be beheaded is Hans Herman von Katte, a nobleman but now stripped to his underwear as part of his punishment. His crime? He had tried to help Frederick, Prince of Prussia, later Frederick the Great, escape to England. Whether they were lovers or not (which might explain the brutality) it was an act of treason, since princes are supposed to do their duty. That's Frederick hanging from the window, forced to watch.

I've been thinking of the song by Robert Schumann, Der Soldat. He's setting a poem by Adelbert von Chamisso, based on a text by Hans Christian Andersen,. It's not actually to do with Frederick or Küstrin, though Andersen was conflicted about his sexuality and had delusions that he was of royal blood. Listen to this recording here by Heinrich Schlusnus. The video's from a Soviet film about war - look at the end when the defiant soldier tears open his shirt and presumably shouts "So shoot me then!"

The poem is much  more subtle. To the sound of muffled drums, a man is plodding slowly. The person watching is beside himself with grief. Ich hab' in der Welt nur ihn geliebt, Nur ihn, dem jetzt man den Tod doch gibt! (He is the only one in this world I love, only him, and now he's going to be killed.) The doomed man looks up to God for the last time. Nine men take aim, but only eight fire. Then the ninth man shoots his beloved through the heart. (full text here on It's truly horrific, as traumatic as what Frederick endured at Küstrin, when von Katte willingly sacrificed himself that Frederick might be spared.

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