Friday, 24 December 2010

Heinrich Heine's non-naive Nativity

Heinrich Heine isn't someone you'd normally associate with Nativity scenes. So pay attention when Heine does Christmas.

Wilhelm Killmayer (b 1927) set Heine's Die heiligen drei Könige as part of his Heine Lieder. Killmayer is extremely underrated, but worshiped by those who know his work, including Wolfgang Rihm, who calls him his master. Killmayer's music is whimsical and gentle, but packs a powerful emotional and mental punch.

Killmayer arranges 35 songs to Heine poems in four progressive themes. His choice is perceptive even if you think you know Heine by heart. The first section starts with the idea of dreams and aspirations. Ideas gradually build up towards a final section Die Macht des Gesanges, the power of song. Die heiligen drei Könige appears almost at the end of the fourth cycle, ie. near the goal. See why Killmayer is so sharp? The Three Kings have come from the East (das Morgenland) searching for something they know is essential even if they don't know what it is. The piano part is rhythmic yet sways  slightly of centre: camels, with long legs crossing a desert?

How do we get to Bethleham, they ask Ihr leiben Buben und Mädchen (You dear little bumpkins and lassies) Heine's humour - exotic Kings from afar chatting to yokellish (and very German) children. But of course no-one knows, so the Kings continue following the Star. Killmayer sets the Goldener Stern. so it shoots right above the stave, almost unattainable. (Killmayer is kind to the singer, as the build up is gradual).   But what a lovely glow on words like leuchtete lieblich und heiter. (shining sweetly and bright). Piano part sweet, good natured, confident that the star leads the right way..

Then the star stops over Joseph's house. Killmayer sets this totally matter of fact, like it's the most natural thing in the world for strange Kings to pop in on a peasant. No decoration, but typical Killmayer silence, single notes that make you listen. Decoration is reserved for the line Das sind sie hineingegangen, which Killmayer sets on a soaring arc. You're drawn into the little house, so to speak.

Inside the house, gorgeous tumult! Das Öchslein brüllte, das Kindlein schrie. The oxen moo and the Baby screams. It's more vivid auf Deutsch, but Killmayer wants to capture the sense of energy generated by different layers of sound. No plasterboard Nativity this, but full of life and action.

Then the glorious finale. The Kings burst into song. They've found their miracle. Killmayer sets the word "Sangen" in multiple patterns, so it feels ecstatic. One "sangen" draws the "a" out for at least 8 measures. Meanwhile, the pianist's left hand delineates a steady rhythm, the right embroidering a truly lyrical melody. The whole Killmayer cycle started on the theme of dreams and seeking knowledge. Now the resolution through The Power of Song. Yet it's a non-naive Nativity.

Neither Killmayer nor Heine do superficial. Killmayer ends his cycle on a completely different note. Children, Heine says, sing in the darkness so they won't be afraid. So the poet ein tolles Kind (a big Kid) sings in his all-too-dark life of strife. Here the translation of the last two lines (Susan Mary Praeder) is superb, capturing the fear but adding wry humour and irony. She  uses a rhyming couplet, very Germanic. "The song may not be so delightful, but it's freed me from all things frightful" So the culmination of this long cycle is astonishingly modern. We live in horrible times, but as long as we have the power of song, we have hope.

Killmayer's Heine-Lieder cycle is huge, so not many singers have the heft to carry it off, especially with its constant changes of mood. But it's  remarkably well thought through. Killmayer understands Heine well, and in the process creates anew the whole concept of Lieder cycle. Meaning is what Lieder is really about, not just surface beauty. Killmayer's trademark is a kind of observant silence and stillness, that draws the listener in.  Although the cycle as a whole is daunting to sing, there's no reason why the sections can't be performed on their own,  Die heiligen drei Könige is a small masterpiece on its own and really should be part of the repertoire. It's very deep, its meaning applies beyond just Christmas. When Pen Hadow (my kind of guy) walked to the North Pole (and got trapped) a few years ago, I played this song on continuous loop so much that I had to get an extra copy of the CD. Things weren't easy for me at the time, but the idea of Hadow trudging through the Arctic seemed totally in keeping with Heine's poem and Killmayer's setting.

Killmayer's Heine Lieder are difficult to sing yet easy to listen to. Killmayer is a warm, humorous and totally individual person who defies stereotype. Start with the Heine-Lieder and go onto the truly outstanding Hölderlin-Lieder which I think is one of the most significant works of the late 20th century. Grab the sole recording of Killmayer's Heine-Lieder if you get a chance. (Christoph Prégardien and Siegfried Mauser, CPO)  Or get the score bei Schott. The painting, oddly enough, is Hieronymus Bosch.

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