Saturday, 15 September 2012

Music for hikers : Wolf Fussreise

The "Vienna Myth" distorts music history. Everyone likes Strauss Waltzes and Klimt derived decorative arts. So if you want to make money, you repackage music in their image. But look more carefully though. Mahler, for example,  couldn't wait to get out of Vienna and head for the hills where he could be creative. Vienna was where he made a living (for a while). It was not his life. Even Schubert, impoverished city boy as he was, was tranfixed by the Salzkammergut. We owe much of Schubert's music to Gmunden rather than Vienna per se (many of Schubert's friends knew the countryside well).  Another popular myth : Romanticism wasn't necessarily "romantic" (though some of it was maudlin).  Romanticism was revolutionary because it focussed on the individual rather than groups. It was an outgrowth of modern ideas on political liberty and freedom. It was the foreunner of modern ideas of identity and psychology.
I've been writing about music and mountains for years because mountains are metaphors for many Romantic ideals. On a simpler level, walking was what people did before cheap public transport. Even in big cities people walked and climbed flights of stairs. If you were poor, you had no alternative. Please see my work on Mahler 3rd and 6th, on Strauss Alpensinfonie, Ernst Krenek's Reisebuch aus den österreichischen Alpen and  much else. Today, I'll focus on one song that epitomizes the whole idea : Hugo Wolf's Fussreise.

Wolf was perhaps the true country boy among Lieder composers, growing up in an impoverished  family in provincial Windischgrätz (surrounded by mountains). Later, he walked from Vienna to Bayreuth. To him, hiking was as natural as breathing. Listen to those brisk, jaunty rhythms, repeated in the piano part. You actually can tramp to them, I've tried, singing the song while walking. Wolf knew about "frischgeschnittnen Wanderstab" (freshly cut walking stick). These  help regulate walking rhythms. Optimistic, energetic. But the poet is Eduard Mörike (another man who preferred countryside to city). Almost imperceptibly the mood becomes more serious.

"So fühlt auch mein alter, lieber Adam Herbst und Frühlingsfieber, Gottbeherzte, Nie verscherzte Erstlings Paradiseswonne." (my old, beloved Adam felt Spring and Autumn fever, given by God, never forgotten by those who were the first creations of Paradise). Wonderfully compressed German phrase which means that the spirit of Adam in Eden lives on in us when we experience the joy of Spring and Autumn). Mörike and Wolf refer to Adam and Eve before the Fall, suggesting that primeval bliss lives on in modern man when he interacts with Nature in Spring (growth) and Autumn (colour). "Wie an ewig neuen Schöpfungstagen" (like an eternally new Day of Creation).

 Mörike, a country parson, uses Bible terminology but emotionally, this "Creator" could be Dionysius or something even more ancient. But the greatest joy of this song, to me, is the way it expresses the physicality of walking, in its pace and in the tiny detail "leichten Wanderschweiße" (light "walking" perspiration). Mörike and Wolf know first hand what brisk walking means. Without effort, no results. Walking keeps you grounded. Definitely not salon aesthetic.  

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