Sunday, 25 October 2015

Brahms Die schõne Magelone - Roderick Williams

Brahms Die schõne Magelone Op 33, (1861-8) at the Oxford Lieder Festival,on Tuesday, with Roderick Williams. Since this year's Oxford Lieder Festival focuses on poetry, and poetry in translation, chances are that Williams will be singing in English. This is ideal Roddy repertoire because he's such a direct, vivid communicator. That matters more than usual in Die schõne Magelone because its very form is florid romance. Although the song cycle is often performed with the spoken text Brahms included, I hope that, in Oxford, they'll be doing the text in translation, as it's integral to form and meaning.

Brahms chose fifteen songs and associated text from Ludwig von Tieck's Liebesgeschichte der schönen Magelone und des Grafen Peter von Provence (1796)  a hybrid narrative where long passages of prose blossom  into poetry at critical points. This form is part of meaning, since the tale is a saga of troubadours, for whom song was an indicator of knightly  status almost as much as tournaments and jousting. Tieck's source was a French legend, first published in German in Augsburg in 1535. Tieck's many adaptations of "medieval" sagas were highly influential  because they fueled the fashion for small "r"  romanticism of an idealized society as an alternative to the realities of the 19th century.

The prose also puts context to the songs, which as poems aren't as strong to stand alone as, say, the songs Josef von Eichendorff included in his Aus dem Leben eines Taugenichts (1822-3) which were set as Lieder by Hugo Wolf. Interestingly, both of those literary works deal with the idea of a young man travelling to Italy - the "Dream of the South" so pervasive in the German |Romantic imagination., In Die schõne Magelone,  Graf Peter leaves home, inspired by song  and the vision of beauty he finds in Magalona the daughter of the King of Neapolis (Naples).  Read the full text in German  HERE and in English HERE   After many trials and tribulations, which include being captured by Turks, the lovers at last prevail.. If the story sounds familiar, think Torquato Tasso (1544-85) and Rinaldo. Or Weber Oberon, for that matter.

So in Die schõne Magelone the spoken passages of prose are fundamental. Indeed, a lot of the impact of a good performance lies in the way the text is recited.  This is literature, after all, the cadences and phrasings are a form of "music". Even if you don't know the words, they sound good and mysterious, and contribute a great deal to the atmosphere. It's not that hard to read a short synopsis before the recital and respond with the imagination. To leave the texts out, simply because English-speaking audiences don't care, panders to the dumbed-down, though it's fair enough in some situations. .An English translation is a reasonable compromise. 

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