Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Totengräbers Heimweh Schubert's homesick gravedigger

Franz Schubert Totengräbers Heimweh D852 (1825) to a text by Jakob Nikolaus, Reichsfreiherr von Craigher de Jachelutta. Composer and poet were almost exact contemporaries, and knew each other personally. Craigher de Jachelutta lived to 1855 having led an eventful, adventurous life.  Schubert of course died young. "O Menschheit, o Leben! was soll's? o was soll's? Grabe aus, scharre zu! Tag und Nacht keine Ruh! Das Drängen, das Treiben, wohin? o wohin? Ins Grab, ins Grab, tief hinab!«" O, Mankind, O Life ! what's, it all for ? "  The heavy pedalling rhythms suggest the repetitive, mechanical process of digging, the physical effort of hollowing out a grave. Yet, like Sisyphus, the gravedigger's work never ends: no sooner than the grave is dug, it's filled. All that struggle, to what avail?

Then the final strophe which would be quite melodramatic were it not so heartfelt. 

(O Homeland, O peace, O blissful country to which the soul is inextricably destined. You call me from far beyond, you eternal light!)  Slowly, the stars grow dim, though the piano part still twinkles to the very end. The gravedigger's eyes go blind and the gravedigger drops dead, presumably collapsing into the grave he's just dug.  The last words "Ich komm" are repeated, ever more gently, for the man has found peace, joining those he loves who have gone on before.  Being a Lieder person, I had a vivid dream about this song and woke, drenched in cold sweat, but it wasn't scary, because on a deeper level the poem isn't about death but about life. The relentless struggles we go through might seem pointless, but we go on because life is sacred, and precious, however compromised. Ultimately, Romantiker doom and gloom is life affirming. And if you believe in "das selig Land" there's a bonus. The painting above is The Death of the Grave Digger by Carlos Schwabe 1866-1926)

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