Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Thoughts are Free ! Mahler Lied des Verfolgten im Turm

"Die Gedanken sind frei!", the rallying cry of the Romantic revolution !   The text was first written dowen in the 12th century by the troubador poet Walter von Wogelweide (whose artistic descendant is Walter von Stolzing). There are other variants from around the same period, suggesting that the song was already part of oral tradition, spread presumably by students, travellers, and journeying Gesellen.  Notations were made and published later, from the 18th and early 19th century.  A true "folk" song, which fitted well with the spirit of Romanticism and its values of identity, individualism and love of Nature.  Please read my several pieces on the Lützower Freikorps and the poets and composers inspired by them HERE HEREand HERE   Effectively just about everyone, from Goethe to Beethoven, to Schubert, Weber and Mendelssohn and beyond.  And in very different ways, their heirs Wagner, Brahms and Mahler.  

Mahler's song Lied des Verfolgten im Turm quotes Die Gedanken sind Frei word for word, and also uses the same tune. Whether there's any documentary evidence, he almost certainly would have known the soing. The connections inescapable :

"Die Gedanken sind frei, wer kann sie erraten,
sie fliegen vorbei wie nächtliche Schatten.
Kein Mensch kann sie wissen, kein Jäger erschießen
mit Pulver und Blei: Die Gedanken sind frei!

"Und sperrt man mich ein im finsteren Kerker 
das alles sind rein vergebliche Werke.
Denn meine Gedanken zerreißen die Schranken
und Mauern entzwei: Die Gedanken sind frei!"

Mahler used a variant text as published in the volume Des Knaben Wunderhorn, published by Clemens Brentano and Achim von Arnim in 1806, which tidies up the folksy background, as was so often the case in the 19th century.  In 1806, you could still end up as Florestan.  In the original version, the mood is subjective, the protagonist imagining himself in prison.  In Brentano and Arnim, the mood is direct : the protagonist is safely incarcerated, identified as "The Prisoner". In the original, there is a verse in which the singer refers to one form of escapism : girlfriends and alcohol.

"Ich liebe den Wein, mein Mädchen vor allen,
sie tut mir allein am besten gefallen.
Ich sitz nicht alleine bei meinem Glas Weine,
mein Mädchen dabei: Die Gedanken sind frei!"

Brentano and von Arnim modify this earthy humour by dividing the text into two parts, one for the Prisoner, the other for the Maiden. The girl thus becomes a protagonist in her own right. But  now her function is diversion, not support. Basically "let's just party!" Mahler's setting underlines the difference, setting the lines with flirtatious lyricism.

"Im Sommer ist gut lustig sein,
Auf hohen wilden Bergen;
Man ist da ewig ganz allein,
Man hört da gar kein Kindergeschrei,
Die Luft mag einem da werden."

The Prisoner isn't fooled, however, and neither is Mahler. His song ends on the resolute. The old anthem returns, bold and free. 

"Und weil du so klagst, Der Lieb ich entsage, 
Und ist es gewagt So kann mich nicht plagen!
Stets lachen, bald scherzen; 
>Es bleibet dabei,
Die Gedanken sind frei !"

I've used the picture above because it perfectly captures the humour in the song. The Gedanken are depicted as folksy cherubs, rather cheeky, somewhat grotesque. The angel represents the Spirit of Liberty which inspires thoughts of freedom.  She's not a girlfriend and she's not trying to divert the Prisoner from his dreams. 

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