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Susan Youens: Of cannibalism, the abolitionist movement, and Brahms: An unlikely conjunction

For those of us who love Brahms’s songs, our first encounter with “Kein Haus, keine Heimat” (No house, no homeland) was probably a shock—it certainly was for me. Published in 1884 when Brahms was fifty-one years old, this work is twenty measures of undiluted bitterness, over almost before we can take in what has just hit us. There is no taint of melodrama in this single page of music, the most terse cri de coeur, “cry from the heart,” imaginable. One of Brahms’s close friends, the surgeon Theodor Billroth to whom Brahms sent the entire Op. 94 in its first incarnation, wrote to him on August 6, 1884 as follows: 

 
The five songs with texts by Halm, Geibel, and Rückert have their own characteristic earnest mood. I like them. Not everyone has the courage to approach this singular and grave manner. These are songs for men, a sort of autumn or winter journey. . . . The poems of Halm have a particular melancholy bitterness. The most poetic is “Steig auf, geliebter Schatten,” and its music is the most beautiful . . . it will not, however, draw a large audience. . . . As one grows older, one becomes a little satiated with love songs and wants other kinds of poems that also lend themselves to music.

Friedrich Halm was the pseudonym for Eligius Freiherr von Münch-Bellinghausen, born in Cracow on April 2, 1806 and died in Vienna on May 22, 1871; he was the Intendant or manager of Vienna’s theaters for a time and a dramatist himself. We have only two of the three songs on poems by Halm that Billroth saw that summer of 1884; one was removed from the opus by Brahms himself and subsequently lost, but it too would have reinforced Billroth’s evocation of a winter journey. The cloaked comparison to Winterreise is especially apt for “Kein Haus, keine Heimat,” set in the D minor key that the Schubert-loving Brahms would surely have associated with “Gute Nacht,” the start of the journey through a storm-crossed, wintry psyche, and also with “Der stürmische Morgen” later in the cycle. That D minor is also forever a Requiem key in Mozart’s wake makes it all the more apropos to this final utterance by a narrator on the brink of death. 

 
Brahms invites those musicians who discover this song to explore further when he adds the laconic subtitle, “Aus einem Drama” (From a play), telling us that these gall-laden words have a larger unidentified context. But this text is not from a play, although Halm’s dramas were beloved in 19th-century Vienna, including the Arthurian play “Griseldis,” which Schumann briefly envisioned turning into an opera libretto; his other dramas include “Iphigenia in Delphi,” “King Wamba,” “The Thief from Ravenna,” and “The Son of the Wilderness,” the latter being his most famous theatrical work. Was Brahms engaging in deliberate misdirection by sending the curious to look for “Kein Haus” in Halm’s plays? That he does not specify the source and misleads us about its genre is surely significant—but of what? Did he want to steer attention away from any biographical interpretation by making it clear that the words issue from a fictive character? “Someone in a play, not me” could perhaps be one raison d’être for the subtitle (this is, of course, pure speculation on my part). Whatever his reasons for a designation both vague and inaccurate, the text actually comes from one of Halm’s so-called “storytelling poems” (“erzählendes Gedichte”) entitled “In der Südsee” (In the South Pacific). These works were not meant to be staged; if they are dramatic in their content, they are not so in the literal sense.
What I find so compelling about many Lieder, including this one, are the complex stories they tell and the multiplicity of lives they lead. A poem arises from a stew of literary, cultural, historical, etc. forces filtered through the aesthetics and the psychology of the poet. A composer then comes along, sometimes much later, and turns the verbal artifact to his or her own musical use, sometimes in awareness of the poet’s agendas, sometimes not. Two purposes, one poetic, one musical, commingle in one arena. The backdrop to Brahms’s song text is particularly rich, all the more so because Brahms knew some of it. When he extracted the final abbreviated occurrence of an inset-lyric song from this story-poem in three chapters, he omitted the narrative enclosure, but of course, he read it en route to setting this segment to music and knew the full context. If the nugget of alienation on display in op. 94 is shocking all by itself, the surroundings are even more so. Halm’s narrative is concentrated, with all the omissions characteristic of ballad writing; what follows is a summary of an already skeletal story. 

At the beginning of the first part, we are told of a splendid ship called the John Gay. One thinks immediately of The Beggar’s Opera in 1728, a work that satirized both Italian opera and aristocratic power-mongers (especially Horace Walpole) who were portrayed as robbers and thieves. The name alone is enough to prepare us for an anti-authoritarian world-view and a stance on behalf of the dispossessed; the fact that the ship is British paves the way for the abolitionist themes to follow. The first character we meet is a black man named Jupiter, a giant of a fellow at his midday rest. We are told that his body, which the poet compares to black marble, bears the marks of earlier slavery and that he somehow escaped enslavement and became an able-bodied seaman. With his tobacco and his grog, he leans against the mast and sings a song in three stanzas, the second and third verses being familiar to us as Brahms’s song text. 

Image: Friedrich Halm



Meine Jacke ist ganz noch
Und mein Glas noch voll Gin!
Welt, geh deiner Wege,
Ich frag’ nicht, wohin?

Kein Haus, keine Heimat,
Kein Weib und kein Kind,
So wirbl’ ich, ein Strohhalm,
In Wetter und Wind!

Well’ auf und Well’ nieder,
Bald dort und bald hier;
Welt, fragst du nach mir nicht,
Was frag’ ich nach Dir? My jacket is still whole
and my glass still full of gin!
World, go your way—
I won’t ask where!

No house, no homeland,
No wife and no child,
Thus am I whirled about, like a straw,
In the wind and weather!

Waves rising, waves falling,
now there and now here;
world, if you don’t ask about me,
why should I ask about you?

With his minimal comforts at hand, he can proclaim defiance of a world that has mistreated him.
That this poem belongs to the ongoing German dialogue in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries about the nature of black people and the injustice of slave trade is clear from the start, and Halm promptly raises the ante by introducing the theme of sexual desire across lines of race and class. The next character we meet is “Miß Lucy,” a name that on this ship instantly recalls Lucy Lockit from The Beggar’s Opera. John Gay’s Lucy, in dispute with Polly Peachum to marry the highwayman Macheath, is far from innocent, but Halm’s Lucy is an adorable blond “Kind.” Although her characterization is sketchy, to put it mildly, we have the vague impression of a 19th-century Lolita, part-child, part-budding woman and already well aware of her powers of sexual attraction. In one scene Jupiter offers Lucy an apple---a Garden of Eden scenario in reverse---, and her smile and sweet chatter in response drive the “fear and terror,” “Furcht und Graus,” from his brow. Diverted by the treat, she allows him to hold her; when she is called away by her mother, he asks for a kiss. “A little kiss?”, she replies, “No, you are black!” and then goes away, leaving Jupiter enveloped in his customary gloom. As the first chapter ends, he sings again the final verse of his earlier song: “Well‘ auf und Well’ nieder; bald dort und bald hier.” The stage is already set for catastrophe.

The second section begins like the first, with an encomium to the John Gay afloat on the ocean---or, if you like, the Homeric sea of Time and Life. Up above, a small cloud sails like a swan, then swells and becomes a gigantic storm that sinks the ship. Jupiter, Lucy, her mother, and a dozen others crowd onto a lifeboat, in which they drift for ten days on the open seas. Two of the passengers, driven to madness, leap from the frail bark into the ocean, one dies of sunstroke, and the survivors are desperate. A fellow named Atkins---who he is, we are never told---delivers an impassioned speech in which he asks for a volunteer to die so that the others might assuage their thirst with blood and their hunger with flesh. Jupiter seconds the idea, saying that someone “must be our pelican,” and the survivors draw cards. When Lucy’s mother picks the fateful card, she begs to be spared for her child’s sake, but the desperate Atkins orders the black man to wield his machete on the woman. Instead, Jupiter embraces Lucy and tells her, “I will help you, Lucy! Just sit quietly by your mother’s side.” Going to the side of the boat, he sings Brahms’s two stanzas and then stabs himself to the heart, saying, “Take me instead of the woman! More blood will flow from my body—you will have more to drink.” A few hours later, a ship appears to rescue the survivors. Miss Lucy returns home and never thinks of the horrific voyage without weeping for the “faithful black man.” 

What strong brew this is! In a single poem, we encounter black male desire for a blond British girl, coupled with an implicit anti-slavery tract, a polemic about the nature of Negroes, sacrificial suicide, and cannibalism. It is as if Halm was laboring overtime to raise fraught socio-political issues and compress as much shock-value into a single narrative as he possibly could. If “In der Südsee” is very far indeed from being great poetry, it does an astonishing amount of “cultural work” in its sixteen pages. In particular, the ways in which increasing knowledge of other races in the “Age of Discovery” profoundly disturbed the Eurocentric image of humanity is on ample display here. One strand of that scenario has to do with legends of cannibalistic South Sea islanders (it matters that this story takes place “in der Südsee”), and other strands have to do with the slave trade, outlawed but still ongoing, and with debates about the very humanity of those with black skins. 

On one level, this song is a latter-day offspring of 18th-century explorations of the South Pacific, when the Enlightenment grappled with expanding cross-cultural contact. Halm borrows from the great explorer Louis-Anne de Bougainville when he names his protagonist “Jupiter,” since the French explorer who circumnavigated the globe between 1766 and 1769 saw Tahiti as Cythera, the mythical Greek island of love, and gave the native people he encountered there names from classical mythology, such as Ajax and Nestor. (Captain James Cook, the even more famous explorer, was, we recall, sent on his first voyage in order to observe the transit of Venus from Tahiti.) When these voyagers returned home, the appropriation of the South Pacific for mythification began immediately, including a fascination with cannibalism. The German botanists Johann Reinhold Forster and his son Georg accompanied Cook on his second voyage and their three-volume tome, Journey Around the World in the Years 1772 to 1775, was a literary event, especially their sensational accounts of New Zealand native peoples eating the bodies of their slain enemies. Goethe marveled at their travelogue, and he wasn’t alone. 

Actually, cannibalism among other races in distant places was already a popular motif in literature. The Puritan moralist Daniel Defoe’s The Life and strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner appeared in 1719 and was translated into many languages, including German; its character Friday is the escaped prisoner of a group of cannibals, and cannibalism is front-and-center in this and subsequent Robinsonades as an identifying feature of so-called “primitive peoples:” black Africans, red Indians, brown South Pacific islanders and Aztecs. It even made its way into horrific episodes of European history in its colonizing enterprises. By the time Halm wrote his narrative, the ghastly real-life tale of the Medusa, shipwrecked off the coast of Mauritania in West Africa, had played out in 1816 and had been immortalized in Théodore Géricault’s famous painting, displayed at the Paris Salon of 1819. Of the 147 people crowded onto that infamous raft, only 15 survived, and some of those who died were victims of cannibalism. For those familiar with the painting, the apex of the giant triangle formed by Géricault’s design for this work is the beautifully heroic body of a young black man who has just spotted the distant rescue ship on the horizon. 

But Halm inverts the cannibalistic theme by turning Jupiter into a willing sacrifice for white men and women to eat—a pelican. In animal symbolism, the pelican represents Christ shedding his own blood for the sake of the world, analogous to legends by which female pelicans nourished their young with the blood from their breasts. Halm was a pious Catholic, one discovers from many of his poems, but this is the only reference to Christianity in the poem, and it is oblique. To stage a black man as the hero is, of course, the cultural gelignite here; abolition was a cause that mattered deeply to Halm; in his last years, he began writing a play about John Brown and the 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry but did not live to finish it. 

“In der Südsee” also confronts other aspects of “Negermythos,” myths about Africans in the late 18th- and 19th centuries, among them notions of primitive sexuality that musicians will associate with Monostatos in Die Zauberflöte. Mozart, who always creates three-dimensional characters, enlists our partial and qualified sympathy for the slave who lusts after Pamina by making clear Monostatos’s enslaved condition, his longing for the love others enjoy, and his self-hatred; he has taken onto himself the fear and loathing of black skin felt by many Europeans. “I know that your soul is as black as your face,” Sarastro tells him before condemning him to be whipped. The scene in Halm’s first chapter in which Jupiter tries to woo Miss Lucy with an apple and then solicits her permission for a kiss both revives the earlier literary slave’s poignant assertion that he too, like everyone else, wants love and yet turns aside from Monostatos’s repeated attempts at rape. This poem belongs to the ongoing European project to assert that Africans were human beings who should not be enslaved and who had hearts and souls like their own. 

 
There is not room enough or time in this venue to invoke more than a selected few of the numerous sources from which Europeans like Halm could follow debates about the slave trade and the nature of Africans ---there are chronicles by escaped slaves, there are newspaper accounts, travel literature, historical accounts, novels, short stories, plays, poems, and more. One of the earliest histories of the slave trade to appear in the German-speaking world was Albert Hüne’s Complete Historical and Philosophical Account of All Manner of the Negro Slave Trade from its origins to its complete abolition, published in 1820; this mammoth compendium is filled with horrifying statistics about those nations (England, Spain, Portugal, America, Holland) most engaged in trafficking slaves. In literature, you find poems such as Johann Gottfried Herder’s five Neger-Idyllen, Negro Idylls, in which the late 18th-century philosopher argues passionately for recognition of full African humanity, as well as ballads about the appalling conditions on slave ships; Heine’s masterpiece, “Das Sklavenschiff,” “The Slave Ship,” and Adelbert von Chamisso’s “The Negroes and the Puppets,” adapted loosely from a French poem by Pierre-Jean de Béranger, tell of ship captains fretting about saleable slaves dying before they can be sold; Halm had a distinct penchant for Heine and echoes him on occasion in his own poems. And one cannot forget the enormous influence of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionist novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin of 1852, which appeared in Germany in at least 75 different editions in the last half of the 19th century. For disillusioned Germans in the wake of the failed 1848 revolutions, Stowe’s novel became a focus of liberal sentiment; one critic even compared little Eva to Goethe’s Mignon. 

Before I modulate to Brahms, one further note: I find it enormously moving that Jupiter is not a “black prince” like the 17th-century writer Aphra Behn’s famous character Oronooko and that he does not consider himself fortunate after the manner of Olaudah Equiano, a former slave who wrote in his 1789 autobiography that despite the hardships of his earlier existence, he was among the most blessed of mortals. Halm’s Jupiter knows full well that he has had to “make do” with the merest scraps of the richer, fuller existence given to others, but whatever his resentment, he turns the negations of his fate into self-sacrifice for the good of one he loves and a means of escape from life’s harshness. The refusal of any conventional “lieto fine” is a defining hallmark of Halm’s storytelling poem.
* * * * 

Score    

What does Brahms make of Halm’s shocking nugget of alienation? The first thing one hears is a potent variation on Schubert’s “Ihr Bild,” a work of enormous influence on later 19th-century composers; one hears it echoed at the start of Liszt’s B minor Sonata and again here. The earlier Heine song begins with two bars of empty octave B-flats, and this song – more than half a century later -- begins similarly with two bars of empty octave D’s, the tonic pitch in a D minor song. But their rhythmic manifestation sets the stage for a song just as bitter in its alienation as the Heine-Schubert masterpiece. Like Schubert, Brahms sounds the initial low bass pitch on the downbeat, with no anacrusis, and then immediately echoes it on the weak half of the first beat. How to interpret Brahms’s “wedge”-accent/decrescendo markings in mm. 1-2 is only the beginning of the song’s complexities: do we place more emphasis on the lowest bass pitch directly on the downbeat and make the echo softer, in a context that never strays from piano? This beginning is different from Schubert’s runic two measures in its staccato “bite,” its contained violence, and its different rhythmic profile. Further bitterness ensues when the singer joins the proceedings with Halm’s catalogue of all those cherished things that give us roots, identity, and a raison d’être. It isn’t that this speaker once had the felicities of wife, home, and child, and then lost them: they have never been his. Therefore, Brahms devises ways to make both the adjective “kein, keine” and the nouns that follow these negations memorably emphatic. A novice music theory student, given Brahms’s first vocal phrase and told to harmonize it in D minor, would almost certainly set the word “Haus” on the downbeat of m. 3 as the first fully fleshed-out D minor tonic chord of the song, in the wake of those skeletal tonic pitches. Not Brahms: he sets the F in the vocal line to an augmented mediant triad on F, in second inversion with C-sharp in the bass---an unexpected, harsh, and very arresting choice of something to do with the leading tone of the key. “What is it?”, we ask in puzzlement, trying to make sense of the gesture . . . a kind of beefed-up appoggiatura to the tonic chord, which appears on the ordinarily weak second beat of the measure (still more deliberate wrong-footing)? A bizarre stand-in for the dominant, sharing the pitches A and C-sharp from the V chord but with F in place of E? The Brahmsian threefold doubling of the leading tone, the sheer weight of the chord and its placement on the downbeat, give it an undeniable electric charge, dominating the first half of each miniature musical strophe. Eight times in a song only twenty bars long, we hear this progression; lest we miss its importance, Brahms marks its first occurrence sforzando, in the wake of the first two soft measures. Every two-bar or four-bar unit in this song, by the way, is a decrescendo . . . until the final phrase. 

Brahms, that consummate master of rhythmic and metric intricacies, seized upon Halm’s bitter depiction of human existence as a straw blown about in stormy weather to make 3/8 meter a matter of maximum instability. The combined rhythmic-motivic gesture in the piano whereby the bass pitch sounds on the stronger first half of the beat and its echo in the right hand on the second half, is tossed about like a straw in the wind throughout the last four bars of each mini-stanza: “So wirbl’ ich, ein Strohhalm” indeed. Brahms begins the two curt lines of poetry on the third beat of the measure, but treats it like a downbeat, the start of a two-leg sequential descending progression with each leg comprising three beats (“So wirbl’ ich, / ein Strohhalm, /”). In a remarkable drive-to-cadence, the “wrong-footing” figure that dominates this song then sounds on every other beat: the third beat in m. 8, the second beat in m. 9, and finally the downbeat of m. 10, with its stark arrival at the unharmonized tonic pitch in the piano and voice. Never was a straw in the wind more strictly patterned to sound chaotic. 

In Halm’s narrative, this song is the last moment of Jupiter’s life, just before his pelican-like sacrifice. Brahms, aware of the entire story, creates a Lied pinned to D minor Death, a song that goes nowhere. One wonders whether Brahms had “Der Leiermann”---even more restricted in its musical means---in mind when he composed his own song of utmost alienation. Only five chords comprise its harmonic vocabulary: the augmented triad on F, the tonic chord, the dominant harmony (which only appears once, in m. 9), the subdominant (twice), the submediant (twice), and the Picardy third conclusion to a final plagal cadence that could not sound less ecclesiastical than it does here. The questioning inflection at the end for the query, “Was frag’ ich nach dir?”---is it rhetorical or not?---is cut off by the Picardy cadence, which puts a stop to any further minor-mode bitterness, as death puts a stop to life. Brahms’s variation at the close of the previous conclusive cadence, complete with tonic closure in the vocal line (“Wetter und Wind!”, mm. 9-10), is a masterful reading of Jupiter’s rhetorical question, “ . . . was frag ich nach dir?” in every detail, from the singer’s final word on the dominant pitch A, not D; the brief scalewise march up to that pitch; the crescendo to the ultimate D major harmony in the piano. It is difficult not to think of the final forte chord as the machete blow that ends the persona’s life. 

* * * 

What might it mean that Brahms was drawn to this text, of all texts, for the “last word” in his 94th opus? Brahms angrily batted away any inferences of autobiography in his art, but that does not mean that they are not there, however buried, encoded, and complex. We make art both out of what we are and what we know; songs contain both the abstract ordering of pitches, chords, and rhythms and the Jacob-wrestling-with-the-angel of existence that each of us undergoes in one way or another. For me, one of the most extraordinary tidbits in the story of Op. 94 has to do with the lost Halm song originally conceived for it and intended to precede “Kein Haus;” this vanished song was a setting of the eighth and last poem, “Was weht um meine Schläfe,” “What wafts about my temples like a mild breeze in spring,” taken from a poetic cycle entitled Wedding Songs, Hochzeitlieder. Brahms’s friend Elisabet von Herzogenberg, on whose judgment he relied, told him that Halm’s poem was not worthy of his music, and Brahms subsequently suppressed his setting of it, substituting “Sapphische Ode” on words by Hans Schmidt. What Elisabet disliked about Halm’s verses, we don’t know, but Schumann had much earlier set it to music in 1850 as “Geisternähe,” Op. 77, no. 3---surely Brahms knew it. Halm’s entire cycle is spoken in the embittered voice of a man unable to let go of obsessive fantasies about a woman he loved, someone who barely noticed him and married another man. Without the gall-laden seven preceding poems, Schumann could and did fashion something wistful, poignant, and sweet from the cycle’s “last thought.” By 1884, however, it had been a very long time indeed since Brahms engaged with a poem previously made into music by Schumann, and it sets all my capacities for speculation whirring into action that he did so at this juncture in his life. Certainly the poem’s themes of an irretrievably vanished past, of memory, longing, desire, and regret are shared with the other songs in op. 94, but the “ghostly nearness” of Schumann to Brahms is another truly intriguing aspect of the genesis of these songs. 

“Sapphische Ode,” which replaced “Was weht um meine Schläfe,” is a memory of bygone nocturnal kisses from a beloved who reciprocated the persona’s deep emotions; that the love was in the past and is now gone is evident. This song in D major, with a few telltale touches of D minor and G minor harmonies, is then followed by “Kein Haus, keine Heimat,” in which D minor is made harsh and minimal. If you perform the opus as a set, as Brahms once said was his wish, you are ambushed by this tonal connection between what seems like two incongruent works. Brahms would not appreciate my engaging in psychobabble tenuously linked to biography, but he did, of course, experience profound love with a prolonged, often difficult aftermath in renunciation. I wonder whether that aftermath might have entailed moments of especially galling alienation, of “Kein Weib und kein Kind” bitterness . . . never mind that au fond, he turned away any prospect of marriage and children. But aside from such fruitless speculation, the song itself remains in all its singularity. That Brahms would thus remove Halm’s creation from its context of slavery and shipwreck, that he would make of Jupiter a nameless universal representative of the rawest sense of male human isolation, is forever an astonishing act of artistic metamorphosis. In the end, the “drama” to which Brahms alludes in his subtitle is much bigger than any play or poem by Halm: it is the drama of existence itself, existence on the brink of death.

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