Over harp-plucked arpeggios, woodwinds and strings, the full-blooded soprano soars; dark and dramatic, she sweeps me up into this evocation of a relationship gone wrong. I lose my bearings, lost in the myriad modulations: So this is the architecture of breakdown, this is the fog that enfolds when rhythm becomes unfixed and tone has no home. I cling to the words of the poem, the poem that Ingeborg Bachmann slipped into a letter to her ex-lover, Paul Celan. For all its dissonance, the music is ravishingly lyrical, alternating vehement strings with the understated violence of woodwinds.
Wohin wir uns wenden im Gewitter der Rosen,
Ist die Nacht von Dornen erhellt, und der Donner
Des Laubs, das so leise war in den Büschen,
Folgt uns jetzt auf dem Fuß.
Wo immer gelöscht wird, was die Rosen entzünden,
Schwemmt Regen uns in den Fluß. O fernere Nacht!
Doch ein Blatt, das uns traf, treibt auf den Wellen
Bis zur Mündung uns nach.
Wherever we turn in the storm of roses,
The night is lit up by thorns, and the thunder
Of leaves, once so quiet within the bushes,
Rumbling at our heels.
Wherever the fire of roses is extinguished,
Rain washes us into the river. O distant night!
Yet a leaf, which once touched us, follows us on waves
Towards the river’s mouth.
Do you know, my love, the story that gave rise to this anguished song? It goes like this: At the crossroads of the twin plagues, in 1942, a young man from a German-speaking Jewish family tries in vain to persuade his parents to escape while there is still time. The parents stubbornly insist on staying; in a fit of anger the son leaves the house. That very night, the Masters of Death come to arrest his parents. In a forced labour camp the father dies of disease; worked to exhaustion, the mother is shot in the head. Wracked by guilt, the son is overcome, traumatized by the consequences of what he did and failed to do. He survives the war, and three years after its end moves to Paris. There, writing in German, he pursues the practice of poetry.
In Austria, in 1938, a twelve-year-old girl finds her father jubilant after the incorporation of her country into the Third Reich. A full-fledged Nazi from the earliest hour, he is finally free to openly devote himself to the Masters of Death. She grows up to become a famous poet, known for her visceral opposition to Fascism. Torn between her passion for truth and her need to deny, she will never be frank about her father.
In Germany, in 1935, a nine-year-old boy is enrolled in the Hitler Youth. In 1942 he begins his musical studies. In 1944 he is conscripted and promptly captured; he waits out the war in a British prisoner-of-war camp. After the war, he resumes his studies and becomes a composer. In 1953, elated as if rescued from a disaster—from the beginning he had hated the Masters of Death—he crosses the Alps into Italy, the country in which he will make his home.
In Vienna, in January 1948, the Austrian poet meets the poet from the crossroads; they strike up a friendship, and later a love affair. In Paris, in 1950, they live together for two months. The relationship is turbulent; the couple never manage to set it on a stable footing. In 1952 the poet from the crossroads marries a French woman. That same year, the Austrian poet meets the German composer; a year later, she visits him in Italy and they end up living and working together (he is homosexual). She writes ‘In the Storm of Roses’. A few years later, she adds a second stanza and sends it to the poet in Paris. The new stanza speaks of a leaf he had given her; she says in her letter that though the leaf is no longer in her medallion, it is not lost: She still thinks of him. The composer sets the poem to music. In 1970, in Paris, the poet from the crossroads jumps off the Pont Mirabeau and drowns himself in the Seine. In 1973, in Rome, the Austrian poet—no longer living with the German composer—suffers serious burns when an unextinguished cigarette sets her bedroom ablaze. Hospitalized, she is deprived of the barbiturates she is addicted to and suffers seizures as a result. She dies a few weeks later. The German composer is devastated by her death; his music takes a darker turn. When they would write to each other, they would often write in Italian, and occasionally English and French: Where the poet from the crossroads cultivated an ever-greater intimacy with the German language, the two friends who felt ashamed of their parents and homeland needed to distance themselves from it. Listen! The singer ends the song, speaking of a leaf floating towards the mouth of a river.
Did you hear, my love, in the maelstrom of this music, the nexus of relations in which the song arose? Did you hear the anguish at the intersection of history, family, and vocation? In sum, did you hear how happiness is overcome by horror?