Friday, November 17, 2006


A Heathen Lament

Friedrich Schiller, Nänie (Lament, tr. Leonard Forster):

Even beauty has to die; what overcomes men and gods does not move the iron breast of the Zeus of the Styx. Only once did love soften the ruler of the shades, and even then he sternly called back his gift at the very threshold. Aphrodite cannot cure the lovely boy of the wound the boar savagely ripped in his delicate flesh. When the god-like hero falls at the Scaean gate and falling fulfills his destiny, his immortal mother cannot save him; but she rises from the sea with all the daughters of Nereus, and laments her glorified son. Look, the gods are weeping and all the goddesses too, weeping that beauty must pass, that perfect things must die. There is splendor even in this — to be a lament in the mouths of those we loved, for what has no distinction goes down to Orcus unsung.

Auch das Schöne muss sterben! Das Menschen und Götter bezwinget,
  Nicht die eherne Brust rührt es des stygischen Zeus.
Einmal nur erweichte die Liebe den Schattenbeherrscher,
  Und an der schwelle noch, streng, rief er zurück sein Geschenk.
Nicht stillt Aphrodite dem schönen Knaben die Wunde,
  Die in den zierlichen Leib grausam der Eber geritzt.
Nicht errettet den göttlichen Held die unsterbliche Mutter,
  Wenn er, am skäischen Tor fallend, sein Schicksal erfüllt.
Aber sie steigt aus dem Meer mit allen Töchtern des Nereus,
  Und die Klage hebt an um den verherrlichten Sohn.
Siehe! Da weinen die Götter, es weinen die Göttinnen alle,
  Dass das Schöne vergeht, dass das Vollkommene stirbt.
Auch ein Klaglied zu sein im Mund der Geliebten, ist herrlich,
  Denn das Gemeine geht klanglos zum Orkus hinab.

Schiller refers obliquely to three Greek myths:
  1. "Only once did love soften the ruler of the shades, and even then he sternly called back his gift at the very threshold." This is a reference to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Apollodorus 1.3.2 (tr. J.G. Frazer): "And when his wife Eurydice died, bitten by a snake, he went down to Hades, being fain to bring her up, and he persuaded Pluto to send her up. The god promised to do so, if on the way Orpheus would not turn round until he should be come to his own house. But he disobeyed and turning round beheld his wife; so she turned back."
  2. Adonis is "the lovely boy" whom "Aphrodite cannot cure ... of the wound the boar savagely ripped in his delicate flesh." The goddess of love, Aphrodite, loved Adonis, who was killed by a boar while hunting. See Ovid, Metamorphoses 10; Bion's Lament for Adonis; etc.
  3. Achilles is the "god-like hero" who "falls at the Scaean gate" of Troy, and "his immortal mother" who "cannot save him" is the sea-goddess Thetis. Homer, Iliad 9.410-416 (tr. A.T. Murray): "For my mother the goddess, silver-footed Thetis, telleth me that two-fold fates are bearing me toward the doom of death: if I abide here and war about the city of the Trojans, then lost is my home-return, but my renown shall be imperishable; but if I return home to my dear native land, lost then is my glorious renown, yet shall my life long endure, neither shall the doom of death come soon upon me." Achilles chose death with renown in battle at Troy.
Brahms set Schiller's poem to music in Nänie (opus 82, for chorus and orchestra), written in memory of his dead friend, the painter Anselm Feuerbach. Jan Swafford, Johannes Brahms: A Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), p. 464, writes:
In search of a text that would suit the neoclassicist Feuerbach, Brahms had happened on the verses after begging Lisl von Herzogenberg, "Won't you try to find me some words? ... The ones in the Bible are not heathen enough for me. I've bought the Koran but I can't find anything there either." The text he finally found is an evocation of the pagan and Classical world, a dirge once tragic and serene .... Perhaps no one but Brahms, with his constitutional reserve masking a feeling soul, could have set "Even the beautiful must die!" to a gently lilting, D major soprano melody that captures the sorrow of death and transcends it in the singing.

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