New songs from Anna Depenbusch

Anna Depenbusch (Bayerischen Rundfunks)

Anna Depenbusch, one of Germany's leading singer/songwriters, has been working on a new album for much of 2019. On November 4, she released the first of her new songs--"Kingfisher Frau"-- in an intimate performance from Berlin's Meisterhall, an historic concert venue built in 1910.

"Kingfisher Frau" is dedicated to pioneering German mathematician Emmy Noether, but it speaks eloquently about anyone who, to use Depenbusch's metaphor, breaks from the ranks of the chorus and sings a song of her own.

Under the video, I've posted my translation of the lyrics, taking care to match the cadences of the German. If this song is any indication, the album, entitled Echtzeit (Real Time) and due in February 2020, should be wonderful.




Come on, let her dream what she wants to--
she’ll do that anyway.
A director is handing out roles:
Don Juan and Romeo.

Amidst the choir, high shadow, half light,
right past the tenor a new face steps out,
glittering feathers and heart deep-sea blue,
and she’s singing her song--
Kingfisher Frau.

Come on, let her think what she wants to--
she'll do that anyway,
while the rest sing the song they’re supposed to
in an opera called Figaro.

But for you the stage here is just too small.
I think these supporting roles no longer fit.
You shine so much brighter than spotlights can shine,
and we hear your voice all the way up in the very back row.

Amidst the choir, high shadow, half light,
right past the tenor a new face steps out,
glittering feathers and heart deep-sea blue,
and she’s singing her song--

Now for you the stage here is just too small.
It’s been so long now since supporting roles fit.
You shine so much brighter than spotlights can shine,
and we hear your voice all the way up in the very back row.

Glittering feathers and heart deep-sea blue,
as you’re singing your song--
Kingfisher Frau.

Come on, let her say what she wants to--
She will shine anyway.


Depenbusch will record her new album in a studio, but in a single take and with a small audience. Hence the title, Echtzeit (Real Time).


Elgar's song of anguish and survival

Brinkwells: the cottage the Elgars rented in West Sussex 

Thoughts on the centenary of Elgar's Cello Concerto in E minor, first performed at Queen's Hall in London on October 27, 1919.

Imagine if Hamlet began with the Prince alone on stage, delivering the words, "To be or not to be . . . " -- no setting of the scene, just one character thinking out loud, leaving us to make what we can of what he says. Edward Elgar does the musical equivalent of that in his Cello Concerto, placing the listener in the middle of things from its first moments, with four insistent chords and then a quick fade into a diminuendo.

That's not the way most concertos begin. There's usually an extended orchestral introduction, after which the solo instrument makes a carefully stage-managed first appearance. In Dvorak's earlier Cello Concerto, for example, that opening music lasts a full three-and-a-half minutes.


Elgar in London in 1919, the year in which he composed the concerto

Elgar's abrupt beginning suits this highly concentrated work--about half as long as his Violin Concerto. What follows is a rising arpeggio on the cello that seems to promise some other, emphatic statement. Instead, we hear a subdued lament in 9/8 time, first in the violas, then by the cello and the full orchestra.

Elgar wrote the concerto during the first spring and summer after the First World War, often staying with his wife at a cottage in the south of England. This gently swaying melody is his elegy for all that had been lost--millions of lives, and, with them, faith in a social order that had sent foot soldiers armed with rifles and bayonets to face machine guns and  poison gas. The music seems to express both the numbed serenity of grief and the ache within it.

But the second movement brings a darting fantasy for the cello, with all the freedom of a bird in flight. What does this exuberance, which few cellists play without a smile, have to do with the solemn movement we've just heard? It reminds us, perhaps, that any elegy is both a celebration of what has been lost and an affirmation of a survivor's resilience. In the quiet andante of the third movement, the music breathes a middle-of-the-night atmosphere. The numbness of the first movement's main theme is long gone, and the simple but lovingly shaped melody unfolds with great tenderness.

Elgar marked the main theme of the finale risoluto (resolutely); if he had captioned the movement itself, as Beethoven used to do, he might have said: "Grief goes out into the world." There's a lively dialogue between cellist and orchestra, often in a swaggering mood that evokes the composer's Falstaff.

Eventually the cello retreats into an extended soliloquy, drawing together themes from throughout the work, now imbued with an even greater depth of feeling. Then, suddenly--as sudden as the four chords that began the work--cello and orchestra play eight bars in unison, and the concerto ends. We're left to wonder: does that brusque conclusion express resignation, or defiance?
  
The concerto had its first performance in Queen's Hall, London, with cellist Felix Salmond and the London Symphony Orchestra under the direction of the composer. Critic Ernest Newman described it as "the realisation in tone of a fine spirit's lifelong wistful brooding upon the loveliness of the earth." Elgar's own summary was more blunt: "A man's attitude to life."

Generations of cellists have been attracted to the concerto, by the beauty of its themes, by the close kinship among them and by the dramatic way in which they are presented and developed. Pablo Casals, Jacqueline du Pré, Steven Isserlis, Alisa Weilerstein and many others have recorded the work. Here is a gripping recent performance by Johannes Moser and the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Jacek Kaspszyk. (Moser had recorded the work for Pentatone.)





                                  (Photo of Brinkwells by Peter Whitcomb)

Walt Whitman: 200 Years On


For the 200th anniversary of the birth of our national poet (May 31, 2019), here are lines from Walt Whitman's 'Song of the Universal', which Norwegian composer Ola Gjielo has selected and set for chorus and orchestra. (You can hear a performance of the work from Spain at the first link below.) Whitman was one of the first writers who made me take poetry seriously, and I'm sure there are more echoes of his verses in own my work than I will ever find.

Come, said the Muse,
Sing me a song no poet yet has chanted,
Sing me the Universal.

In this broad Earth of ours,
Amid the measureless grossness and the slag,
Enclosed and safe within its central heart,
Nestles the seed Perfection.

By every life a share, or more or less,
None born but it is born—concealed or unconcealed, the seed is waiting.

Give me, O God, to sing that thought!
Give me—give him or her I love, this quenchless faith
In Thy ensemble. Whatever else withheld, withhold not from us
Belief in plan of Thee enclosed in Time and Space;
Health, peace, salvation universal.

All, all for Immortality!
Love, like the light, silently wrapping all!
Nature’s amelioration blessing all!
The blossoms, fruits of ages—orchards divine and certain;
Forms, objects, growths, humanities, to spiritual images ripening.

Written in 1871, this poem--considerably longer than the lines Gjielo selected--appears at the head of the 'Birds of Passage' section of Leaves of Grass. Is this Whitman's most succinct expression of his artistic credo? I think it might be.