im abendrot

In orchestra recently we have been working on Strauss’ Four Last Songs, for soprano and orchestra. The words sung by the soprano are poems. Herman Hesse, a German-Swiss poet who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1946, supplied the first three. The final song, “Im Abendrot” is a poem from an earlier German romantic writer named Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff (1788-1857). While all of the songs have a grandeur to them, “Im Abendrot” in particular draws my imagination out to explore.

I don’t speak or understand German, so my initial impression of the song was based purely on the melody of the soprano line and the orchestral accompaniment. Actually, my initial impression came from our orchestra’s first rehearsal of the song, without the soprano at all. After several weeks of playing it in orchestra, “Im Abendrot” had furrowed into my brain. I finally looked it up on Youtube to find recordings of it by many sopranos, including Renee Fleming, Kiri Te Kanawa, and Jessye Norman. After listening to a couple of recordings I looked up the lyrics.

Wir sind durch Not und Freude
gegangen Hand in Hand;
vom Wandern ruhen wir
nun überm stillen Land.Rings sich die Täler neigen,
es dunkelt schon die Luft.
Zwei Lerchen nur noch steigen
nachträumend in den Duft.

Tritt her und laß sie schwirren,
bald ist es Schlafenszeit.
Daß wir uns nicht verirren
in dieser Einsamkeit.

O weiter, stiller Friede!
So tief im Abendrot.
Wie sind wir wandermüde–
Ist dies etwa der Tod?

We have gone through sorrow and joy
hand in hand;
Now we can rest from our wandering
above the quiet land.Around us, the valleys bow;
the air is growing darker.
Just two skylarks soar upwards
dreamily into the fragrant air.

Come close to me, and let them flutter.
Soon it will be time for sleep.
Let us not lose our way
in this solitude.

O vast, tranquil peace,
so deep at sunset!
How weary we are of wandering—
Is this perhaps death?

Before reading them, the scene the song put me in was a large forest at night, near a river, with a deep blue sky peppered by stars. Almost correct. The orchestra provides a vivid cinematic backdrop for the weary singer to rest in. It is uncertain what the nature of this rest is, whether it be temporary or permanent, but the text does carry a certain finality. The final line, “Ist dies etwa der Tod?” leaves the reader to wonder. The sun is setting on the day, but will it rise again in the morning? The speaker doesn’t know, but neither does she sound frightened by the possibility of dying. To the contrary, the idea is welcoming and comforting.

It is also worth noting that she is not alone in her penultimate paradise. She has a we. Being a romantic poem, and given the appearance of the two skylarks, it is safe to assume that she is alone with her love, not a group. Without her love she would be wandering alone in “this solitude.” It has not been an easy solitude to navigate, but her love has remained with her throughout it, hand in hand. The love this poem describes is steady and mature, not leaving when the joy succumbs to sorrow, not leaving when the day succumbs to night, and probably not leaving when life succumbs to death. My orchestra’s conductor says that the viola’s response to the singer’s final line means “No, this is not the end.” It is safe to assume that for whatever comes next (or beyond), the two will remain to be together.

I have been weary recently. Weary does not necessarily mean sad, although the two can be experienced together. Weary just means needing rest. Much has transpired over the last two years, and now, in some ways, I feel like the wandering I’ve been doing has come to an end. Now it is time for rest. This might explain my recent lack of impulsion to write poems and essays; I’ve returned to simply journaling before bed.

Wandering has made me weary, but it has also brought me to a beautiful, quiet land. Like Father Zosima’s new world in the Brothers Karamavzov, my quiet land is filled with “divine gifts around us: the clear sky, the fresh air, the tender grass, the birds.” So it is time to rest. Is this perhaps death? No.

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