One of the things we in the atheist/humanist community catch a fair amount of perhaps deserved ribbing for is the fact that our frustration is so constant a presence in our lives that it prevents us from stopping and enjoying the beauty of the humanity we abstractly champion. We are in such a hurry to be devastatingly clever that we don’t let ourselves be struck dumb on occasion by the beauty of humanity’s fancy. To remedy that, right here, every Monday, I’ll offer up a little bit of something lovely to ponder and enjoy before you head into the grotesque realities of the work week. It’s Humans are Great, and today we start with what happens when one of the greatest poets of all time meets two of our greatest composers:
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) was a creature from a different world, descended upon Germany with the goal of remaking its literature, breathing light and excitement and verse into a dreary, religion-obsessed landscape. After the scourges of Reformation and Counter-Reformation had done their best to render Central Europe a neurotic husk of a region, morbidly given to tallying and re-tallying its sins, a shift of focus to the lyric beauty of the smallest things was in order. Goethe provided this in so many ways, but one of his most beloved works tells the simple story of a violet standing in a field, hoping to be plucked by a passing maiden, but finding itself trodden by the same (as always, I ask your indulgence with my entirely arrhythmic translation):
Das Veilchen (1774)
Ein Veilchen auf der Wiese stand, A violet stood in a meadow,
gebückt in sich und unbekannt; Slightly stooped and unseen;
es war ein herzigs Veilchen. It was a sweet violet.
Da kam ein’ junge Schäferin Then came a young shepherdess
mit leichtem Schritt und munterm Sinn With light steps and a lively spirit
daher, daher, thence, thence,
die Wiese her und sang. To the meadow, while singing.
Ach! denkt das Veilchen, wär’ ich nur Ah! Thought the violet, if only I were
die schönste Blume der Natur, The most lovely flower in creation,
ach, nur ein kleines Weilchen, Ah, if only for a short while,
bis mich das Liebchen abgepflückt Until that maiden picked me
und an dem Busen matt gedrückt, And fastened me loosely to her breast,
ach, nur, ach nur Ah, if only, if only
ein Viertelstündchen lang! A few moments long.
Ach, aber ach! Das Mädchen kam And yet! The maiden came
und nicht in acht das Veilchen nahm, And didn’t notice the small violet,
ertrat das arme Veilchen. And trod upon the poor violet.
Es sank und starb, und freut’ sich noch: He sank and died, and rejoiced:
und sterb’ ich denn, so sterb’ ich doch And so I die, and so I die,
durch sie, durch sie, through her, through her,
zu ihren Füßen doch! Beneath her very feet!
There’s a Pixar short in there somewhere, but the point is that, after two and a half centuries of drab theological pondering, the Germans were waking to simple beauty and fragility again. And so they began setting the poem to song.
One of the great pleasures in life is listening to the same poem treated by different musical geniuses, and Das Veilchen gives us plenty to choose from. I’m going to pick two for your Monday morning, the first is Mozart’s setting of 1776, which includes the beautiful idea of recapitulating the line “Das arme Veilchen. Es war ein herziges Veilchen.” – a summary of everything that poor little flower was and hoped to be, swallowed up in an unmarked moment of shimmering impermanence:
And the second is by Clara Schumann (1819-1896), one of the greatest pianists of her time, and a thumping good composer as well. Her songs are something everybody ought to treat themselves to, particularly as there are so few of them (she refused to write any more after her husband, the great Robert Schumann, died in 1856) , and all are quite heart-rending. This is one of her later ones, hailing from 1854. The repetitions she uses are tellingly different, and don’t include the added final line:
And there you have it. Two bits of beauty about a poor little flower that got stepped on round about three centuries ago. I love little things like that – they are like big comfy blankets that keep us all warm under our shared human tradition. And I look forward to sharing more with you in the weeks and months and years to come.
Kathleen Battle’s recording of the Mozart (on Kathleen Battle in Concert with James Levine at the piano) is entirely wonderful. For Schumann, a copy of Dorothea Craxton’s rendition of the complete Schumann songs came into my hands just last week, and I’m going to guardedly say, fully recognizing that in the first flush of newness I tend to exaggerate, that it’s my favorite recording of them yet.