Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Mendelssohn - Die erste Walpurgisnacht

Walpurgis night (Walpurgisnacht in German) is named after an 8th century English woman missionary St. Walpurga who traveled to the Germanic areas of Europe to convert the natives to Christianity. She was canonized on May 1st about 870. The celebration of Walpurgis night on April 30th is taken from the pagan folklore of a meeting of witches on the Brocken, the largest peak in the Harz mountain range in Germany. German poet Johann Goethe wrote the poem Die erste Walpurgisnacht (The First Walpurgisnight) in 1799 which was inspired by German folklore. Goethe wrote to his friend the composer Carl Friedrich Zelter:
...one of our German antiquarians has endeavoured to rescue, and to give an historical foundation for the story of the witches’ and devils’ ride on the Brocken, a legend which has been current in Germany, from time immemorial. His explanation is that the heathen priests and patriarchs of Germany, when they were driven from their sacred groves and when Christianity was forced upon the people, used to retire at the beginning of spring with their faithful followers to the wild, inaccessible heights of the Harz mountains, in order, according to the ancient custom, there to offer prayer and flame to the unembodied god of heaven and earth. And further, he thinks, they may have found it well to disguise a number of their own people so as to keep their superstitious foes at a distance, and that thus, protected by the antics of devils, they carried out the purest of services. I found this explanation somewhere, a few years ago, but cannot remember the name of the author. The idea pleased me, and I have turned this fabulous story back again into a poetical fable.”
Goethe wrote the poem with the intention of having it set to music by Zelter, but after two attempts the composer gave up. Zelter introduced his student Felix Mendelssohn to Goethe in 1821, after which Goethe told Zelter:
"Musical prodigies ... are probably no longer so rare; but what this little man can do in extemporizing and playing at sight borders the miraculous, and I could not have believed it possible at so early an age." "And yet you heard Mozart in his seventh year at Frankfurt?" said Zelter. "Yes", answered Goethe, "... but what your pupil already accomplishes, bears the same relation to the Mozart of that time that the cultivated talk of a grown-up person bears to the prattle of a child."
Mendelssohn took up Goethe's text in 1830 and completed the final version in 1843.  Goethe's poem portrays the tale as a prank between the remaining pagans and druid priests against the Christian guards that prohibit their ancient rituals of Walpurgis night. The cantata is in ten parts and begins with an overture that depicts the bad weather of winter that transforms to the milder weather of spring.

1) Overture
2) May Smiles At Us
Druid (Tenor)
May smiles at us!
The woods are free
of ice and hoarfrost

Chorus of the heathen
May smiles at us!
The woods are free
of ice and hoarfrost.
The snow is gone,
every green place
resounds with songs of pleasure.

Druid (Tenor)
A pure snow
lies on the peaks,
we haste upward,
to celebrate the ancient sacred rites,
to praise there the Father of All.
Let the flame blaze through the smoke!
Upward, upward!
Our hearts will be uplifted.

Chorus of the heathen
Let the flame blaze through the smoke!
Perform the old, sacred custom,
praising there the Father of All.
Upward! Upward!
Our hearts will be lifted.

3) Can You Act So Rashly?
Old woman of the heathens (Mezzo-soprano)
Can you act so rashly?
Do you want to go to your death?
Do you not know the laws
of our stern conquerors?
Their nets are set all around
for the heathen, the 'sinners'.
On the battlements they'll slay
our fathers, our children.
And we are all
nearing this sure trap.

Chorus of women
On the camp's high battlements
they'll slaughter our children.
Ah, the stern conquerors!
And we are all
nearing this sure trap.

4) Whoever This Day Fears To Bring A Sacrifice
The Priest (Baritone)
Whoever this day
fears to bring a sacrifice,
deserves his chains.
The forest is free!
The wood is ready,
prepare it for the burning!

Chorus of men
The forest is free!
The wood is ready,
prepare it for the burning!

The Priest (Baritone)
But we'll remain
in our wooded hideout
silently during the day,
and keep the men on their guard
for the sake of your concerns.
But then, with fresh courage,
let us fulfill our duty.

Chorus of men
Then let us with fresh courage
let us fulfill our duty.

The Priest (Baritone)
Spread out up here, brave men.

5) Spread Out Here Brave Men
Chorus of druid guards
Spread out here, brave men,
through the entire forest,
and watch here silently
as they perform their duty.

6) These Stupid Christians
One druid guard (Bass)
These stupid Christians -
let us boldly outsmart them!
With the every devil they invent
we'll terrify them.

Come! With stakes and pitchforks
and with flames and rattling sticks,
we'll make noise through the night
in these empty rocky gorges.

Chorus of druid guards
Come! With stakes and pitchforks
and with flames and rattling sticks,
we'll make noise through the night
in these empty rocky gorges.
The owls will howl at our racket!

One druid guard (Bass)
Come! Come! Come!

7) Come With Stakes And Pitchforks
Chorus of druid guards and heathen
Come with stakes and pitchforks
and with flames and rattling sticks,
we'll make noise through the night
in these empty rocky gorges.
The owls will howl at our racket!
Come! Come! Come!

The Priest (Baritone)
We've been brought so far,
that by night we
sing in secret to the Father of All!
Yet when it is day,
as soon as we may,
we bring you a perfect heart.

8) Yet When It Is Day
Chorus of druids and heathen
Yet when it is day,
as soon as we may,
we bring you a pure heart.

Priest and chorus
Today indeed,
and many times,
you've granted the foe success.
As the flame is purified in smoke,
so purify our faith!
And even if they rob us of our ancient ritual,
who can take your light from us?

9) Help, Oh Help Me
A Christian guard (Tenor)
Help, oh help me, fellow soldier!
Alas, all hell is coming!
See, how the bewitched bodies
glow with flames through and through!
Werewolves and dragon women,
passing by in flight!

Chorus of Christian watchmen
Frightening bewitched bodies,
werewolves and dragon woman,
Let us flee, let us flee!

A Christian guard (Tenor)
What a fearful scramble!
Let us, let us all flee!
Above flames and sparkles the evil one,
out of the ground
steams a hellish brew.

Chorus of Christian watchmen
What a fearful scramble!
Let us, let us all flee!
Above flames and sparkles the evil one,
out of the ground
steams a hellish brew.

Christian guard and Christian watchmen
Let us flee, let us flee!

Chorus of druids and heathen
As the flame is purified by smoke,
so purify our faith!

10) As The Flame Is Purified By Smoke
The Priest (Baritone)
As the flame is purified by smoke,
so purify our faith!
And even if they rob us of our ancient ritual,
who can take your light from us?

Chorus
Who can take your light from us?

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