Lärm im Spiegel (Noise In The Mirror)
by Erich Kästner
Six Songs on Poems from Erich Kästner‘s "Lärm im Spiegel" (Noise In The Mirror)
When picking these six poems from Kästner’s Lärm im Spiegel , my first criterion was simply a certain affinity to the overall melancholy of these poems. At second glance I realized that they stood out in that they all described Kästner’s personal experiences in his early drab years in Berlin as an upcoming journalist and poet, namely loneliness, emotional insecurity, a broken-up intense affair, confinement to miserable sub-logings in the poor quarters of Berlin.
Kästner’s style is journalistic but "disciplined" by metre and rhyme: short sentences; simple, banal non-poetical but surprising comparisons which arouse the reader’s curiosity – thus the beginning of the first poem: "Having known each other for 8 years … their love got lost like others forget a walking-stick or their hat ..." .
The over-all structure of these songs is as follows:
A. The first line(s) of the poem set(s) the condition in which are the persons concerned. Beforehand, in the typical introductory bars of the piano solo, this condition should be already musically existent and then serve as the main accompaniment.
B. An apparently insignificant event or action brings into the light the acuteness of a hidden problem. This asks for an appropiate echoing or reinforcement in the piano part.
C. The outcome is disappointment and frustration if not muted despair. As a composer I feel that in most cases the listener should not be left at that point, but should be granted a placable musical afterthought.
I. Sachliche Romanze (Factual Romance)
After eight happy years this couple realizes that their love "got lost like others lose a walking-stick or their hat" . They "try kisses as if nothing was wrong" and, looking at each other, do not know how to "go on" . When tears come to the woman's eyes, the man simply "stands by" , instead of taking her in his arms. As a skip action, they go to a café where they sit for hours locked in fatal mutism.
Broken phrases, unstable harmonic sequences: from the first bar onwards, the disturbed relationship of this couple who lack communication but are nevertheless fixated on one another is illustrated musically.
The factual narrative tone of poem and accompaniment serve as an introduction to this cycle of six melancholic songs which reflect experiences of Erich Kästner (1899-1974) in his early Berlin years.
Sachliche Romanze (Factual Romance) - Perusal score
Sachliche Romanze (Factual Romance) - Audio
II. Die sehr moralische Autodroschke (The Moral Taxi)
A man accompanies a pretty, married woman home in a taxi. When the car moves round curves, their knees touch. Conscious of possible erotic implications, both tremble but try to resist to this temptation – she by talking of her husband, he by staring out of the window though she is constantly looking at him (expectantly?). Finally, he takes resort to telling her a (silly) joke. When they arrive at her home and part with a formal handshake, he believes this to be a good end to this ambiguous experience. But later, when in his room, he tramples on his hat in a fit of anger about this missed unique chance.
In this song version, when the soprano establishes the initial situation sketched above, mentioning a wonderful starlit night, the piano accompanies her in crystalline treble A-Major chords. But when their knees touch and when they both tremble with apprehensive expectation, the piano has changed to a warm, erotic Bb-Major, which – constantly interchanged with its mediant (D-minor) in a low register – creates a mystic atmosphere of promise.
The final handshake is musically questioned by a surprising, i.e., false major chord. In the end, the man’s outburst of anger is underlined by disharmonious chords and the seemingly final chord is instable – for then (in the initial "starlit" A-Major treble) a hesitatingly evolving short postlude suggests an afterglow of those magic moments in that taxi.
Die sehr moralische Autodroschke (The Moral Taxi) - Perusal score
Die sehr moralische Autodroschke (The Moral Taxi) - Audio
III. Meier IX. Im Schnee (Meier IX. In The Snow)
Meier being one of the most common family names in Germany, one could paraphrase the title as "Mr Everyman #9 in the Snow". This Meier-Everyman, an inveterate city-dweller from Berlin, having just arrived in the snow-clad Alps, is standing utterly lost in the ominous open where the snowflakes "dance a ballet" , where big mountains "are watching" and where a brook is obtrusively "chattering" .
The piano sets the mood in high treble with arpeggio chords in the right and a descending bassetto line left, imitating the falling crystalline snowflakes. This motive also serves as accompaniment for five episodes describing the white world around him and which each are interrupted by recitative-like reflections of Meier which show how lost and estranged he feels. While the snowflake motive is anchored in highly set glassy G-Major, the recitatives are supported by the piano in lower-set, darkish-hued flat keys. They are formally clumsy and so echo Meier’s rather abstruse comments on the silent, white alpine beauty around him.
Concluding, Meier fears insomnia for the first nights for the lack of Berlin’s noise, a longing to which the final sweet chords in the piano give an ironic echo.
Meier IX. Im Schnee (Meier IX. In The Snow) - Perusal score
Meier IX. Im Schnee (Meier IX. In The Snow) - Audio
IV. Repetition des Gefühls (Repetition of That Feeling)
The first line of the text sets the situation: “One day she was there again” stopping over at his home on her way to the Alps. Is their mutual paleness a sign of aging or of nervous (erotic) expectation, which her sudden shifts of mood and her emphasis that she must leave the next day also suggest?
The music, after a short narrative introduction, echos the ambiguous situation with a sequence of instable, hesitating harmonies (alterations, shifts, retards). But when – in a reaction to her sudden tears – he caresses her hair, the music starts to swing gently with a blues-motive in the left and a sweet harmonisation in the right hand. Very discreet, the text here only says: “...and things evolved like long ago” and leaves details to our imagination, which the music supports with a tender interlude in treble register. The music ends with an ambiguous chord. Then, a sudden rude harmonic shift introduces the barren musical background to next morning’s disillusion: they are still the strangers they were before.
When she gets on her train to the Alps, they do not kiss goodbye, but “simply wave, and their hearts, lying on the tracks, are crushed” by the leaving train. The singer ends on a prolonged tone above which we hear a tender reminiscence of that nocturnal swinging motive.
Repetition des Gefühls (Repetition of That Feeling) - Perusal score
Repetition des Gefühls (Repetition of That Feeling) - Audio
V. Eine Mutter zieht Bilanz (A Mother Takes Stock)
This poem is the complaint of a lonely mother about her son who lives in distant Berlin. He rarely writes her a letter and has not even sent her a photograph of his fiancée. She doubts that she will be invited to their wedding. The mother once boldly bought a railway ticket for a surprise visit to her son, but soon discouraged she was lucky that she could hand it back. She still keeps the little shoes her son once wore, dreaming of the happy times when they both lived "in the same house, in the same town" . Desolate, she concludes that it would be best if children stayed "little" .
The composition assumes that this poem is rather a habitual complaint than one definite, final "taking stock" as the title suggests. Thus the music starts moving repetitively in a limited harmonic and melodic scope. But at her bold decision to take the train to Berlin, the piano part opens up into the heavenly treble from which an ever so sweet sequence of sixths descends. Her discouraged draw-back is echoed by a dense number of harmonic shifts between flats and sharps, minors and majors. A short interlude leads to a more lively bickering, barren musical part where her thoughts, tinged by jealousy, deal with her son‘s imminent marriage.
When her thoughts soften and she gets absorbed in reminiscences of his childhood days, the exact repetition of the music of the beginning has somehow magically assumed a nostalgic hue. The postlude, ascending and hesitatingly descending again, both in purest Eb Major (the traditional key of love) illumines her desperate, futile wish that children might better not grow up.
Eine Mutter zieht Bilanz (A Mother Takes Stock) - Perusal score
Eine Mutter zieht Bilanz (A Mother Takes Stock) - Audio
VI. Lob des Einschlafens (In Praise of Falling Asleep)
One cannot help feeling that this poem should rather be titled "Problems in Falling Asleep", for that is what it is all about: the poet lives as a lodger (roomer) in a poorly isolated room, typical for moneyless young bachelors like Kästner himself in his first years in Berlin. Tired and sleepy he cannot relax because of the uncontrolled laughter of a guy in the next room in company of a lady wearing little noisy, hard-soled shoes.
Furthermore, he is assaulted by doubts about his life in general; finally, when about to really doze off, he is assaulted by a frequent nightmare from which he awakes with a desperate cry.
In the end he resorts to counting sheep and finally is successful at number 73!
The basis of the composition is an undulating arpeggio in the piano right hand which, intermittently, is extended harmonically into the indefinite by the left hand crossing over.
This recurrent arpeggio motive suggests the dizzy state of mind of the drowsy poet. It is again and again interrupted by the above-mentioned disturbances, which the music paints in distant keys and harsh harmonies. The lied ends with the arpeggio – in an extreme ritardando – coming to a concluding standstill in a final chord: the poet has finally fallen asleep.