For unfathomable reasons, the first snippet of German song I ever learned popped up out of the murk of memory this afternoon:
Ist das nicht ein Schnitzelbank?
Ja, das ist ein Schnitzelbank!
It was a call and response song, encountered in the dreaded music hour given thrice weekly by Mrs. Gieseke in fifth grade. The poor lady, gray-haired then and long dead, had a knack for choosing things for communal singing which were distinctly dated even in 1960. Her banging on the upright piano didn’t help.
I only recall the text of one other morceau: a man walks into a restaurant looking forward to a nice lunch, finds he has almost no money, and orders, “One fish ball”. The waiter smirks, and brings the fish ball. The customer requests bread. “You get no bread with one fish ball,” answers the server. That was the punch line. It always made me feel intensely sad for the man, and furious at the obnoxious waiter. And what was a fish ball, anyway? It may have been the traditional Jewish gefilte fisch, and the story seems a bit like a Jewish joke – but what did I know from that? The only fish I ever saw back in central Illinois were frozen fish sticks, not balls, fried in their pre-fab crust and smothered in ketchup to kill the icky taste as far as possible. (I only learned to love fish when on tour in northern Spain with the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra 25 years later.)
Mrs. Gieseke – pronounced GEESE-key, not GEE-zuh-kuh, may have chosen the Schnitzelbank opus out of consciousness of her German ancestry. I had no clue that her name meant “little goat” in Old German (she probably didn’t either), nor that it was German at all, nor yet that half the residents of Bond County were of German descent. My first love in kindergarten (a German word and idea, had I but known) was named Brentlinger (from Brändlinger, a survivor of a fire) – but names were just names, sounds with no further connotation than that of the person bearing it. They were like the last lines of the prayer I said out loud every night with my mother at an even more tender age: “If I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” What a grotesque sentiment to put into the mouth of babes! But the tyke reciting it had not the faintest concept of mortality.
I had to look up Schnitzelbank. I actually remember Mrs. G telling us it meant “cutting board” – but for what? Textiles? Meat? Paper? Turns out it’s what is called a “shaving horse”, a combined vise and workbench (formerly) used in woodworking – an object clearly beyond Mrs. G’s ken.
My true introduction to Lieder came at the Interlochen Arts Academy (Michigan, USA) in 1967-8. My girlfriend was a student of a moderately famous soprano named Janice Harsanyi. She was soloist in Eugene Ormandy’s Columbia recording of Carmina Burana, for one thing. Dulcissime, totam tibi subdo me! Apropos – I became the girl’s accompanist, and it was the perfect way to grab extra hours together in closed practice rooms. Stumbling over German love song texts while bent gemeinsam over the dictionary, and reveling in the melodies and piano parts of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Wolf and Richard Strauss... aside from other advantages, it opened up a whole new world. I returned to Interlochen as staff accompanist for Mrs. Harsanyi in the summer of 1969, wore the studly red pullover of office and tried to be modest about going to Juilliard that September. Janice was under the illusion that “Lieder can’t miss” (her words), what with the heightened sensitivity of the fleeting Summer of Love and general counter-culture atmosphere of the time. I fear she waited in vain for Schubert to supplant Bob Dylan.
But that summer I branched out into the French (Debussy, Ravel, Fauré!), English (Vaughan Williams – I still sing “On Wenlock Edge” in the shower), and later German repertoire (Das Marienleben of Hindemith, mighty Mahler orchestrations arranged for piano!).
The last time I accompanied Lieder in public on a grand piano was at a summer course at a public school near Bury St. Edmunds. It was located in a much-rebuilt Stately Home. I was informed that Thomas Weelkes had been music master to the then family while on forced leave from Chichester cathedral due to persistent blasphemy and drunkenness. His personal problems notwithstanding, Weelkes’ music was a brief but welcome respite from the likes of Andrew Lloyd Webber when Charles III was crowned at Westminster Abbey three days ago. I will refrain from comment regarding the subsequent “Coronation Concert” at Windsor. The monarchy needs to popularize itself, we are told. This seems to me contrary to the concept of monarchy, Gustav Leonhardt’s preferred form of government. “Democracy is like letting children make the decisions,” he told me once. “With a monarch you at least have a chance that policies will be correct.” Current developments may yet prove him right.
The ruined abbey of Bury St. Edmunds is where the English barons gathered to plan Magna Carta, the beginning of erosion of absolute monarchial power. Charles III has nothing at all to say about policy now. Would the United Kingdom be better off under him than under Boris Johnson?
May 9, 2023