Dr. Laurence Sherr / Kennesaw State University – USA /
Paper for the Colloquium of the XXIV. Forfest Festival, Kroměříž, Czech Republic, 2013
Spiritual Streams in Contemporary Art: The Global Threat for Art as a Cultural Phenomenon – The Growing Threat for the Spiritual Identity of People Today
A Musical Reflection of Sorrow, Redemption, and the Universal in Nelly Sachs' Poetry: Laurence Sherr's Holocaust Memorial Flame Language
My Holocaust memorial composition Flame Language, for voice with chamber orchestra or chamber ensemble, is a musical reflection of a poem by Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Nelly Sachs. It is my second setting of her poetry. Sachs’ poems are infused with deep spiritual meaning and a universal perspective, informed by her study of both Jewish and Christian mysticism. The themes of sorrow and redemption relate to her life during the Holocaust and provided inspiration for my work.
I encountered her work in depth when I began searching for texts for my first intentional Holocaust memorial composition. I found her poetry to be deeply moving, and as I was reading it I begin to hear music. Her multivalent content drew me in, especially those phrases that were historically and autobiographically specific, yet also general to the human condition. For that first Holocaust memorial composition, I chose a poem that reflected the experiences of displaced survivors, both those of the Holocaust and those of any upheaval. The poem also had personal meaning: like Nelly Sachs, my mother left Germany and survived the Holocaust in a neutral European country. I found inspiration for my composition in Sachs’ reflections on sorrow (“but for the homeless all ways wither / like cut flowers–”) followed by hope (“But we have found a friend / in exile: the evening sun.”). One set of lines provided the composition’s title: Fugitive Footsteps for baritone solo and mixed chorus (2002).
The pavements of the foreign city
were not laid for the music of fugitive footsteps–1
Several years later I decided to create another Holocaust memorial composition, the one that is the central focus of this paper. In Sachs’ oeuvre I once again found a poem that provided inspiration, and this new composition eventually came to be titled Flame Language. Starting with the line “The candle that I have lit for you,” Sachs’ poem addresses the pain and suffering of losing a loved one. It resonated with the losses I had experienced, especially those in my family history (my mother was the only member of her immediate family to survive the Holocaust). In Sachs’ case, it was the man she loved, the “beloved person” she recalls in the quote below. Sachs’ autobiographical references led me to more closely examine her life, especially as it was impacted by the Holocaust, to provide context for beginning my compositional work.
Nelly Sachs was born to a liberal Jewish family in Berlin in 1891. During her youth, she studied music, dance, and literature; she started writing poetry at age 18. Sachs was arrested and interrogated by the Gestapo in 1938,2 and in 1940, after being summoned to report to a “work camp,” she narrowly escaped to the neutral country of Sweden with her mother. Throughout the war they lived in poverty, occupying a one-room apartment in Stockholm. Sachs penned poetry that bears witness to the Holocaust and the tragedy of the Jewish people with words that were also universal, symbolic of the suffering and redemption of all humanity.
My whole life work emerged from this source, since during the seven years under Hitler a most beloved person was tormented to death and still I did not lose faith: it is our mission on earth to suffer through this dust, to bring it to light … .3
She remained in Sweden after the war, where she continued to write in German and to translate Swedish poetry. In 1966, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for her work, particularly that witnessing the Shoah. One summary describes both the spirituality in her work and its universal message:
Religious in its nature and intensely personal and universal at the same time, her poetry has a mystical and visionary quality like that of the pronouncements of the Biblical prophets. It reaches out beyond the material world into a realm of the spirit. The bitter laments of her early postwar poems gradually gave way to an identification of the fate of European Jewry with the suffering of all mankind and convey a message of peace and reconciliation.4
Faced with a range of choices about how to use the Sachs’ poem I had chosen for my new Holocaust memorial work, I made several aesthetic decisions. First, paralleling my language choice for Fugitive Footsteps, I opted to use an English translation rather than the German original. Second, I made the difficult choice to abandon the rhyme scheme of both Sachs’ original and the published English translation in order to create a new translation that would more closely mirror Sachs’ words and meaning. While the complete rationale for these aesthetic decisions is outside the scope of this essay, providing the listener with a more direct understanding and experience of Sachs’ poem, as it would be vocalized in my musical setting, was a primary motivation. I collaborated with my colleague Sabine Smith, professor of German at my university, and her expertise led to this new translation, which follows Sachs’ original below:
Die Kerze, die ich für dich entzündet habe
Die Kerze, die ich für dich entzündet habe,
Spricht mit der Luft der Flammensprache Beben,
Und Wasser tropft vom Auge; aus dem Grabe
Dein Staub vernehmlich ruft zum ewgen Leben.
O hoher Treffpunkt in der Armut Zimmer.
Wenn ich nur wüsste, was die Elemente meinen;
Sie deuten dich, denn alles deutet immer
Auf dich; ich kann nichts tun als weinen.5
The candle that I have lit for you
The candle that I have lit for you
Speaks quakes with the air of flame language,
And water drops from the eye; from the grave
Your dust distinctly calls to life eternal.
Oh exalted meeting place in poverty’s room.
If I only knew, what the elements mean;
They strive to understand you, for everything points always
To you; I can do nothing but cry.
© Copyright by Suhrkamp Verlag. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Suhrkamp Verlag. English translation by Drs. Sabine Smith and Laurence Sherr.
Further inquiry into Sachs’ life revealed that a crisis was precipitated when she learned, in the winter of 1943–44, that the man she had loved since youth had died in a concentration camp. Her reaction became the impetus for her poetry cycle “Gebete für den toten Bräutigam” (“Prayers for the Dead Bridegroom”). These appeared in the collection In den Wohnungen des Todes (In the Dwellings of Death), published in 1947. “The candle that I have lit for you” is the first of the ten poems in the cycle. Sachs described how these poems were created in the space of three nights, when she lay awake torn by pain. She envisioned the poetry, but did not risk turning on the light in the single room abode she shared with her mother (“poverty’s room”) so as not to disturb her mother’s sleep. She repeated to herself what she saw in the air “where the night was [torn] like an open wound.” In the morning, she wrote what she could remember. “I wrote like I was in flames. The images and metaphors are my wounds. Death was my teacher. I wrote in order to survive.”6 It was the beginning of her mature style.
It is not known whether Sachs yet knew about the concentration camp crematoriums as she composed the opening lines of “The candle that I have lit for you” in the winter of 1943–44. And so the question remains as to whether the words “Speaks quakes with the air of flame language” refer only to her candle, or possibly also to the burning of bodies in the Nazi death camps. However, there is no ambiguity in her contributions soon thereafter: “Your Body in Smoke Through the Air” was the working title of the poetry cycle she was writing in 1944–45,7 and she dramatically referred to the crematoriums in elegies such as “O the chimneys,” the first poem in this cycle.
O the chimneys,
On the ingeniously conceived houses of death,
When Israel's body rose as smoke
Through the air–8
Spiritual imagery and references pervade “The candle that I have lit for you.” Lighting a candle for a deceased loved one is a practice found in a number of spiritual traditions, and in Judaism a 24-hour candle is lit to commemorate each anniversary of the death of a family member, parent, or sibling. Concepts of universal life are also common in multiple spiritual traditions. Among influences in the spiritual realm that Sachs encountered during her life were Jewish mystical works such as the Kabbalah and Zohar, and writings by Martin Buber and the Christian mystic Jakob Böhme.9 Eastern mystical texts she read included the Tibetan Book of the Dead and the Rigveda.10 Found throughout Sachs’ work are references to the four elements from the Greek philosopher Empedocles; they “allude to an undecipherable creation secret hidden in death.”11 In “The candle that I have lit for you” this is illustrated by the line “If I only knew, what the elements mean,” where the “elements” could signify the merging of creation and death in a spiritual realm that is beyond human understanding, yet essential to its existence. The four elements are highly significant in “The candle that I have lit for you”: it may be her only poem to include a direct use of the word “elements” along with specific mention of all four of the elements themselves–“air,” “flame,” and “water,” with “dust” as a symbol for earth.12
“The candle that I have lit for you” begins and ends with sorrow. But moments of redemption and hope appear in the middle as the poet notes both the “dust” of her lover seeking eternal life and the “exalted meeting place” (of her lover’s spirit with hers, or of the elements?). Like the Sachs’ poem I used in my earlier composition, this poem contains such personal references interlaced with universal perspectives. One example is the third line of the poem where the water that “drops from the eye” (my emphasis) can be understood as humanity’s collective expression of grief for genocidal cruelty and murder.
Similar to my earlier composition, key words in the poem are the source of the title: Flame Language for baritone and chamber orchestra (2007), with a second version for baritone or mezzo-soprano with clarinet, cello, piano, and optional percussion (2008).13 While the version for chamber orchestra can now also be performed with a mezzo-soprano soloist, the rationale for using baritone voice in the original version was simple: I like lower voices, and three male singers with low voices were in the U.S. consortium that commissioned the work–baritone Daniel Gale, Cantor at Temple Beth-El in Birmingham, Alabama (who premiered Fugitive Footsteps), bass-baritone Oral Moses, Professor of Voice at Kennesaw State University in Atlanta, Georgia, and baritone Elliot Z. Levine of The Western Wind vocal ensemble in New York City.14 They deliver a richness and power that enhances the words and music. There is also advantage to having a female mezzo-soprano as the soloist–this provides identification with Nelly Sachs’ voice and the autobiographical elements of the poem.
During the composition of Flame Language, my aesthetic goal was to variously support, amplify, or reflect upon Sachs’ words while creating a musical setting that also captured the spirit of her elegiac poetry. To provide a foundation for the multivalent depth and richness of “The candle that I have lit for you,” I created a new musical texture for each successive phrase of poetry, most often with instrumental transitions between the singer’s vocalizations of these phrases. This gives my music, and the listener, a chance to reflect on each phrase’s meaning(s) before the next phrase is presented.
This concept is used in a more expansive format for the structure of the entire work: there is an instrumental interlude after the first strophe and an instrumental postlude following the second strophe. The instruments have a prelude before the singer enters. In addition to reflecting the words they precede or follow, each of these sections is inspired by the general ethos of Sachs’ poem, on one level, and is connected with the spirituality of her words on another. The Prelude is intended to set the character and mood of the piece before the poetry is sung, and in its three sections I begin to tell the story, as I imagined it, of the journey of the soul of her lover, starting just before his concentration camp death, and continuing thereafter. The musical narrative shifts as the words of the first strophe enter, and also begins to reflect the perspective of the poem’s narrator. All of these interwoven relationships of music to poetry continue as the composition unfolds.
This evolving flow of music and words resulted in a formal structure termed “through composed,” denoting a form that does not adhere to historical models where large sections recur in certain relationships. However, there is recurrence of a musical theme in Flame Language. The melody intoned by the singer at his/her first entrance, on the words “The candle that I have lit for you,” reappears at the end of the instrumental interlude between the strophes. There it is heard in several overlapped instrumental entrances, just before the lyrics “O exalted meeting place.” This same musical theme appears for the third time, contracted and embellished, just after “for everything points always / To you.” As may be apparent, these recurrences seek to tie together points in the poem where the narrator connects with the spirit of the lost loved one. Coherence of the composition’s formal structure is also gained.
Several other examples of musical style and character are significant. The singing style of Eastern European (Ashkenazi) cantors is utilized at several places where the poet is referring to herself: at the singer’s first entrance (“The candle I have lit for you”), and in short vocal cadenzas on the words “room” and “I” (of “I can do nothing but cry”). On the second-strophe words “for everything points always / To you,” the music gradually builds to the vocal climax of the piece, accompanied by full, sweeping instrumental gestures. Text painting can be heard at various points. The most apparent are perhaps the propulsive, percussive, and intense setting for the phrase “Speaks quakes with the air of flame language,” and the distant, otherworldly texture for “from the grave / Your dust distinctly calls … .”15 For all the sung poetry, the primary consideration in composing the musical material was the intelligibility of Sachs’ words as delivered by the singer and supported by the instrumentalists. As mentioned above, the intent was to enable audiences to understand the lyrics so they could have an immediate experience of Sachs’ poem through the vehicle of my music.
Flame Language has been performed in both orchestral and chamber versions. Bass-baritone Oral Moses and conductor Bridget Reischl of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music gave the premiere performance of the chamber orchestra version at my university in 2007. New York baritone Elliot Z. Levine performed the 2010 chamber ensemble premiere in Atlanta and Athens, U.S., with me as conductor. Czech mezzo-soprano Kristýna Valoušková was soloist for the first European performance at a 2011 Prague concert titled “A Holocaust Remembrance: Czech, Dutch, and American Chamber Music of Two Generations.”16
The richness of imagery and meaning in Nelly Sachs’ poem “The candle I have for you” provided the inspiration for my composition Flame Language. My goals were manifold: to create another Holocaust memorial composition enhancing her poetry, this one commemorating the victims, and to bring it to new audiences; to learn more about Sachs’ life and work, especially its parallels to my own family history; to increase Holocaust awareness through public outreach and educational events that would be associated with the work;17 and to pursue greater tolerance and understanding in contemporary society. As I planned and composed Flame Language, it seemed to me that all of these goals could be realized by giving voice to the interlaced streams of history, autobiography, spirituality, and the universal in her poetry. Sorrow and redemption are two conditions of human experience that our central to these streams. Both resonate with spiritual strivings that tie our collective past to awareness in the present and hopes for the future.
1 Nelly Sachs, O the Chimneys: Selected Poems, including the Verse Play, Eli, trans. Michael Hamburger, Christopher Holme, Ruth and Matthew Mead, and Michael Roloff (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1967), pp. 74–75.
2 Kathrin M. Bower, Ethics and Remembrance in the Poetry of Nelly Sachs and Rose Ausländer (Rochester, Camden House, 2000), p. 84.
3 March 24, 1959 letter from Nelly Sachs to Johannes Edfeldt in Nelly Sachs, Briefe der Nelly Sachs: Herausgeben von Ruth Dinesen und Helmut Müssener (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1984), p. 209. My colleague Sabine Smith provided guidance with this and other translations.
4 “Sachs, Nelly,” Biography Reference Bank (The H. W. Wilson Company, 1967), Web.
5 Nelly Sachs, The Seeker and Other Poems, trans. Ruth and Matthew Mead and Michael Hamburger, (New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970), p. 20.
6 Ehrhard Bahr, Nelly Sachs (München: Beck, 1980), pp. 47–48. Behr and others note that this event was also the impetus for the creation of her scriptural play Eli, which deals with the suffering of the Jewish people.
7 Bahr, pp. 214–215. The same title is used for the first cycle of poems in published collections containing In the Dwellings of Death. “Prayers for the Dead Bridegroom” appears as the second cycle, with the third and fourth cycles titled “Epitaphs Written in the Air” and “Choruses after Midnight.”
8 As translated in William H. McClain, “The Imaging of Transformation in Nelly Sachs’s Holocaust Poems,” Hebrew University Studies in Literature Vol. 8, No. 2 (Autumn, 1980): 281-300.
9 Bower, pp. 116–117 and 211, and Ursula Rudnick, Post-Shoa Religious Metaphors: The Image of God in the Poetry of Nelly Sachs (Frankfurt am Main: P. Lang, 1995), pp. 63–64.
10 Rudnick, p. 61.
11 Paul Kersten, Die Metaphorik in der Lyrik von Nelly Sachs mit einer Wort-Konkordanz und einer Nelly Sachs-Bibliographie (Hamburg: Lüdke, 1970), p. 67.
12 Kersten, pp. 67–68.
13 Score and audio excerpts from both versions are at http://ksuweb.kennesaw.edu/~lsherr/flame.html.
14 The ensembles in the commissioning consortium were The Bijou Orchestra in Bay City, Michigan, Leo Najar, Artistic Director, and the Kennesaw State University Orchestra, Michael Alexander, Director.
15 Laurence Sherr, Flame Language (Self-published, 2008).
16 This performance is online at http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLA959C9A41FB67E47. Also at this link is Elegy and Vision, my solo cello work whose use in Holocaust commemorative events motivated me to create the two intentional Holocaust memorial compositions using Sachs’ poetry.
17 I believe that it is essential to approach Holocaust education and awareness through art. Doing so engages peoples’ sensibilities and interest in a way that is very different from, but that nonetheless enhances, historical facts and accounts.
Bahr, Ehrhard. Nelly Sachs. München: Beck, 1980.
Bower, Kathrin M. Ethics and Remembrance in the Poetry of Nelly Sachs and Rose Ausländer. Rochester: Camden House, 2000.
Kersten, Paul. Die Metaphorik in der Lyrik von Nelly Sachs mit einer Wort-Konkordanz und einer Nelly Sachs-Bibliographie. Hamburg: Lüdke, 1970.
McClain, William H. “The Imaging of Transformation in Nelly Sachs’s Holocaust Poems.” Hebrew University Studies in Literature Vol. 8, No. 2 (Autumn, 1980): 281-300.
“Sachs, Nelly.” Biography Reference Bank. The H. W. Wilson Company, 1967. Web. 6 Apr. 2013.
Rudnick, Ursula. Post-Shoa Religious Metaphors: The Image of God in the Poetry of Nelly Sachs. Frankfurt am Main: P. Lang, 1995.
Sachs, Nelly. Briefe der Nelly Sachs: Herausgeben von Ruth Dinesen und Helmut Müssener. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1984.
Sachs, Nelly. O the Chimneys: Selected Poems, including the Verse Play, Eli. Translated by Michael Hamburger, Christopher Holme, Ruth and Matthew Mead, and Michael Roloff. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1967.
Sachs, Nelly. The Seeker and Other Poems. Translated by Ruth and Matthew Mead and Michael Hamburger. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970.
Sherr, Laurence. Flame Language for baritone or mezzo-soprano and chamber ensemble. Self-published, 2008.