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Hugo Wolf: Peregrina songs

These two poems belong to a cycle of five by Eduard Mörike. Wolf’s Peregrina songs represent a rarity in his output, a diptych of sorts—neither piece entire of itself, but together forming a musical world that illuminates the explicit narratives within, and the implied narratives between two poems.

The Peregrina cycle appears in Mörike’s 1832 novel, Maler Nolten, but the poems that comprise it were written earlier. It has been suggested that by including these deeply personal texts in his novel, Mörike was attempting a fictionalization of the tortured eroticism they contain. Indeed the poems are concerned with a deeply personal experience—his intense love affair, and subsequent rejection of the (by all accounts) captivatingly beautiful, maddeningly enigmatic Maria Meyer.

For Wolf’s part, he was not privy to the particular circumstances surrounding Mörike’s composition of these texts (he learned of the Meyer episode later). But his reading of these two poems in music is uncanny. I love how these songs work musically and structurally: the tension between G-natural, native to the E-flat major of Peregrina I, and G-flat, a chromatic pitch—a tension which Wolf works into the leitmotif with which the first song ends, and the second begins. At the start of Peregrina II, little seems changed, until just before the vocal entrance, we’re surprised with a cadence in G-flat major! The brief leitmotif (introduced in the final vocal phrase of Peregrina I: “der Tod im Kelch der Sünden”) has, in Peregrina II become a kind of obsessive thought, haunting the song.

I’m haunted by these songs, in the best way. Addicted to the layers of experience they contain, and the meanings they suggest. 

Hugo Wolf and Eduard Mörike: Die Geister am Mummelsee

We begin our week with a horror story in the Black Forest. One of my favorite things about the study of poetry and music is opening my imagination to the world in which these magnificent compositions were birthed. Take a journey with me now to Stuttgart in the 1820s where we meet a twenty-something year old named Eduard Mörike who was studying to be a clergyman but along the way found a passion for writing. We are in the height of German Romanticism and the fascination between our earthly, mortal existence as juxtaposed to the greater and more powerful universe around us. Science has developed enough to begin explaining how nature functions, but for the Romantic thinkers this practical understanding of nature only sparks a deeper awe for the almighty powers that created the universe in the first place. Time and time again in the writing of the German Romantics there is a mortal character as the central figure of the story who encounters an unexplainable—often fearful—supernatural presence. The key for the Romantics, however, is these ghostly forces don’t impose their wrath onto mortals, rather the turmoil comes from within the human and is projected onto the scene, often stunning them until it is too late and our protagonists meet their fate. Thus sets the stage for our 1829 ghost story.

Deep between hills in the northern Black Forest, our protagonist has found the beautiful lake Mummelsee. It is past twilight and the Forest has gone to sleep. Across the lake are small glowing lights coming down from the mountains and the sound of unfamiliar songs. Our speaker soon realizes he has found the ghosts of Mummelsee and they are having a funeral procession for their King. Captivated by their beauty and how the ghosts float above the lake without disturbing the peaceful water, the mortal hides in the bushes seemingly unnoticed. Soon the lake opens up and the ghosts float under for the final stages of their burial procedures. The lake and surrounding forest turn green from the ghosts’ underwater fires. Suddenly, the spirits sense an intruder and swarm out of the water towards the shoreline, only to bring our narrator to his demise.

The Ghosts at Mummelsee
What is coming down from the mountain there
With torches so splendid at midnight so late?
Will there be a dance or perhaps a feast?
The songs sound so feisty.
   O no!
But tell me, what might that be?

What you see is a funeral train,
And what you hear is lamenting.
Due to sorrow for the Sorcerer King,
They are bringing him back again.
   Oh my!
Those are the ghosts of the lake!

They glide down the valley to the lake—
They are treading now on its surface—
Touching it with their feet, yet walking dry-shod—
They whir about in muted prayer—
   O look,
A woman all aglitter at the bier!

Now the lake opens its sparkling green gate;
See how they submerge!
A real set of stairs emerges now,
And—down under, songs being hummed already,
   Do you hear?
They are singing him to rest down there.

How lovely the fires glow on the water!
They flare and then turn green;
Fog moves in clusters along the shore,
The pond is turning into a sea—
   Be still!
Is there something stirring out there?

In the middle a twitching—For heaven’s sake! Help!
They come back again, they are coming!
A bellowing in the reeds, a crunching in the rushes;
Make haste, take flight!
   Away!
They sense trouble, they are on my tracks!

Translation: Charles L. Cingolani

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