Reflections on the songs and storytelling featured in Lorina Gore’s upcoming recital, written by Megan Stellar
When we are young, we jump headfirst into stories, into magic and fantasy and make-believe. We spend hours occupied with the tales we have invented ourselves, play-acting them and recruiting others to take part.
I’ve been thinking about this recently: my seemingly lost ability to leave the reality of bills and deadlines for the creations of my imagination.
Of course, in 2020, we collectively experienced what has been, for many, the most challenging year of our lives so far. It has been harder to tumble into unknown worlds as the news marches forwards relentlessly, capturing our attention on every device whether we want it to or not.
I was bemoaning this situation recently when a Spotify playlist I had on shuffle as background music unexpectedly filled my speakers with Schubert’s famous setting of one of Goethe’s Erlkönig. I couldn’t recall adding it to the playlist in question; I would never consider this grand song ‘background’.
It caught me off guard – the driving tempo, the characterful storytelling, the distinctly colourful setting. In just four minutes, a whole night had passed, a tragedy had ensued, a life had been lost. What has been missing in these long days and nights at home? Stories! Fairy tales, of course, and tales of the supernatural, but also stories of love and romance, and lost love and deception, and stories of lives lived.
Who rides so late through the night and wind?
It is the father with his child.
He has the boy in his arms;
he holds him safely, he keeps him warm.
So begins Goethe’s Erlkönig, setting the scene for a pacey and devastating poem about a young child attacked by the Erlking who, in European folklore, is an evil elf waiting patiently for children who spend too much time alone in the woods.
The Erlking, though, lives amongst many good fairies and otherworldly creatures. In Liza Lehmann’s ‘There are fairies at the bottom of our garden’, these benevolent beings dance with the ‘butterflies and bees’ underneath lights held by rabbits. Lehmann’s narrator is, it happens, the queen of the fairies, who steals away in the evening after a long day of being a little girl.
But stories cannot all be fairies and gnomes and terrible elves – love must make an appearance. Many favourite operas extensively cover the life cycles of a love story; two of the most famous arias – Mozart’s ‘Deh vieni non tardar’ from Le Nozze di Figaro and Lehár’s ‘Meine Lippen sie Kussen so Heiss’ from Giuditta – deliver snapshots of two very significant parts of falling in love. ‘Deh vieni’ is a declaration of devoted love from Susannah to her lover, Figaro (though of course, in opera tradition, she sings it while dressed as the Countess as a ruse to outsmart the Count…). Lehár’s ‘Meine Lippen’ comes a little earlier in the game of love: sung by Giuditta, the titular character, ‘my love’s fiery kiss’ speaks of the early stage of falling for someone, whether or not they are accessible to you.
As quickly as love comes, it is just as fast to go – or at least such is truth in stories and songs. Based on a poem by Laurence Hope (a pseudonym of Adela Florence Cory), the storyteller in Amy Woodforde-Finden’s ‘Kashmiri Song’ asks where their lover has gone. They reminisce on better times, and the pale hands of their beloved; they’d rather be dead than see the one they adore wave them goodbye. Poulenc’s ‘Les chemins de l’amour’ echoes this reminiscing: ‘I search for you ceaselessly,’ the poem goes, ‘Lost paths, you are no more and your echoes are muted.’
And the lamentation does not end there: ‘My peace is gone, my heart is heavy,’ sobs Gretchen in Schubert’s ‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’, the composer’s heart on his sleeve even more significantly than Poulenc or Woodforde-Finden. Gretchen am Spinnrade (Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel) spins and cries for her beloved completely openly, without a care for who might hear or judge.
Stephen Foster’s ‘Why, no one to love?’ encapsulates all these heartbroken feelings. Written in 1862, it still offers a clear insight into the minds of all who have ever grieved over not being able to find someone to go steady with, or share stories with, or think of forever alongside.
And then life, with all its stories and love and losing of love, must come to an end. Mozart’s ‘Abendempfindung’ comes to its narrator at the end of the day – the ‘sun has vanished’ and the storyteller is considering the nearing end to their life. The imagined closing, though, is elegantly poetic: our narrator imagines flying to the ‘land of rest’, and pictures themselves appearing to their friends present and weeping at the grave. Their tears will become, so imagines our evening thinker, a pearl in their crown. And so their life, and all its woes and triumphs, heartbreaks and joys, is not over, not really. Their friends carry on their stories, and through the telling and re-telling, they survive.
Stories, I’ve realised, need not take you out of your life for long, but are entirely necessary for our imaginations and for our survival. They are warnings and laments, reflections of our innermost feelings and promises of how life will one day be. They speak to romance and pain and deception and lust, and most importantly, perhaps, they remind us to keep our eyes wide open. After all, there are fairies at the bottom of our garden.
© Megan Stellar, 2021
Erlkönig Translation © Richard Wigmore, author of Schubert: The Complete Song Texts, published by Schirmer Books, provided courtesy of Oxford Lieder (www.oxfordlieder.co.uk)