Sunday, June 13, 2010

Augustin in August

Almost exactly one hundred years ago, in August 1910, Gustav Mahler sought out Sigmund Freud. The two had trouble coordinating schedules and cancelled three times before finally meeting. They spent four hours walking in and around a University town in the province of South Holland called Leiden.

What we know of the encounter was shaped by interdisciplinary interaction between scholars on the Mahler side (Donald Mitchell) and the Freud side (Ernest Jones) in the mid-1950s. In a transcript from a 1955 radio broadcast Mitchell quotes Jones:

“Mahler suddenly said that now he understood why his music had always been prevented from achieving the highest rank through the noblest passages, those inspired by the most profound emotions, being spoilt by the intrusion of some commonplace melody. His father, apparently a brutal person, treated his wife very badly, and when Mahler was a young boy there was an especially painful scene between them. It became quite unbearable to the boy, who rushed away from the house. At that moment, however, a hurdy-gurdy in the street was grinding out the popular Viennese air ‘Ach, du lieber Augustin’. In Mahler's opinion the conjunction of high tragedy and light amusement was from then on inextricably fixed in his mind, and the one mood inevitably brought the other with it.”

Mitchell knew this was an oversimplification. But putting aside any specific connection to Mahler’s music I remain interested in this anecdote.

It clarifies a species of disconnect: an overlay or juxtaposition of incongruent attitudes which might be called an “Augustinian Conflict.”

Augustin was a 17th century street musician in Vienna. The legend is that he fell one night into a pit hastily dug as a mass grave for victims of the bubonic plague. He fell pipes and all. Relaxed because he was drunk, the legend also implies that alcohol protected him from contracting the plague. Unlike those around him, Augustin climbed out of the pit. He became legend.

The song is not focused on the drama of the story but instead derives humor from contrasting lyrics of despair and loss with a tune both catchy and carefree. Most English speakers know this melody as “Did You Ever See a Lassie” where the text matches the spirit of the tune.

How different is this text from “Lassie?"
The Refrain:
Ach, du lieber Augustin, Augustin, Augustin,
(Oh, Beloved Augustin, Augustin, Augustin
Ach, du lieber Augustin, alles ist hin.
(Oh, Beloved Augustin, all is lost now)

The first of several verses:
Geld ist weg, Mäd´l ist weg, Alles hin, Augustin.
(Money gone, girlfriend gone, all is gone Augustin)

O, du lieber Augustin, Alles ist hin.
(Oh, Beloved Augustin, all is lost now)

Take away the text and imagine Mahler hearing this tune while in a state of torment:
Creepy right?

A variation on Mahler's Augustinian conflict was created by Mahler's younger colleague and admirer Arnold Schoenberg. Two years before the meeting between Mahler and Freud, Schoenberg actually quoted "Ach, du Lieber Augustin" in a conflicted musical context.

Written during Mathilde Schoenberg's ill-fated affair with their neighbor, the painter Richard Gerstl, in 1908, the second string quartet is a work full of contradiction. It is a quartet for five players: a soprano is required for the final two movements where the voice articulates the dramatic spine of the music with a magical presence. This is music of the unconscious mind; a mind being mapped in real time in the Vienna of 1908.

The opening movement focuses on a waltz of silences, and breaking suddenly away from this waltz seems more significant than the dancing itself. The second movement, "Sehr rasch," has a contrasting central section in which there is an Augustinian moment.

The passage happens from 3:22-4:00 in this lively recording by the Aron Quartet:

Listen for the second violin for the first quotation from "Ach, du Lieber Augustin." The reference then sinks into the viola and then into the cello where it fragments and vaporizes while displaced motives sound above.

Woodcarving of "Der Lieber Augustin" at the Griechenbeisl Inn on Fleischmarkt in Vienna June 2010

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