Friday, September 10, 2010

"Joy, sent from above;" a song of complicated love from Die Tote Stadt

"Glück, das mir verblieb" (joy, sent from above) is a song of complex and broken love in the opera "Die Tote Stadt" (The Dead City) by Erich Korngold (1897-1957).

The central character, Paul, has chosen to identify with the city of Bruges; an old city perched on the northern tip of Belgium; cold and desolate. Bruges has an affluent past but only ghosts seem to remain: bridges, statues, monuments and houses.

These structures are more beautiful, more ornate, more carefully crafted than anything practical requires. They speak of finding and expressing poetry in life and leaving that poetry behind, surrendered but never abandoned.

Maria, who was Paul’s wife, lit the way for him. He cannot reconcile her death. He grieves by holding her memory and associating her with the city itself. Why? This seems unhealthy. Release her and move on. This is the advice that Paul gets from his friend Frank. Frank is sensible.

Paul has transformed Maria’s death into the poetry of his own life. Paul believes his love with Maria is eternal. He does not articulate how this whole thing will work. That is why I like him. His conviction does not have the confidence of religion. Is he delusional? Yes and no.

Every day he walks the streets of Bruges and sees Maria metaphorically in the visual beauty left virtually abandoned all around him. One day Paul believes that Maria has returned to him. He sees her during one of his walks. Is he delusional? Yes and no.

A young dancer has randomly found her way to Bruges. She is wearing clothes that look like Maria’s and she is breathtakingly beautiful. She is young. She spins her life from instant fascination. No one can resist her. Men will give her anything. Anything is possible.

Did they speak during Paul’s walk? How is it that she shows up at his house? Is it just coincidence?

In "Die Tote Stadt" we aren’t given answers. But she takes Maria’s scarf from Paul and wears it playfully, admiring how it looks in the mirror. She can incorporate elements and motives from Maria’s life because her own life is only beginning to be composed.

Paul calls her Maria. “No,” she corrects, “I am Marietta.” Paul will not relent. In a portrait, Maria plays the lute. Paul hands Marietta the lute. “Are you,” she asks, “one of those old master painters?” This part of Paul’s life is not a symbol in her own life but is a motive from his.

Marietta doesn’t play the lute but does offer to sing a song. The song is “Glück, das mir verblieb.” She calls it a sad song and says she doesn’t know why she likes it because she is not often a sad person and doesn’t enjoy being sad. She is just a kid, in the transition before life becomes shaped by loss and pain and unspeakable joys.

The music is made from practically nothing:

In this production there is a huge Edwardian upright against the wall of the room where Marietta and Paul interact. When Angela Denoke as Marietta offers to sing this sad song, a young boy enters, pauses with the slightest of bows, then sits down with his back to the camera as an actor accompanist. Denoke shuffles the pages of the sheetmusic in her hands and holds them in front of her as she sings the first verse.

To Marietta this is a sad and lovely song. To Paul it is, and was, his life.

Between verses the song is magically suspended, as songs are not supposed to be--it is taken out of time. It is delayed while Paul reflects on the situation [1:31].

Wie wahr, ein traurig Lied. (How true, a sad song.)

Das Lied vom treuen Lieb, (The song of a true beloved,)
das sterben muss. (who must die soon.)

Welche Mühen Sie? (What troubles You?)

Ich kenne das Lied. (I know the song.)
Ich hört es oft in jungen, (I heard it often in younger,)
in schöneren Tagen. (in better days.)

Es hat noch eine Strophe-- (It has yet another verse--)
weiß ich sie noch? (Do I know it still?)

This is opera at its best—-the magnification of emotion outside of time.

While the great tenor Torsten Kerl begins the second verse, Marietta is frantically looking for the verse in her music and when she finds it joins him for the final four lines.

“Glück, das mir verblieb” is one of the great love songs of the operatic literature. How can one resist the idea that it is not expressed as love between two characters? Paul loves Maria, not Marietta for all her eroticism. Marietta does not love Paul, she is self-absorbed; just beginning to bloom.


  1. Gorgeous. Thanks for the excellent commentary.

  2. I think the singer are Angela Denoke and Torsten Kerl.


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