While Mahler's song cycle Des Knaben Wunderhorn permeates NEC's Mahler Unleashed concerts, perhaps the most unusual encounter with this material occurs on November 29, as part of a "Mahler in Chinatown" concert. Eden MacAdam-Somer writes here about her approach to re-composing the song "Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt."
Des Knaben Wunderhorn is a collection of anonymous German folk poetry, published by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano in 1805. Mahler was drawn to the texts by their expressive imagery, “being more nature and life—that is, the sources of all poetry—than art.” He composed 24 songs to the texts between 1887 and 1901, 15 of them, including this text, for solo voice and orchestra.
“Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt” tells the amusingly sardonic tale of St. Anthony, who, when confronted with an empty church, went to the river to preach to the fish. They came by the hundreds, listening attentively, their mouths open, tails glistening in the sunshine. No sermon ever pleased them so much … but when it was over, they simply went back to being fish: “the pikes remain thieves, the eels great lovers … the sermon has pleased them, but they remain the same as before.”
This imagery of an audience of multitudes of attentive, apathetic fish made me think of how we, as Americans, may rant and rave about critical social issues, but are far more likely to go out for cocktails than take to the streets in protest. As musicians and performers, we have a unique opportunity to express ourselves in this regard, and yet we often “play it safe” rather than risk upsetting audience members or sponsors.
Folk singer and activist Peggy Seeger recently spoke to me of her frustration at the lack of political songs being written and performed today—music, she asserted, is an essential force in inspiring social change.
Mahler described the “Fish Sermon” as his satire of humanity. In using it as the basis for the “Scherzo” of his Second Symphony, he was able to draw out the imagery, contrasting long, winding lines of impassioned preaching and percussive pulpit pounding with shorter, folk-like depictions of his fishy listeners.
My arrangement draws heavily on elements of both the Lied and the scherzo, and is sung in the original German, except for a few choice lines from an English translation by Addie Funk. When the roaring of the sermon becomes too great, we take a break, stepping into a lounge where an indifferent band plays a Dylan cover, sung in a manner designed to soothe and calm the nerves, regardless of the song’s message.