Death Fugue 12:07

Liner Notes

Aaron J. Kernis’s Death Fugue, for bass baritone, double bass, and percussion, is a setting of an English translation of the wrenching and chilling Holocaust-evoking poem “Todesfuge”by Paul Celan (1920–1970).

Celan was described by literary critic George Steiner as “almost certainly the major European poet of the period after 1945” and by his biographer John Felstiner as “Europe’s most compelling postwar poet.” He was born in Czernowitz [Cernăuţi], Bukovina (part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the First World War, which then passed to Romania, its northern part later annexed by the Soviet Union to become part of the Ukraine). Despite its Romanian base as well as ethnic and cultural component, and notwithstanding Celan’s schooling in the Romanian language, his frequent citation as a “Romanian-Jewish poet” can be a bit misleading. He might more appropriately be understood as a Romanian-born and -educated Jewish poet of the German cultural orbit—and, after the war, as a German-Jewish one. Located geographically between eastern and western Europe and overlapped by both regions, the city was culturally influenced by both spheres. Apart from its Romanian population, it was home to many minorities. Before the Second World War these included about 50,000 Jews, representing roughly a third of the entire population—dating to the influx of significant numbers of Jews following the annexation of Bukovina to the Hapsburg Empire in 1774. By the dawn of the 20th century the city’s Jewish residents included virtually all shades of identity, affiliation, and association: complete as well as partial assimilationists, Bundists, cultural Yiddishists, Zionists, Hebraists, modern and traditionally oriented religious circles, and a large Hassidic community. There was a large Western-influenced khor shul, along with many smaller traditional synagogues, and an entrenched middle class, to which Celan’s parents belonged. Typically, that Jewish middle class sought to ensure German language and cultural education, frequently in tandem with Yiddish or Hebrew—or both. Celan, for example, had at least some elementary Hebrew schooling and exposure to basic synagogue experience in his youth. 

He escaped the German deportation of Jews in 1942, but his parents were sent to Transnistria, where they were murdered, and he spent about eighteen months in a forced labor camp. He returned to Czernowitz in 1944, just before the Soviet annexation of the northern part of Bukovina. In 1945 he went to Bucharest, where—for the poetry he would publish in German—he took the German name Antschel from an anagram of his Romanian surname. (Some accounts maintain that his birth name was Antschel.) At that time, and during a two-year sojourn in Vienna starting in 1947, he began to publish his verse. In 1949 he settled in Paris, where he taught German, continued his poetic pursuits, and published important translations that approached an art form in themselves. He is said to have considered making aliya after his 1969 visit to Israel, but he returned to Paris, where, in 1970—just shy of his fiftieth birthday—he drowned himself in the Seine.

A retrospective 21st-century study and collection of his correspondence has suggested that his was a complex and sensitive artistic personality, for whom the most definitive agonies and the most destructive inner convulsions might have occurred after the war and in the aftermath of the Holocaust. The unrelenting defamation and harassment by Claire Goll (née Clara Aischmann), the widow of writer Yvon Goll (Isaac Lange), who groundlessly, and apparently mendaciously, accused him of plagiarizing her husband’s works, and the hounding by certain German literary critics who dismissed him as unoriginal and avaricious is said to have contributed to his despondency and ultimately to his suicide. Some of the reviews by those critics have been interpreted as a veiled form of anti-Semitism (although the Golls, to whom some were sympathetic in that long-running episode, were Jewish)—in one case, for example, denigrating his work by equating his writing and semantics (“fragmented philology”) with the Mishna. In that context, Celan explained in a letter, “Mishna” was a known derogatory and antisemitic reference. 

Celan’s poetry, much of which is somber and enigmatically illusory, was little known in the United States until after the mid-1990s, when a number of English translations from the original German became available (Kernis’s work, however, was composed in 1981 to an early translation). Nonetheless,for a long time Todesfuge was—and probably remains—his best-known work. His later poetry became more obscure and, although emotionally resonant, often resistant to deciphering. But Todesfuge is explicit in its evocation of the Holocaust, especially in its concentration camp imagery. Its “fugal” form in terms of the entrance of lines, repetition, and their elaboration suggested to Kernis the structure of the piece he conceived while still a graduate student at Yale University. He has pointed to the poem’s internal counterpoint between characters and among images—of a constant “back-and-forth” interplay between the names of Margareta, the commandant’s lady friend or lover, and Shulamit and between the German and the Hebrew. 

Kernis scored the piece for what he describes as a “very dark combination” of bass baritone, double bass, and percussion. The lowest pitches in the vocal part were meant to lend a grim, gravel-like timbre. At that stage in Kernis’s development as a composer, this piece was both sui generis in his oeuvre and part of an overall transition away from the personal brand of minimalism that had informed much of his music until then. It became one of his most dissonant pieces, although despite its nontonal writing, it was not composed according to any systematic organization of pitches. The fugal aspect, however, gives it both grounding and formal clarity. 

Death Fugue opens with the presentation of musical material, after which the instruments enter fugally. But once the singer begins to address the poem, the piece takes its own formal path—in some ways following the formal and episodic dimensions of the poem. Kernis attempted to represent each of the episodic elements as “mini-episodes.” He built cadenzas into the work for each of the instruments and the voice. A cadenza for the bass baritone is intended as a climactic point—a summation of the poem’s message and memory. 

Since the 1990s, Celan’s other verse has inspired a number of musical settings. Todesfuge, too, has been addressed by other composers. Among them is the Israeli composer Leon Shidlovsky (b. 1931), whose eight-voice Fugahamut/Todesfuge was composed to the original German. 

Celan wrote Todesfuge in 1944–45. It was among the first efforts by anyone to give artistic expression to the Holocaust, and as Israeli novelist, critic, and literary figure (and Czernowitz native) Aharon Appelfeld has observed, it was particularly courageous: “To recount the Holocaust in the German language, the language of the murderers, adds one difficulty to another.” 

By: Neil W. Levin



Poem: Paul Celan
Sung in English

Black milk of dawn, we drink it at dusk,
we drink it at noon and at daybreak,
we drink it at night, we drink it and drink it,
we are digging a grave in the air,
there's room for us all.

A man lives in the house,
he plays with the serpents he writes,
he writes when it darkens to Germany,
your golden hair Margarete,
he writes it, and steps outside and the stars all a-glisten,
he whistles for his hounds, he whistles for his Jews,
he has them dig a grave in the earth,
he commands us to play for the dance.

Black milk of dawn, we drink you at night,
we drink you at daybreak and noon,
we drink you at dusk, we drink and we drink.
A man lives in the house, he plays with the serpents he writes,
he writes when it darkens to Germany,
your golden hair Margarete,
your ashen hair Shulamite,
we are digging a grave in the air,
there's room for us all.

He shouts, cut deeper in the earth to some,
the rest of you sing and play,
he reaches for the iron in his belt; he heaves it,
his eyes are blue, make your spade's cut deeper into the earth,
the rest of you play for the dance.

Black milk of dawn, we drink you at night,
we drink you at noon and at daybreak,
we drink you at dusk, we drink and we drink.
A man lives in the house,
your golden hair Margarete,
your ashen hair Shulamite,
he plays with the serpents.
He shouts, play death more sweetly,
death is a master from Germany.
He shouts, play the violins darker,

you'll rise as smoke in the air,
then you'll have a grave in the clouds,
there's room for you all.

Black milk of dawn, we drink you at night,
we drink you at noon, death is a master from Germany,
we drink you at dusk and at daybreak we drink and we drink you.
Death is a master from Germany,
his eye is blue, he shoots you with bullets of lead,
his aim is true. A man lives in the house,
your golden hair Margarete,
he sets his hounds on us,
he gives us a grave in the air,
he plays with the serpents and dreams.
Death is a master from Germany.
Your golden hair Margarete,
your ashen hair Shulamite.



Composer: Aaron Kernis

Length: 12:07
Genre: Chamber

Performers: Robert Black, Contrabass;  Daniel Druckman, Percussion;  Jeffrey Milarsky, Percussion;  Robert Osborne, Bass-baritone

Date Recorded: 09/01/1998
Venue: Lefrak Concert Hall/Colden Center for the Arts Flushing (I), NY
Assistant Engineer: Frost, David
Co-Producer: Lazarus, Tom
Project Manager: Schwendener, Paul

Additional Credits:

Publisher: Associated Music Publishers, Inc. (Schirmer)

Translation from the German: Joachim Neugroschel


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