Der uns die Stunden zählte, by Heimo Erbse (1924--)

Here is a lean, intriguing set of modern Lieder, composed to fascinating, slightly surreal poems by Paul Celan (1920-1970). They were written in 1962 by Heimo Erbse, the German composer of songs, chamber music and opera. Erbse uses tonality in an ultra-modern way (his composition teacher was the distinctly anti-Romantic Boris Blacher), and in these songs he combines the concision of Webern, the rhythmic vitality of Stravinsky and the expressive power of Britten.

The composer's selection of texts represents a sampling of the poet's works. The closing song of the set, Die Krüge, is taken from the remarkable collection of poetry Celan published in 1952, and titled Mohn und Gedächtnis  (Poppy and Memory):

              The Tankards

At the long tables of time the tankards of God carouse.
   They empty the eyes of the sighted and the eyes of the blind,
     The hearts of the reigning shadows, the sunken cheek of the evening.

They are the ultimate tipplers:
   They hoist the empty as well as the full to their mouths
      And never brim over as would you or I.

To me, this is Celan's unique way of saying that God and time are boundless and eternal, unchallenged at endlessly receiving the vacant, the substantive, the strong, the spent, the good, the evil--everyone and everything that comes to them. Celan's simplicity of expression and the complexity of his message is a combination that quite defeats my English version.

Erbse's skillful musical structure derives from some rather intricate patterning. By way of prologue, there is a bare opening measure, the interval of a seventeenth. This is followed by a rhythmic pattern in major and minor seconds--a pulsing, throbbing line--over which the voice delivers the opening line of poetry. Then the meter changes and a two-measure pattern (a mp  measure of disjunct quarter note triplets, alternating with a pp  measure of broader, conjunct half note triplets) is established. This leads to a significant climax at Sie sind die gewaltigsten Zecher. The pulsing pattern now returns and quickly builds to the secondary climax, the descriptively accompanied ...und schäumen nicht uber.... The voice then expresses our human frailty with the unaccompanied, quietly delivered ..wie du oder ich. The pulsing pattern returns once more until it is abruptly curtailed (and the form rounded) by the same interval of a seventeenth with which the song began.

Written for low voice, the range of the entire set runs only from B, below the treble clef, up to top space E-flat, while the tessitura resides comfortably in the lower half of the staff. It is not the level of vocal challenge then, but the level of musical difficulty that places this set out of the reach of most students. Advanced, secure musicianship is needed to meet the demanding rhythmic and intervallic challenges present here. The pianist too, will find rhythmic challenges and rewards galore.

The first two songs of the set, Der uns die Stunden zählte  and Ein Auge, offen, offer equally intriguing poetry and establish an arching musical structural that is completed by Die Krüge. This structure argues strongly against fragmenting the set, and so do I, as each of these songs is too brief to make its best effect when standing alone. The entire set takes less than four minutes to deliver but, given an engaging performance, its impact on an listener can be significant and very long lasting.

Rumanian-born Paul Celan (Paul Antschel) was a German-speaking Jew, who somehow survived destruction during WW II. After the war he moved to Paris and became the leading German-language voice of the Jewish spirit in Europe. His assured, enigmatic, sometimes phantasmagoric lines reflect the past and present dangers of modern existence. A variety of composers have been drawn to set his verse, including René Leibowitz and Aribert Reimann.

Heimo Erbse's Der uns die Stunden zählte, Drei Lieder nach Texten von Paul Celan, für tiefere Stimme and Klavier, Opus 21, was published by Henry Litolff's Verlag/C.F. Peters, in 1962.


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Copyright 1999, John Koopman. All rights reserved. No part of these websites, designated A BRIEF HISTORY OF SINGING and UNSUNG SONGS, or their contents may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means--electronic, photocopying or otherwise--without the written permission of the copyright holder. For information about the use of this material please contact the author through the Conservatory of Music, Lawrence University, Appleton, WI , (U.S.A) 54912-0599. Fax 920 832 6633