Nightingales and Lost Left Hands

In ancient mythology, the nightingale connotes tragedy. Speech lost, past life abandoned… the nightingale’s song is one of lament. In Ovid’s version of the classical tale, after many brutal and tragic events the princess Philomela and her sister, Procne, ask the gods to transform them into songbirds. Philomela becomes the nightingale, while Procne becomes the swallow. (If you’re interested in the full story of Philomela and Procne, click here. Warning: like many fairytales, this one could be too dark for young children.) The nightingale has lost something—most obviously, her speaking voice. Philomela’s story is one that deserves telling, but it seems that the only mode of communication bearable to the speaker is through song. 
So where am I going with all of this classical mythology business? What does this have to do with Robert Schumann, Heinrich Heine, and today’s concert?

Well, Philomela’s story is rendered comprehensible to an audience in part through the poet (Ovid’s) interpretation, and thus his translation.To paraphrase Cori Ellison’s introduction to today’s concert, the composer Robert Schumann saw artists as people in search of completion. They may seek that completion in other individuals, other artists, other particular modes of expression other than their own. Just as Philomela lost her powers of speech but gained song, so Schumann lost the use of his left hand, crippling his career as a musician, but then focused his energies towards composition. Losing the gift of performance, he gained the gift of creation. And Schumann found another artistic “half” in the romantic poet Heinrich Heine, who was all too familiar with the nightingale conceit (check out the full translation in the LCCMF program and you'll see what I mean.) As Dichterlibe (“A Poet’s Love”) so clearly illustrates, in Schumann’s mind the composer completes the poet, and vice versa. 

So the piano completes the vocalist. In today’s performance, Ms. Chien (piano) and Mr. Scarlata (baritone) performed a duet, complementing each other and weaving in and out of each other’s pauses and inhalations. The piano does not simply support the vocalist in the spotlight, but like the personified natural world in Heine’s love poem, enhances the vitality and tragic beauty of the narrative. 

Stanza 4 of Heinrich Heine’s poem reads, “but when I kiss your mouth, / Then I am altogether whole again… But when you say: I love you true! / Then must I weep so bitterly.” This line may at first read as counterintuitive. Why does the lovesick man weep when he hears that his love reciprocated? Well, Mr. Scarlata’s interpretation of this lyric might help us to understand. Sonically, the vibrations of Mr. Scarlata and Ms. Chien’s duet at this line (“Then I am altogether whole again”) are so concentrated and gentle that they create a sense of wholeness that we may only be able to experience in the absence of language. The audience may not have known what Mr. Scarlata was saying (he sang in German,) but we felt the fulfillment of that moment. Really great music gives us this sense of wholeness. Being by the ocean does it for me—watching waves crumple against cliffs, silver puddles of sunlight caught along the shoreline. For the poet-singer, the complete moment of the kiss is shattered by his lover’s words. Since Philomela’s lament (and undoubtedly beforehand,) artists have striven to express their longing for wholeness, and to offer a sensation of wholeness to others. But maybe Philomela knew best in giving up her powers of speech. Maybe we don’t always want to find that “other half” right away, whatever it may be. That way we get to “weep bitterly,” and keep singing or writing, a la Heinrich Heine, for at least another twelve stanzas.