Explorations in Music #1

“Die alten, boesen Lieder”

First off, listen to the song below. Yes, I know it’s in German, but you don’t need to know the language to understand the underlying message. Trust me, I took six years of it and can only translate two words. You can get it too.

(The lyrics end around 2:40, but feel free to keep on listening to the piano.)

So, how did this piece sound to you? Angry? Mournful? Somber? Anguished? Agitated? If any of those words came to mind, then you’ve caught on to the larger theme of the song. Robert Schumann (1810-1856), a German composer, wrote the piano music to accompany the poem by Heinrich Heine (1797-1856), sung by the tenor. Heine’s work is translated as this:

“The old, hateful songs”

Those old, angry songs,
those vicious and terrible dreams,
let us bury them now;
fetch a large coffin.

I’ll place many a thing in it,
but I won’t yet say what;
the coffin must be even larger
than the Heidelberg Tun. (A massive wine barrel)

And bring a bier,
and boards solid and thick;
and they must be longer still
than the bridge of Mayence.

And also bring twelve giants;
all must be stronger yet
than strong St. Christopher
in Cologne’s Cathedral on the Rhine.

They shall carry the coffin away
and sink it in the sea,
for such a vast coffin
deserves a vast grave.

Do you know why the coffin
may be so large and heavy?
I’ve drowned both my love
and pain with it.

Chilling. The emotion of the song come across so much stronger with the translation in mind. You can hear the man’s anger melt into anguish and quiet despair, feel your sympathies swaying you with him. Now the poem by itself conveys this effect as well, but the Lied (song), that is where the true emotional influence lies. Schumann took a work and magnified it through his interpretation, creating something truly timeless.

This relates back to a personal belief of mine. In this day and age, with so many different individuals setting pen to paper, the battle cry is, “Be unique! Find something that’s never been done before!” Your only hope is to catch an editor’s attention with a concept they have yet to encounter. I find fault with the Doctrine of Exclusivity as I call it, or the idea that your creation must exclude the influences or ideas of predecessors, or it really isn’t yours.

I’ll openly admit that many of my pieces take inspiration, even style choices, from other works. “2014,” the first poem ever posted on this site, is influenced by the style of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” and the message of Barry Maguire’s “Eve of Destruction.” Indeed, my first attempt at a full-length novel was inspired by the movie Bambi and its basis, Felix Salten’s Bambi: A Life in the Woods. It quickly degenerated into a straight knockoff, I don’t recommend leaping into something without having some semblance of a plot outline, but regardless.

Let me be clear: I’m not advocating that we all go out and plagiarize existing works, that’s typically illegal under copyright laws and frowned on at the very least. My point is that it’s not a death sentence to borrow ideas or influences from another creation, just be sure to thank them somewhere for their contribution. To have a completely unique concept or work in this day and age of enlightened and literate citizens is nearly impossible, don’t let yourself be held down by the Doctrine of Exclusivity. Instead, seek something distinctive. Schumann did. To borrow or not is a personal choice, but in the end the goal is to create something that you can truly call your own.

(“But what of fan fiction,” some may ask. That is a relevant question, but that’s a gray area at best, regardless of my own personal views on the genre. I shall address this issue in a coming post.)


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