Tuesday, November 02, 2010

All Souls' Day: Richard Strauss' Allerseelen

Many poets tend to create narrators who initially have trouble showing the extent of their feelings. It's only through the process of moving through the poem that we really get to the heart of the narrator's true emotions. Hermann von Gilm zu Rosenegg is no exception. In his Allerseelen poem, the poet begins by describing the ritual of arranging flowers on a table. By the second stanza, we sense the presence of the one he has lost, and by the third, we realize that he has set aside this one day out of the year as a time in which he gives himself permission to grieve, to feel the enormity of the loss he has suffered. One gets the sense that we are let into an ongoing personal ritual, a ritual that has been going on for some time, and one which will be repeated many more times. You can read the full text and translation here; it's also worth taking a look at the Wikipedia article on All Souls' Day.

I must admit I had a bit of a difficult time finding a YouTube recording of Richard Strauss' Allerseelen that I actually liked. Many performances seemed terribly overwrought, and not without ensemble issues on the first page. I finally settled on Jessye Norman's recording with Geoffrey Parsons, which I admire for its honesty and simplicity.


  1. I have just stumbled upon your post.

    This is one of the most beautiful Lieder ever written for which Strauss added a superb melody to an already emotional poem. My only regret is that the song is a little too short; but it is as compelling a portrayal of controlled grief and of overcoming adversity in the death of a loved one that one could ever meet.

    I translated this song for singing (poemswithoutfrontiers.com) because I was so enchanted by the emotion, not only of the words, but also of the portrayal of emotion in the melody that achieves an achingly beautiful song of love.

    I chose the Hermann Prey version, however, rather than the Jessye Norman version, partly because I identify the speaker as male, for no defensible textual reason (except that he asks for "a sweet glance"), but also because Prey pervades the melody with a heartbreaking sense of love, duty and nearness to his beloved, I presume his late wife, that is not matched by Norman. One can feel the hitherto controlled emotion almost bursting from him in "Ein Tag im Jahre…" for which we extend every sympathy to him at his irretrievable loss so deeply felt and so inadequately compensated by his being able to communicate with her still; and we identify with him in his recollection of holding hands and his throwing away any inhibitions in order to reveal his love of her to the world and thereby being able to bathe once more in the depths of his love.

    The Norman version is also excellent but, in my opinion, she does not express the repressed anguish as persuasively as Prey. The piano is even better played than Norman sings, although I think, despite my desire to extend the performance of so lovely a song, it is too slow and holds some notes for too long.

    I disagree with you that we are spared the poets emotions until late in the poem. Gilm certainly reveals the story across the three verses but we immediately perceive that he is arranging flowers and, because the song is called All Souls Day, we conclude that it is for a grave (at least those of us who are familiar with the rituals of that day). We are forewarned of such by the moderate pace and tone of the music.

    I do not think that he has set aside only this day for grief; he is clearing the faded asters placed on a previous occasion and is about to replace them with mignonettes. He has evidently suffered throughout the year but he reserves this day of closeness to his beloved for especial expression of his grief, reminiscing of the old days and their love which has never faded; and clinging to the sentiment with the repeat of "As once in May" (which actually means "When we were young" or "In the bloom of youth" which would indicate a mature relationship).

    1. Anonymous5:39 PM

      I have always believed that the speaker in this poem is not the bereaved lover, but the dead one. To begin with, how can one ask a ghost to set flowers upon a table? When one proceeds with this assumption the last stanza is almost unbearably poignant.

    2. I have just read some of your poems David and am so glad I found it - your poetry is beautiful..sorry that is rather a benign word but i do not have your literary skills. Thank you. Lorna Kelly

  2. That's an interesting concept, Anonymous! I always assumed that the man could just see his dead wife on All Soul's Day, when pagans believe that the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead are thinnest.

  3. I know i am not in the same league as Jesse Norman but i am going to be brave and share my interpretation with you -
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8xh3iARjxlA There are worse recordings out there! This was done on a tape so its lost a lot in its final form. Allerseelen is my desert island song and i never get tired of singing it. Thanks for your informative article. Lorna Kelly

  4. Anonymus, I also "feel" the same as you.