And tomorrow we’ll read that X made tulips grow in my garden and altered the flow of the ocean currents.
—excerpt, text of Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia
It’s the heretics in Rimini who started it. Saint Anthony’s solution was to give up on them, march to the sea, and preach to the fish. According to Brother Ugolino, who reported on the event, the fish responded in exemplary fashion:
. . . all were ranged in perfect order and most peacefully, the smaller ones in front near the bank, after them came those a little bigger, and last of all, where the water was deeper, the largest.
The story ends happily ever after, too:
And whilst St Anthony was preaching, the number of fishes increased, and none of them left the place that he had chosen. . . . the heretics . . . who, seeing so wonderful and manifest a miracle, were touched in their hearts; and threw themselves at the feet of St Anthony to hear his words.
nothing more nothing more restful than chamber music
Brother Ugolino, however, didn’t get the last word on the subject, as devilish “Anonymous” got hold of the story and dashed off a poem. It starts off recognizably enough, but where it goes is another matter:
The crabs still walk backwards,
the stockfish stay thin,
the carps still stuff themselves,
the sermon is forgotten!
The sermon has pleased them,
but they remain the same as before.
Gustav Mahler, not content to leave well enough alone, set the poem to music as an antic waltz. “The eels and the carps,” he wrote,
and the sharp nosed pikes, whose stupid expression as they look at Antonius, stretching their stiff, unbending necks out of the water, I can practically see it in my music, and I nearly burst out laughing.
Keep going. What? A poem. Keep going. A danced poem, all round, and endless chain, taking turns to talk.
It’s believed that, as he composed the song, Mahler had before him an engraving of Arnold Böcklin’s “evolutionary alterpiece” mocking “Darwin’s disbelievers.” In Böcklin’s work, the most prominent fish rising up to listen was a shark which, in the predella, devours its fellow true believers. Inspiration of a sort, but surely not what Saint Anthony had in mind.
Mahler took his tune and ran with it straight to a scherzo for his massive Resurrection Symphony. Though Mahler wrote program notes, he subsequently withdrew them, but Gilbert Kaplan’s reconstruction offers a glimpse into Mahler’s intent:
When you . . . are forced to return to this tangled life of ours, it may easily happen that this surge of life ceaselessly in motion, never resting, never comprehensible, suddenly seems eerie, like the billowing dancing figures in a brightly lit ballroom that you gaze into from outside in the dark—and from a distance so great that you can no longer hear the music. . . . You must imagine that, to one who has lost his identity and his happiness, the world looks like this—distorted and crazy, as if reflected in a concave mirror.
Where now? I am in the air, the walls, everything yields, opens, ebbs, flows like the play of waves. Keep going.
I can’t say I’ve got my arms around this massive symphony as yet, though I’m waltzing as fast as I can . . . or at least I thought I was, until along came Luciano Berio, snatching up Mahler’s scherzo, snipping in bits of Beckett’s The Unnamable and other texts, not to mention liberal garnishes from Berg, Beethoven, Berlioz, Boulez, Debussy, Ravel, Schönberg, Strauss, Stravinsky, and Stockhausen, among others, to concoct his Sinfonia, a wild witch’s brew of a work.
From the original story remains not a single anchovy. As Saint Anthony and Brother Ugolino have remained silent about the whole dazzling catastrophe, the last word (if such a thing exists) goes to Berio’s text:
There was even, for a second, hope of resurrection, or almost, Mein junges Leben hat ein End. We must collect our thoughts, for the unexpected is always upon us, in our rooms, in the street, at the door, on a stage.
Credits: David Nice’s entertaining and informative post “a fish-sermon transmogrified” provided the inspiration for this post—though he is in no way responsible for the result. The image of the Saint Anthony mosaic at the head of the post may be found here; the image of Mahler here; the image of the Böcklin painting here; and the image of Berio here. The quotations from the text of Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia at the head of the post and throughout (italicized text) may be found here. (The “X” in the first quote is meant to be filled in with the composer and title of a work included in the same program in which Berio’s Sinfonia is performed.) The quotations from Brother Ugolino may be found here. The excerpt from a translation of Anonymous’s poem may be found here; another translation and the original German may be found here. The quoted phrases about the Böcklin engraving may be found here. The quotation from the reconstructed program notes may be found here.