Waltzing with Fish

Laurence OP 7182882083_6b63778d4a_b

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.

Photo_of_Gustav_Mahler_by_Moritz_Nähr_01Gustav 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.

StAntFishBocklinIt’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.


Listening List

A Spotify playlist of the complete works noted in the post may be found at Waltzing with Fish. A Spotify playlist of excerpts relevant to the post may be found at Waltzing with Fish Excerpts.

Deitrich Fischer-Dieskau singing Mahler’s Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt

Mahler, Symphony no.2 “Resurrection” (III) – Scherzo: In ruhig fliessender Bewegung

Luciano Berio, Sinfonia, Third Movement


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 hereThe quoted phrases about the Böcklin engraving may be found here. The quotation from the reconstructed program notes may be found here

20 thoughts on “Waltzing with Fish

  1. Jane and Lance Hattatt

    Hello Susan:
    This post is absolutely brimming with so many good things: art, music, and literature being by no means the least, and with so many links to other avenues which, surely, must be explored. Indeed, we are inclined to believe that what you have constructed here is an art form in itself.

    And how wonderful to begin this grey, rather damp Monday morning with a full ten minutes of the Mahler ‘Resurrection’ to which, we know, we shall have to return. It is, as you will of course appreciate yourself far more than we, utterly and truly amazing as is the source upon which it is based.

    On a completely separate note [no pun intended], they are, in the main, once more back with you which, for us, is such a sadness! We took DN and SB, together with another friend who plays the cello and who we shall hear tonight, out to dinner on Saturday night and had such fun. What talent those two especially have. We are missing them greatly.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Jane and Lance: So glad you enjoyed this zany post–it was such fun to follow the trail laid down by David’s wonderful post on this topic (without which I would have had no idea of the connections). And speaking of connections, the one you’ve forged with Bard has been an ongoing delight. I’m looking forward to getting an eyewitness report when I see them at the next Contemporaneous concert.

  2. David

    Well, the connections ain’t copyright! And how much you have added. I love the title, the apse mosaic – and I never knew that about Mahler and the Bo(e)cklin.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: And now you get an idea of just how far behind I am in the list of projects I want to pursue! Certainly, had you not written the fish-sermon transmogrified, I would never have known of these connections. It was irresistible to follow the trail of them to see what I could find out, too. The answer is not much that was not already known to you (including the videos, which I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting). The Böcklin story was a good find, though, wasn’t it? It was reported in more than one source (and they didn’t seem to be piggy-backing, as often happens), so I think it’s possible that it’s true. One thing I didn’t turn up was a review of the Barbican concert you referred to in your post. Was the concert reviewed?

      You might be amused to know that, In our household, I’m currently banned from playing the Spotify playlists I put together one more time in the Edu-Mate’s hearing (actually, J is quite tolerant, but I do confess I’ve been incessantly waltzing along to everything as I researched and wrote up the post). So, I can only say, thanks again so much for all the delights in your post(s) (and I haven’t even mentioned DQ here)!

      1. David

        The thought of you waltzing above the Hudson and the Edu-mate harrumphing makes me grin. What does she think of your bellowing out 5/4 to ‘Dylan MAttingly’?

        As it happened, I couldn’t get to the Berio performance, worse luck, so I’ve not experienced it live (the surrounding movements are quite hard work, aren’t they). Though I did review the Belohlavek Mahler 2 the week before it.

        We had good waltzes in Jurowski’s Saturday Strauss blockbuster – the Waltz of the Superman (I mean Nietzsche’s Uebermensch, of course, not quite the same thing), in Also sprach Zarathustra, and the very Viennesy one at the heart of Salome’s Dance.

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          To your question, which I read aloud, “Not much!” came the immediate reply (but with a big grin accompanying it). Too bad about missing the live Berio (though I agree, the other movements are hard work). To those, I will confess, for that very reason, I haven’t listened properly as yet. The relevant movement was enough to raise protests, but I can tell you I replayed both Mahlers several times in their entirety. And now I must rush off and find the other waltzes you mention here . . .

          I did indeed read (and saved) the Arts Desk piece on Mahler 2. Going back to it just now, I’m reminded of the issue of the Barbican acoustics you note. My ear isn’t keen enough, and certainly not over the airwaves, to really know, but listening to Qigang Chen’s Reflet in the recent performance at the Barbican, I was struck by its relative harshness (I think dry sound may the better way to describe it) over the performance I heard in Wales with the same cellist, and wondered if it might be due to the hall. (I still enjoyed it, though, and it was fun to be “there,” at least “cyberlive.”)

          1. David

            I’ve just listened to all of that concert on the BBC iPlayer, and I have to say the Qigang Chen piece knocked spots off the overdense ‘London Citizen Exceedingly Injured’ by Raymond Yiu. Was also exasperated by conductor Long Yu’s INCREDIBLY slow tempi for Cockaigne. The orchestra’s trumpeter responded to a message I sent by telling me it was ‘approximately 2 mins 40 secs slower than the slowest performance we’ve ever given of it apparently!! Not bad for a 15 minute piece.’

            1. Susan Scheid Post author

              David: You reminded me that I listened to only half the concert. I’ve now listened to Yiu’s piece twice. Overdense is gracious. Less time coming up with clever ideas and more time composing a coherent piece of music were in order. Qigang Chen is in an altogether different league, as you so justly note. Among many other instances of his sure composing hand, he knows how to use space and silence.

  3. Leigh McAdam (@hikebiketravel)

    Hi Susan
    I want you to know that I come to your blog regularly and listen to many of the tracks you provide. But I’m neither a music major or an English major so I must confess to feeling vastly inferior, in fact down right stupid as compared to you and your vast knowledge of music. I will stick with travel, photography and outdoor adventures though I do want you to know that I am trying to learn from your blog and I do have a subscription to a classical music series here in Calgary. Just don’t ask me to explain anything. I go for listening enjoyment – and I feel that listening to classical music stimulates my creativity.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Leigh: So pleased to hear from you! Like you for me, I frequently check to see what travel news you’re reporting and hanker to take so many of the trips you note. As for music, let alone poetry, I’m an eager learner with a knowledge base like a piece of Swiss cheese. That listening to classical music stimulates your creativity is among the highest and best experiences anyone could have. Enjoy!

  4. friko

    Heavens Above, Susan, I am left behind in complete darkness. As well as deep admiration. To judge by the quality of this post you must have enjoyed yourself immensely. Music I can do, poetry too, myths and legends ditto, but all entwined and connected up to make sense as another art form I cannot. Chapeau !

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Friko’s: Well, without David’s wonderful post to guide me, I, too, would have remained in total darkness. It was immense fun following the trail he laid down.

  5. Mark Kerstetter

    Many thanks to both you and David for introducing me to the fascinating Berio piece as well as the fish sermon background on the Mahler pieces. Each video is a gem, mesmerizing in their own ways (and if a finer singer than DFD has ever been recorded, I don’t know who it is). On my first listen to the Berio segment I couldn’t pick out any of the Beckett fragments (much less musical references – mightily impressed that you and David can), even though it’s a text I know well, but the music seems perfectly suited to it. “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”

    I agree with the other commenters, that your writing is beautiful and light and fleeting, as if you were a fish snatching the bits and pieces of a sermon for our enjoyment. I like the anchovy line too.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Mark: Despite repeated listening, I still hear only the bits from Der Rosenkavalier and La Valse, believe me! (David’s the one with the incredible ear. I stand in constant awe of that.) As for Beckett, I had to sit with the two texts and hunt to find phrases from Beckett in the Berio. They are there, but in bits and pieces, like everything else. (Beckett and Berio do make a good pair here, don’t they?) I’m especially pleased you enjoyed this–and that you, too, liked the anchovy line (a favorite of mine, too, I’ll confess).

  6. angela

    What a romp, Susan…and a delight to read whilst listening to the cacophony.

    I am smitten, intrigued to no end as you can guess because of the Beckett link. You should be lashed, though, for now I have 4 new tabs opened to research more about what lines were used – plus reading reviews on Unnameable(didn’t realize it was part of the Molloy tril).
    Not that lines are needed to appreciate for Berio has an ear for words – so to speak, but what do I know other than there is an appeal to the senses with this one. What I mean is, the dark energy – the ebb and flow – weaves a feeling that I get during a read of Beckett’s dark pieces.

    Midnight approaches, ergo, I shall leave more reading for future eves, but I thought I’d share this link if you are still researching ~ http://www.jstor.org/stable/942413 (sidebar: discovered just this week that JSTOR has gone ‘live’ with many articles for free – 3 online reads every 14 days for us mere mortals (non-academia). The article would cost 18 to buy, but online it is free! Create an account and read at your leisure…. Thanks again for the education this evening. Your site always rewards! Cheers ~ a

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Angela: Thank you so much for the alert on accessibility of the Jstor piece. I’d spotted it, but assumed, as in the past, that it wasn’t available to mere mortals. It contains an incredibly detailed analysis of the Berio which, among other things, corrects an error in another source, which stated, as I recall, anyway, that the Beckett quotes were all from the early pages of The Unnamable. Not so, as it turns out! As for lashes, we’ll have to share, as, on the heels of reading your post, I requisitioned Beckett’s Proust from the library, and received notice today that it’s ready for pick-up! I had entirely different plans for tomorrow, but now this . . . Not to mention that Mark has a piece up on Beckett now, too! There is definitely something in the air . . . or maybe in the water, if we think where this post started out.

  7. shoreacres

    I confess I remain a sharp-nosed pike, stupefied by the wonders laid here before me. You’ve obviously had great fun with this, and for that I’m glad. And I’m glad to get the news about JSTOR. I’m wondering now what effect Aaron Schwartz’ suicide might have had on the decision, if any. In any event, I’ve come across articles I would have liked to have had access to, and now it may be possible – I’ve never been willing to cough up the $$ they’ve asked in the past.

    I do hate feeling so in the dark about so much of this, but at least I can go fishing. ;)

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Linda: I did have fun waltzing through all the connections. As for making sense of the Berio in particular, I like how David put it on his post: “The head spins with so much going on at once, which is surely the point.” I loved your link as an addition, and seems to me the Three Little Fishies would be at home here, too (Boop boop dittum dattum wattum, choo (3x)/And they swam and they swam all over the dam (repeats last line)).

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