No Comment, Quotation — February 13, 2011, 6:48 am

The Life of Wolkenstein


Es fügt sich, do ich was von zehen jaren alt
ich wolt besehen, wie die werlt wer gestalt.
mit ellend, armüt mangen winkel, haiss und kalt
hab ich gebawt bei cristen, Kriechen, haiden.
Drei pfenning in dem peutel und ain stücklin brot,
das was von haim mein zerung, do ich loff in not.
von fremden freunden so hab ich manchen tropfen rot
gelassen seider, das ich wand verschaiden.
Ich loff ze füss mit swerer büss, bis das mir starb
mein vatter, zwar wol vierzen jar nie ross erwarb,
wann aines roupt, stal ich halbs zu mal mit valber varb
und des geleich schied ich da von mit laide.
Zwar renner, koch so was ich doch und marstaller,
auch an dem rüder zoch ich zu mir, das was swër,
in Kandia und anderswo, ouch widerhar,
vil mancher kittel was mein bestes klaide.

Gen Preussen, Littwan, Tartarei, Türkei, uber mer,
gen Frankreich, Lampart, Ispanien, mit zwaien kunges her
traib mich die minn auf meines aigen geldes wer:
Ruprecht, Sigmund, baid mit des adlers streiffen.
franzoisch, mörisch, katlonisch und kastilian,
teutsch, latein, windisch, lampertisch, reuschisch und roman,
die zehen sprach hab ich gebraucht, wenn mir zerran;
auch kund ich fidlen, trummen, paugken, pfeiffen.
Ich hab umbfarn insel und arn, manig land,
auff scheffen gros, der ich genos von sturmes band,
des hoch und nider meres gelider vast berant;
die schwarzen see lert mich ain vas begreiffen,
Do mir zerbrach mit ungemach mein wargatein,
ain koufman was ich, doch genas ich und kom hin,
ich und ain Reuss; in dem gestreuss houbgüt, gewin,
das sücht den grund und swam ich zu dem reiffen.

Ain künigin von Arragon, was schon und zart,
da für ich kniet, zu willen raicht ich ir den bart,
mit hendlein weiss bant si darein ain ringlin zart
lieplich und sprach: ›non maiplus dis ligaides.‹
Von iren handen ward ich in die oren mein
gestochen durch mit ainem messin nädelein,
nach ir gewonheit sloss si mir zwen ring dorein,
Ich sücht ze stund künig Sigmund, wo ich in vand,
den mund er spreutzt und macht ain kreutz, do er mich kant,
der rüfft mir schier: ›du zaigest mir hie disen tant,‹
freuntlich mich fragt: ›tün dir die ring nicht laides?‹
Weib und ouch man mich schauten an mit lachen so,
neun personier kungklicher zier, die waren da
ze Pärpian, ir babst von Lun, genant Petro,
der Römisch künig der zehent und die von Praides.

Finish reading “Es fügt sich” here

And it came to pass that when I was ten years old
I set out to discover the world
I passed my time in places frigid and steaming, in misery and poverty,
With Christians, Greek Orthodox and heathens
I had but three pennies in my pocket and a crust of bread
When I left my home and set out to the great expanse
Due to some “friends” I spilled many drops of blood
And thought even that I might die.
By foot I made my way, until my father passed.
I was fourteen then, and still without a horse—
But for the one I stole, and a pale mule as well
And both were—shame to say—then taken from me as well.
I served as messenger, page, footman and cook,
And I was an oarsman—it was hard work—
Near Candia and elsewhere, and back again,
My finest clothing came in many shapes.

To Prussia, Lithuania, Tartary, Turkey over the sea
To France, Lombardy, Spain in the quest for love,
At my own expense, marching with the forces of two kings,
Ruprecht and Sigismund, under the Imperial eagle banner,
French, Moorish, Catalan, Castilian,
German, Latin, Slovene, Italian, Russian and Romansch,
Of these ten languages I made use as I had to,
I played the fiddle, the drum and the pipe,
I sailed past islands, peninsulas and many lands,
On great ships which safeguarded me from the perils of storms.
I sailed the seas high and low,
From the Black Sea I learned many lessons,
When shipwreck brought me bad fortune.
I was a merchant then, yet I survived
Together with a Russian, we swam to shore through a raging sea,
Which claims our goods and profits.

Before the Queen of Aragon, so fair and delicate,
I knelt down and when I raised my head to her
She lovingly affixed a ring to my beard, saying
“Non maiplus dis lagaides” – “Never remove this!”
With a small needle of brass she pierced my ears
And attached two earrings, called “raicades,” in the Aragonese fashion
Long did I wear them.
When after this I met King Sigismund, I found him staring
His mouth ajar, making the sign of the cross when he recognized me.
“What are those things,” he demanded, in a friendly way,
“Doesn’t it hurt to wear them?”
Men and women both were transfixed and laughed,
Among them the nine royal courtiers from Perpignan,
Their Pope Pedro de Luna,
The king of Rome and the lady of Prades.

Oswald von Wolkenstein, Es fügt sich from the Innsbruck Manuscript (1432)(S.H. transl.)

In the land around the head waters of the Adige River, in the southern range of the Alps, right about the spot where the mist and gloom of the north give way to the sun and cheerful skies of the south, a legend has persisted about a knight named Iron-Hand (in the Ladino language indigenous to the area, “Man de Fyèr.”) Before his birth, his mother was warned: if your son learns to play the harp, he will know neither happiness nor peace. Seeking to spare her son this unfortunate life, she brought him in his youth to the wild mountains of Kedùl, where sorcerers put a spell upon him–his hands would be powerful and coarse, well suited to the needs of warriors, but not of poets. When as a young man he heard and became intoxicated by music and song, the knight-to-be took up a harp but found that his hands immediately burst the strings. The instrument fell apart in his hands. He was given the nickname Iron-Hand. But the young man could not be deterred. He trekked in the Alpine meadows and heard their music and encountered there the elven people of the mountaintops. To one he confessed his longing to compose music and sing. The elf told Iron-Hand that he was the subject of a spell, and that it could only be broken with great suffering associated with endless travels. She gave him a harp and challenged him to play it, striking up a song of woe as she did so. The elf sank into the earth and in her place came an Alpine lake. Iron-Hand took up the harp and began to sing his own song of woe, and to his amazement, wondrous sounds emerged. The spell was broken, but Iron-Hand was both a poet and a warrior. It was his fate.

This legend arose around a historical personage, indeed one who is–by the standards of his times–exceptionally well documented. He surfaces in great historical accounts, in the chronicles of conferences, in works of contemporary art, and in numerous petty legal squabbles about jewels, vineyards and land titles. And he left behind one of the most remarkable collections of poetry of his age, most of it set to music. Of all these poems, none is quite so amazing as his own life’s story, entitled Es fügt sich. We learn how he went off at the tender age of ten on travels that would take him to the fringes of the known world–to Turkey, Constantinople and Georgia; to England and Scotland; accompanying the Teutonic knights in campaigns in the Baltics and Russia; on a mission to the court of Aragon. All this seems at first highly improbable, and one is tempted to think of this narrator, Oswald von Wolkenstein, as an early victim of Munchhausen’s disorder. But the evidence of his travels is considerable, and it starts with the fact that his contemporaries fully believed him. As he recounts, he mastered ten languages during his travels, and indeed he makes generous use of them in his songwriting.

Wolkenstein is a sort of proto-European. He was born and reared at one of Europe’s great cultural confluences–where Italian and German languages met and mingled, where the peculiar mountain idioms of Romansch and Ladino persisted until modern times, and but a short distance from the Slavic world of modern-day Slovenia and Croatia. Catalan and French were for him languages of song and art, and Russian was a language of commerce.

The Wolkenstein of these songs and poetry is not a particularly nice man. He steals and pillages; seduces and sins. His life is colorful but not civil. Wolkenstein’s values are those of the waning age of chivalry, and even so they are often confused. The age of chivalry is coming to an end; the privileges of the landed gentry are under assault. The mercantile class in the towns and cities is rising. The old empire is falling apart, and the emperor, to whom Wolkenstein is much beholden, is being marginalized. Wolkenstein is conscious of all of this, and brimming with resentment. His music is filled with an arch-reactionary air; he cannot imagine why a golden natural order of things would be in decline in favor of forces so crass. Nevertheless, Wolkenstein’s greatness comes not as a courtier or warrior, nor even as a chronicler of distant lands. He is unmistakably a poet, indeed, a very great one. His style has little to do with anything that preceded or followed it. It is vigorous and powerful, and a touch crude. It is filled with the unique force of his personality and his amazing candor. Take careful note of this song’s sonorous qualities–Wolkenstein sings because his words need to be sounded, not read. The language is a cascade of alliterations and contortions of sound. He is inventive and playful.

There are two wonderful guides to Wolkenstein today. One is a new recording of his songs released on Harmonia Mundi by the German countertenor Andreas Scholl, which imbues Wolkenstein’s music with the art and artifice that belong to it. The other is Dieter Kühn’s wonderful biography Ich, Wolkenstein (1977, expanded and reissued in 1980), which meticulously unearths the threads of his life and reweaves them to give us a close approximation of the warrior and the artist, talented and terrible at once.

Listen to Andreas Scholl sing Es fügt sich here and here.

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