Thursday, July 05, 2007

Top 300 Favorite Songs of All Time III
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911). Des Knaben Wunderhorn: Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt (Saint Anthony of Padua’s Sermon to the Fishes) (comp. 1893)

David Ocker, a college classmate and fellow ex-member of the Carleton Orchestra, wrote in his blog Mixed Meters a while ago that when someone asked him why he lost interest in Mahler, he said “instantly, without thinking and completely accurately, ‘I grew up.’” I’m not sure what he meant and I’m curious to find out, because I still find Mahler’s music, especially his songs, as enjoyable as when I first heard it more than 40 years ago.

One of my favorites among Mahler’s works is the song Saint Anthony of Padua’s Sermon to the Fishes. In his notes to the Virgin Classics recording of Songs from The Youth’s Magic Horn (Des Knaben Wunderhorn), Terry Barfoot quotes Mahler as saying, “Not one of the fish is the wiser for the sermon, even though the saint has performed for them! But only a few people will understand my satire on mankind.” I have to wonder if an urban audience, especially a Viennese audience which was likely as sophisticated as any in the world, would not have gotten the message of the song.

Still, though the message is obvious, it is no less true today. And it isn’t unique to the song. Think of “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” A great variation on that is the saying collected by Ken Weaver, a member of New York proto-punk group The Fugs, in Texas Crude: “You can buy ’em books and buy ’em books, and they just chew on the covers.”

As I probably made clear in the first two installments of this series, the words are as important to me as the music, and Saint Anthony’s Sermon has a wonderful lyric. From the opening, where St. Anthony (1195–1231) finds his Paduan parishioners have all stayed away from the church and decides he will give his sermon to the fish in the river, on to the ending, where the fish swim away unchanged by what they’ve heard, it paints a great picture.

The text is full of exclamation points which give an elbow-in-the-ribs quality to the printed lyric but don’t carry over to the music. The first comes in the opening verse:

Antonius zur Predigt
die Kirche find’t ledig!
Er geht zu den Flüssen
und predigt den Fischen.
Anthony, at sermon time,
Finds the church empty!
He goes to the river and
Preaches to the fishes.

Can you imagine, the lyric says (probably heavily edited by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano), that the people would have passed up the chance to hear St. Anthony preach? Unbelievable! Maybe it was a nice day or they were all out of town. The song may have been inspired by the story that St. Anthony was such an eloquent preacher that even the fish in Padua’s Brenta River enjoyed his sermons, and created a cynical elaboration on it. Another version of the story, cited by, sets the sermon in Rimini.

While in Rimini, on the Adriatic coast of Italy, he encountered some difficulty in getting the local population to listen to him. Somewhat dejected, he went down to the shore, where the river Ariminus runs into the sea, and began to speak to the fishes.

No sooner had he spoken a few words when suddenly so great a multitude of fishes, both small and great, approached the bank on which he stood. All the fishes kept their heads out of the water, and seemed to be looking attentively on St Anthony's face; 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.

As he continued speaking, the fish began to open their mouths and bow their heads, endeavoring as much as was in their power to express their reverence. The people of the city, hearing of the miracle, made haste to go and witness it.

Right from the beginning of the Lied, Mahler sets up a regularly accented three-quarter meter, possibly evoking the river and the movement of the schools of fish, before the singer sets the song up with the astonishing event of the empty church. With a repeated rising fourth in the lower timpani, a portentous sound that turns out to introduce a less-than-terrifying message, bassoons, clarinets, and string basses provide only about 10 seconds of vamping until the singer comes in and the rest of the orchestra joins (usually) her. Notice the triangle chiming along as the singer describes the sun reflecting off the river and the fishes’ scales. Mahler brings the triangle back periodically as a bit of orchestral color, and perhaps as a reminder of the sun on the river.

The strings are in constant motion, sometimes harmonizing the melody, sometimes stating a countermelody. When they drop out, the winds, especially the clarinets or brasses, by turns take over. In this song, at least, Mahler doesn’t throw the whole orchestra at the audience. Rather, as B.H. Haggin pointed out, he uses all of the resources of a large orchestra judiciously, never just for the sake of making a big sound, contrary to the obtuse views of some critics, perhaps most notably, Olin Downes of The New York Times.

Much of the fun of the song comes from listing of the fish species and their attributes — pike: belligerent, stockfish: always on a diet, crabs: slow moving, sturgeon: delicacies for the wealthy — and the refrain, “Kein Predigt niemalen/Den Fischen so g’fallen!” (No sermon ever/pleased [insert fish species here] as much!), coupled with the subtly ironic melody and orchestral accompaniment.

With a steady, rhythmic drive, the voice and accompaniment work through nine verses of catchy, folk-inspired melody, as potent a collection of hooks as you would want to hear. Finally, St. Anthony reaches the end of his sermon and the singer reports on its effect on his listeners:

Die Predigt geendet,
Ein jeder sich wendet,
Die Hechte bleiben Diebe,
Die Aale viel lieben.

The sermon having ended,
each [fish] turns himself around;
the pikes remain thieves,
the eels, great lovers.

Die Predigt hat g'fallen.
Sie bleiben wie allen!

The sermon has pleased them,
they remain the same as before!

Die Krebs gehn zurücke,
Die Stockfisch bleiben dicke,
Die Karpfen viel fressen,
die Predigt vergessen, vergessen!

The crabs still walk backwards,
the stockfish stay fat,
the carp still stuff themselves,
the sermon is forgotten!

Not surprisingly, the fish, like most preachers’ human parishioners, go away as they arrived. The accompaniment doesn’t even pause to comment, but sinks lower and lower and ends with an extended bass note: as it began, at the bottom of the river. The complete text, by the way, is available at The Lied and Art Songs Text Page and the translation from German to English is copyright © by Emily Ezust.

There are about 15 versions of Des Knaben Wunderhorn listed at Since I have only heard a few of them I hesitate to make a recommendation, though if I had to choose one from that page I’d probably go with Claudio Abbado’s version with Anne-Sofie von Otter and Thomas Quasthoff. I have the Vanguard stereo recording with Maureen Forrester and Heinz Rehfuss, the Thomas Allen/Ann Murray/Sir Charles Mackerras recording, and Thomas Hampson’s survey of the original piano accompaniments. The last two CDs are out of print but might be found in a used CD store or on and are worth picking up. To give a sense of the Lied to anyone who is unfamiliar with it, the opening and closing of Ann Murray’s recording in mp3 format is available here.

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