The Art of the Fugitive: The Paradox of Paul Celan


Und duldest du, Mutter, wie einst, ach, daheim,
Den leisen, den deutschen, den schmerzlichen Reim?

And can you bear, Mother, as once on a time,
the gentle, the German, the pain-laden rhyme?

Paul Celan
Survival and suicide have defined the lives of more than a few souls who lived through the Shoah.  Primo Levi’s final act of despair in 1986, falling to his death down his stairwell in Turin, is perhaps the best known and most difficult to reconcile with the image of a writer who brought the clarity of a scientist and manager to his descriptions of the indescribable.

Paul Celan’s plunge into the Seine in 1970 ended a life that sought the answer to a central paradox of the 20th century in the language of his tormentors--German. Born in 1920 in the eastern European province of Bukovina, Celan was raised in a community of German-speaking Jews until July of 1941, when Einsatzkommando 10B entered his homeland.

Celan’s father died of typhus in a camp; his mother was shot. Celan survived labor camps and made his way westward, finally settling in Paris in 1948. Surrounded as he was by a newer, softer language, Celan found both release and a reminder of his pain in his native language.

Celan was a poet intensely aware of the musical elements of language, naming several of his poems (Death Fugue and Stretto among others) after musical forms. But language, of course, is laden with much more than rhyme and rhythm. In Celan’s best-known poem Death Fugue "your golden hair Margareta/Your ashen hair Shulamith" weave a braid of two Germanys. And German was the language in which Celan corresponded not only with sympathetic souls like the Nobel Prize-winning poet Nellie Sachs, but with Martin Heidegger, despite the philosopher’s notorious record of pulic support for the Hitler regime, and Heidegger’s adamant refusal, right up to his death, to take back one word he had spoken or written in praise of the regime.

German music has similarly provoked an ambivalent response since the War--Bach as well as Wagner ringing with "the gentle, the German, the pain-laden" sound. And yet Bach is the mother-music of the violin--all solo violin music that has followed over the past three centuries owes something to Bach’s Solo Sonatas and Partitas, even the torturous Solo Sonata by Bela Bartok that nearly breaks the violin in the same way that Celan contorts the German language. Against the language of Celan, the music of Bach, Bartok, and the very Christian French composer, Olivier Messiaen, who composed the beginnings of his Quartet For The End Of Time in concentration camp, will run a counterpoint, trying to make sense of a senseless century.

World Premiere: January 13, 2002, 92nd Street Y, New York City


Jonathan Levi Director and Producer
Gil Morgenstern
Violin and Musical Director
Bruce Saylor
Sabrina Peck
John Felstiner
Translations and Artistic Assistance
John Michael Deegan
Sarah G. Conly
Fred Sanders
Paul Celan
Eric Heubner Piano
Jean Kopperud Clarinet
Sophie Shao Cello