Scenes In Frankfort - An American Composer - The Poet Freiligrath
( Originally Published 1889 )
Dec. 4.-This is a genuine old German city. Founded by Charlemagne, afterwards a rallying point of the Crusaders, and for a long time the capital of the German empire, it has no lack of interesting historical recollections, and notwithstanding it is fast becoming modernized, one is everywhere reminded of the Past. The Cathedral, old as the days of Peter the Hermit, the grotesque street of the Jews, the many quaint, antiquated dwellings and the mouldering watch-towers on the hills around, give it a more interesting character than any German city I have yet seen. The house we dwell in, on the Markt Platz, is more than two hundred years old; directly opposite is a great castellated building, gloomy with the weight of six centuries, and a few steps to the left brings me to the square of the Rmerberg, where the Emperors were crowned, in the corner of which is a curiously ornamented house, formerly the residence of Luther. There are legends innumerable connected with all these buildings, and even yet discoveries are frequently made in old houses, of secret chambers and staircases. When you add to all this, the German love of ghost stories, and, indeed, their general belief in spirits, the lover of romance could not desire a more agree-able residence.
I often look out on the singular scene below my window. On both sides of the street, leaving barely room to enter the houses, sit the market women, with their baskets of vegetables and fruit. The middle of the street is filled with women buying, and every cart or carriage that comes along, has to force its way through the crowd, sometimes rolling against and overturning the baskets on the side, when for a few minutes there is a Babel of unintelligible sounds. The country women in their jackets and short gowns go backwards and forwards with great loads on their heads, sometimes nearly as high as themselves. It is a most singular scene, and so varied that one never tires of looking upon it. These women sit here from sunrise till sunset, day after day, for years. They have little furnaces for cooking and for warmth in winter, and when it rains they sit in large wooden boxes. One or two policemen are generally on the ground in the morning to prevent disputing about their places, which often gives rise to interesting scenes. Perhaps this kind of life in the open air is conducive to longevity; for certainly there is no country on earth that has as many old women. Many of them look like walking machines made of leather; and to judge from what I see in the streets here, I should think they work till they die.
On the 21st of October a most interesting fete took place. The magnificent monument of Gthe, modelled by the sculptor Schwanthaler, at Munich, and cast in bronze, was unveiled. It arrived a few days before, and was received with much ceremony and erected in the destined spot, an open square in the western part of the city, planted with acacia trees. I went there at ten o'clock, and found the square already full of people. Seats had been erected around the monument for ladies, the singers and musicians. A company of soldiers was stationed to keep an entrance for the procession, which at length arrived with music and banners, and entered; the enclosure. A song for the occasion was sung by the choir; it swelled up gradually, and with such perfect harmony and unity, that it seemed like some glorious instrument touched by a single hand. Then a poetical address was delivered; after which four young men took their stand at the corners of the monument; the drums and trumpets gave a flourish, and the mantle fell. The noble figure seemed to rise out of the earth, and thus amid shoutings and the triumphal peal of the band, the form of Goethe greeted the city of his birth. He is represented as leaning on the trunk of a tree, holding in his right hand a roll of parchment, and in his left a wreath. The pedestal, which is also of bronze, contains bas reliefs, representing scenes from Faust, Wilhelm, Meister and Egmont. In the evening Goéthe's house, in a street near, was illuminated by arches of lamps between the windows and hung with wreaths of flowers. Four pillars of colored lamps lighted the statue. At nine o'clock the choir of singers came again in a procession, with colored lanterns, on poles, and after singing two or three songs, the statue was exhibited in the red glare of the Bengal light. The trees and houses around the square were covered with the glow, which streamed in broad sheets up against the dark sky.
Within the walls the greater part of Frankfort is built in the old German style-the houses six or seven stories high, and every story projecting out over the other, so that those living in the upper part can nearly shake hands out of the windows. At the corners figures of men are often seen, holding up the story above on their shoulders and making horrible faces at the weight. When I state that in all these narrow streets which constitute the greater part of the city, there are no sidewalks, the windows of the lower stories with an iron grating extending a foot or so into the street, which is only wide enough for one cart to pass along, you can have some idea of the facility of walking through them, to say nothing of the piles of wood, and market-women with baskets of vegetables which one is continually stumbling over. Even in the wider streets, I have always to look before and behind to keep out of the way of the fiacres; the people here get so accustomed to it, that they leave barely room for them to pass, and the carriages go dashing by at a nearness which some-times makes me shudder.
As I walked across the Main, and looked down at the swift stream on its way from the distant Thuringian forest to join the Rhine, I thought of the time when Schiller stood there in the days of his early struggles, an exile from his native land, and looking over the bridge, said in the loneliness of his heart, "That water flows not so deep as my sufferings ! " In the middle on an iron ornament, stands the golden cock at which Goethe used to marvel when a boy. Perhaps you have not heard the legend connected with this. The bridge was built several hundred years ago, with such strength and solidity that it will stand many hundred yet. The architect had contracted to build it within a certain time, but as it drew near, without any prospect of fulfilment, the devil appeared to him and promised to finish it, on condition of having the first soul that passed over it. This was agreed upon and the devil performed his part of the bargain. The artist, however, on the day appointed, drove a cock across before he suffered anyone to pass over it. His majesty stationed himself under the middle arch of the bridge, awaiting his prey but enraged at the cheat, he tore the un-fortunate fowl in pieces and broke two holes in the arch, saying they should never be built up again. The golden cock was erected on the bridge as a token of the event, but the devil has perhaps lost some of his power in these latter days, for the holes were filled up about thirty years ago.
From the hills on the Darmstadt road, I had a view of the country around-the fields were white and bare, and the dark Tannus, with the broad patches of snow on his sides, looked grim and shadowy through the dim atmosphere. It was like the landscape of a dream-dark, strange and silent. The whole of last month we saw the sun but two or three days, the sky being almost continually covered with a gloomy fog. England and Germany seem to have ex-changed climates this year, for in the former country we had delightfully clear weather.
I have seen the banker Rothschild several times driving about the city. This one-Anselmo, the most celebrated of the brothers-holds a mortgage on the city of Jerusalem. He rides about in style, with officers attending his carriage. He is a little bald-headed man, with marked Jewish features, and is said not to deceive his looks. At any rate, his reputation is none of the best, either with Jews or Christians. A caricature was published some time ago, in which he is represented as giving a beg-gar woman by the wayside, a kreutzer-the smallest German coin. She is made to exclaim, "God reward you, a thousand fold ! " He immediately replies, after reckoning up in his head: "How much have I then?-sixteen florins and forty kreutzers!"
I have lately heard one of the most perfectly beautiful creations that ever emanated from the soul of genius the opera of Fidelio. I have caught faint glimpses of that rich world of fancy and feeling, to which music is the golden door. Surrendering myself to the grasp of Beethoven's powerful conception, I read in sounds far more expressive than words, the almost despairing agony of the strong-hearted, but still tender and womanly Fidelio-the ecstatic joy of the wasted prisoner, when he rose from his hard couch in the dungeon, seeming to feel, in his maniac brain, the presentiment of a bright being who would come to unbind his chains-and the sobbing and wailing, almost human, which came from the orchestra, when they dug his grave, by the dim lantern's light. When it was done, the murderer stole into the dungeon, to gloat on the agonies of his victim, ere he gave the death-blow. Then, while the prisoner is waked to reason by that sight, and Fidelio throws herself before the uplifted dagger, rescuing her husband with the courage which love gives to a woman's heart, the storm of feeling which has been gathering in the music, swells to a height beyond which it seemed impossible for the soul to pass. My nerves were thrilled till I could bear no more. A mist seemed to come before my eyes and I scarcely knew what followed, till the rescued kneeled together and poured forth in the closing hymn the painful fullness of their joy. I dreaded the sound of voices after the close, and the walk home amid the harsh rattling of vehicles on the rough streets. For days afterwards my brain was filled with a mingled and confused sense of melody, like the half-remembered music of a dream.
Why should such magnificent creations of art be denied the new world? There is certainly enthusiasm and refined feeling enough at home to appreciate them, were the proper direction given to the popular taste. What country posseses more advantages to foster the growth of such an art, than ours? Why should not the composer gain mighty conceptions from the grandeur of our mountain scenery, from the howling of the storm through our giant forests, from the eternal thunder of Niagara? All these collateral influences, which more or less tend to the development and expansion of genius, are characteristics of our country; and a taste for musical compositions of a refined and lofty character, would soon give birth to creators.
Fortunately for our country, this missing star in the crown of her growing glory, will probably soon be replaced. Richard S. Willis, with whom we have lived in delightful companionship, since coming here, has been for more than two years studying and preparing himself for the higher branches of composition. The musical talent he displayed while at college, and the success following the publication of a set of beautiful waltzes he there composed, led him to choose this most difficult but lofty path ; the result justifies his early promise and gives the most sanguine anticipations for the future. He studied the first two years here under Schnyder von Wartensee, a distinguished Swiss composer; and his exercises have met with the warmest approval from Mendelsohn, at present the first German composer, and Rinck, the celebrated organist. The enormous labor and application required to go through the preparatory studies alone, would make it seem almost impossible for one with the restless energy of the American character, to undertake it; but as this very energy gives genius its greatest power, we may now trust with confidence that Willis, since he has nearly completed his studies, will win him-self and his country honor in the difficult path he has chosen.
One evening,, after sunset, we took a stroll around the promenades. The swans were still floating on the little lake, and the American poplar beside it, was in its full autumn livery. As we made the circuit of the walks, guns were firing far and near, celebrating the opening of the vintage the next day, and rockets went gutterin and sparkling up into the dark air. Notwithstanding the late hour and lowering sky, the walks were full of people, and we strolled about with them till it grew quite dark, watching the fire-works which arose from the gardens around.
The next day, we went into the Frankfort wood. Willis and his brother-in-law, Charles F. Dennett, of Boston, Dr. Dix and another young gentleman from the same city, formed the party -six Americans in all ; we walked over the Main and through the dirty suburbs of Sachsenhausen, where we met many peasants laden with the first day's vintage, and crowds of people coming down from the vineyards. As we ascended the hill, the sound of firing was heard in every direction, and from many vineyards arose the smoke of fires where groups of merry children were collecting and burning the rubbish. We became lost among' the winding paths of the pine forests, so that by the time we came out upon the eminence overlooking the valley of the Main, it was quite dark. From every side, far and near, rockets of all sizes and colors darted high, up into the sky. Sometimes a flight of the most brilliant crimson and gold lights rushed up together, then again by some farm-house in the meadow, the vintagers would burn a Roman candle, throwing its powerful white light on the gardens and. fields around. We stopped under a garden wall, by which a laughing company were assembled in the smoke and red blaze, and watched several comets go hissing and glancing far above us. The cracking of ammunition still continued, and when we came again upon the bridge, the city opposite was lighted, as if illuminated. The full moon had just risen, softening and mellowing the beautiful scene, while beyond, over the tower of Frankfort, rose and fell the meteors that heralded the vintage.
Since I have been in Frankfort, an event has occurred, which shows very distinct the principles at work in Germany, and gives us some fore-boding of the future. Ferdinand Freiligrath, the first living poet, with the exception of Uhland, has within a few weeks published a volume of poems entitled, "My Confession of Faith, or Poems for the Times." It contains some thrilling appeals to the free spirit of the German people, setting forth the injustice under which they labor, in simple but powerful language, and with the most forcible illustrations, adapted to the comprehension of every one. Viewed as a work of genius .alone, it is strikingly powerful and original: but when we consider the effect it is producing among the people-the strength it will add to the rising tide of opposition to every form of tyranny, it has a still higher interest. Freiligrath had three or four years before, received a pension' of three hundred thalers from the King of Prussia, soon after his accession to the throne: he ceased to draw this about a year ago, stating in the preface to his volume that it was accepted in the belief the King would adhere to his promise of giving the people a new constitution, but that now since time has proved there is no dependence, to be placed on the King's word, he must speak for his people and for his land.
The book has not only been prohibited, but Freiligrath has exiled himself voluntarily, to escape imprisonment. He is now in Paris, where Heine and Herwegh, two of Germany's finest poets, both banished for the same reason, are living. The free spirit which characterizes these men, who come from among the people, shows plainly the tendency of the times; and it is only the great strength with which tyranny here has environed himself, and the almost lethargic slowness of the Germans, which has prevented a change are this.