This post is about how an idea or single work of art can cross boundaries and find all manner of additional interpretations and adaptations. These can often span the centuries and sometimes migrate into other media that were not even invented at the time. It all begins with a poem, Du Bist Die Ruh (You are my Rest), by the 19th century German writer Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866) which was set to music by Franz Schubert in or around 1823.
The Contralto voice is the deepest that the female voice can go, and has a wonderful melancholic and sensual quality. It is ideally suited to the style of romantic songs or 'Lieder' that Schubert so excelled in, and has probably never been better demonstrated than in the work of this particular artist. It is a very personal opinion, of course, but I suppose that if one were to take all the singers of Lieder, past and present, and rate them on a scale of brilliance from 1 to 10, Kathleen Ferrier (1912-1953) would probably register somewhere around the 11-mark. She is accompanied here on piano by Bruno Walter in a recording made in 1949.
Du bist die Ruh' Franz Schubert.
The translation shown below is mine, and it not meant to be academically perfect in any sense, or even to rhyme - as the original German does - but rather to convey the broad meaning, line for line, as it comes to us in the song. (And yes, I have cheated a bit by looking at other translations to help me along)
Du bist die Ruh, (You are my rest,) Der Friede mild, (My calm and peace,) Die Sehnsucht du (My longing, you) Und was sie stillt. (That makes it cease.) Ich weihe dir (To you I give) Voll Lust und Schmerz (Full joy and pain) Zur Wohnung hier (As here to live) Mein Aug und Herz (My eye and heart) Kehr ein bei mir (Come to me now) Und schließe du (And close) Still hinter dir (Quietly behind you) Die Pforten zu (The doors) Treib andern Schmerz (Drive other sorrows) Aus dieser Brust! (From my breast) Voll sei dies Herz (Full be my heart) Von deiner Lust. (With delight in you) Dies Augenzelt (My eye's whole sight) Von deinem Glanz (From your radiance) Allein erhellt (Alone is filled) O füll es ganz! (Oh, fill it all!)
Portrait of Friedrich Rückert.
Du Bist Die Ruh - conclusion
So what does it all mean? Du Bist Die Ruh. Well clearly this is a Romantic poem. But, like all great art, inevitably by its very nature, it extends far beyond what it at first appears. Therefore, a little more information about Friedrich Ruckert himself might provide us with some clues as to what this might be. Not only was he a poet who appealed especially to composers of music (there are thought to be as many as 120 musical pieces based upon his settings) but he was also a man who focused much of his attention on translations of Middle-Eastern and Asian poetry.
He wrote a six-volume literary work entitled 'The Wisdom of the Brahmins.' So we should rightly suspect that the sentiment here could well be a mystical or religious one, perhaps speaking of the peace and sublimity of a world beyond the visible.
The whole thing is made all the more poignant, moreover, when we realise that at the time of the song's composition in 1823 Schubert himself was not at all well, and would die just five years later at the age of 31; while at the time of the recording in 1949, Kathleen Ferrier was probably also already gravely ill. She would be lost to us at the age of just 41. So, if that has not bought a tear to your eye by this time, all I can say to you (and entirely in keeping with the spirit of this article) is: 'What on Earth are you doing here?'
Portrait of Franz Schubert by Wilhelm August Rieder.