• David Blake
  • From the Mattress Grave (1978)

  • Novello & Co Ltd (World)

Commissioned by the Northern Sinfonia with funds from the Arts Council

Study score is available to buy

  • 1(pic)12(bcl)11000str(1.1.1.1.1)
  • high voice
  • 30 min
  • David Blake
  • Heine
  • English

Programme Note


a cycle of twelve poems by Heine for high voice, flute/piccolo, oboe, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, horn, string quartet and double bass

'My life at that time was like a huge journal, the upper section containing the present, the daytime, with its bulletins and debates, while in the lower part, at night, the poetry of times past manifested itself fantastically, in continuous dreams which went by like the serialised chapters of a novel.
Heine Memoirs

'I believe it is not lack of ability which prevents most German scholars from expressing opinions on religion and philosophy in straightforward language. I believe it is the fear of the results of their own thinking, which they dare not communicate to the people. I do not share this fear, for I am no scholar. I, myself, am of the people.'
Heine On the history of religion and philosophy in Germany, 1834.

It was calculated in 1936 that Heine's 'Du bist wie ein Blume' had been set to music over two hundred times. It was not a desire to add to this number that led me, early in 1977, to study Heine's life and works, but rather a wish to know more about the author who inspired Schubert to some of his greatest achievements (in the 'Schwanengesang') and whose long poem 'Deutschland - a winter's tale' is prescribed reading in the secondary schools of the German Democratic Republic. What I discovered was a life story of enormous interest, humour, intellectual vitality and ultimately tragedy and an extensive body of poetry and prose of, to me, quite unexpected range and variety. I was excited to discover 'Atta Troll', 'Romanzero', the Zeitgedichte, and much moved by the bitter self-mockery of the poems of 1856.

In Paris in 1837, the first outward signs occurred of the syphilis which Heine had contracted years before. Two fingers of his left hand were paralysed, his arm began to wither, for a period he was almost completely blind and tormented by terrible headaches. His suffering increased and his physical condition deteriorated, until in 1848, he was bed-ridden, paralysed and racked with pain on the 'mattress-grave' which he describes at the end of the 'Romanzero' collection.

'My body has become so shrivelled up that virtually nothing is left but my voice. My bed reminds me of the resounding grave of the wizard Merlin, which can be found in the forest of Brozeliand in Brittany, under loft oaks whose tips flicker towards heaven like green flames. Oh, I envy you those swaying trees, colleague Merlin, for no green leaf rustles down to my mattress grave in Paris, where, morning and night, I hear only the clatter of carts, hammering, squabbling and jangling pianos. A grave without rest, a death without the privileges of the dead. They don't have to spend money, don't need to write letters or books. Mine is a wretched condition. I was measured up for the coffin long ago, and for the obituary, but I die so slowly that by this time such matters are as boring for me as for my friends. Still, have patience, everything has its end. One morning you will find the lodgings shut, where the puppet play of my humour, which amused you so often, was acted out.'
Heine 'Romanzero' - Epilogue 1851

The late poems make constant reference to his own life. Doktrin results from his childhood experience of the Napoleonic army in Dusseldorf and his hearing Hegel's lectures at Berlin University. Warnung refers to his bitter battles with the German censors, Weltlauf and Lumpentum his contact with the economic theories first of Saint-Simon and then his friend Karl Marx. 'Wer ein Herz hat' bitterly confirms that he will make no public denunciation in his memoirs of his treatment at the hands of his wealthy relations. In the 'Lotus-flower' poems, he refers not to his wife Mathilde, but to Camille Seldon, a young woman who first visited him in 1855 and tended him regularly. Their love, though passionate, was by force of circumstances, unconsummated.

I have tried to order my chosen twelve poems such that these various strands - the political, the biographical, the humorous and the two sorts of lyricism, straightforward and ironic - make a coherent and satisfying whole. I found a strong stimulus in those characteristics which are most personal to Heine, his preoccupation with archaic poetic forms and vocabulary, his irony, his love of contradictions and of final lines which are calculated to destroy all that has gone before. What has seemed sentimental becomes sardonic, what was humorous is suddenly tragic. All this fed my own pre-occupation with the words-music relationship and my attempts most recently in the opera 'Toussaint', to emulate my teacher Eisler's achievement in creating a rich dialectic between the text and the music which can by turns accompany, confirm, contradict, comment upon, give extra emphasis to, and perhaps even explain, the meaning of the words.

The cycle was written for Teresa Cahill.
© David Blake