THE WOLPE! SHOW
Wolpe! Welche Farbe hat der Vogel?
Gunnar Brandt, tenor; Johan Bossers, piano; Viviane De Muynck, speaker; Caroline Petrick, dramaturge; Hermann Sorgeloos, director.
Muziektheater Transparant production, 84-minute concert with spoken commentary
Wolpe! at Edinburgh
In March this year a friend who always knows everything sent me an e-mail saying that the Paris Opera was doing a Wolpe production. Having lived in Paris and knowing the Opera, I obviously didn't believe this. It simply couldn't be true. I was puzzled enough to look on the net, and there, sure enough, it said WOLPE! in Paris. No program, no title, no names. At the same time I received the beautifully produced NEOS cd of this group. The singer Gunnar Brandt has just the perfect cutting (but magnificent) voice—the sharp edge, the anger, the sarcasm, but also the passion. All the communist songs were fierce and moving, and Anna Blume was at that time listen to the Battlepiece, with which I have an unhappy relationship going back half my life.
I tried to go to the performance in Paris, but the frivolous timetables of Eurostar and the fact that I was in the middle of a Beethoven series made it just too difficult. Which meant Edinburgh, hugely more expensive and ghastly weather. But anyway, I went. I was most impressed to see that it wasn’t Fringe, but the grown-up Festival for the big-timers. What would Stefan have thought? He would have been so thrilled.
I had a great seat right in front, a real treat. The show is theatre, music, political anger. It goes at a huge speed, no moments of taking it easy. It is full force of energy, of musical and dramatic vitality for ninety minutes. In between the songs, placed in a wonderfully creative way, are the movements of Battlepiece. It is played completely, nothing is left out. The performance is really stunning. Johann Bossers is an ideal pianist for this music. He is a great virtuoso, but above all someone who makes every musical thought in Battlepiece clear, radiant and beautiful. For me this was also an ideal way to hear Battlepiece—complete but not all at once.
The actress Viviane de Muynck held the evening together with her asides about Stefan, his life, what he had said to whom. She casually translated the texts into English without noticeable interruptions. She seems to speak all known languages equally easily and has an amazing stage presence. She is very odd looking, and that made it all extra engaging.
Siegfried Moos at Edinburgh
It was because of my mother’s death in January of 2008 that I discovered that a poem of my father’s was part of a Stefan Wolpe concert at the Edinburgh festival. I had decided to have a plaque erected on the house where they had lived, as I knew they would prefer a public memorial to being in a cemetery. Hoping for inspiration for my speech at the commemoration, I idly tapped ‘Siegfried Moos’ into Google. Up it popped--‘Haben Sie Kummer,’ arranged by Wolpe, was being performed at the annual Edinburgh festival. I booked to go on the spot. Similar to Wolpe, my parents fled the Nazis and Berlin early in 1933. Not that my father talked much about his many leftwing activities in Berlin. I only learned after his death from my mother that he had been a member of the Rot Front, a pre-1933 but still illegal group with connections to the Communist Party. He was the editor of a rank and file paper for workers in theatre and cinema in the early 1930s, as well as the secretary of the Free Thinkers.
They started a ‘new’ life as political refugees in Britain, but never talked to me of their past, protecting both themselves and me from being tortured by its terrors. Amazingly, Siegi found a job in the prestigious Institute of Statistics at Oxford University in the late 1930’s and the worst was over. I was born in Oxford and grew up in Durham, where my father got his next lectureship. Here he threw himself into the Workers Educational Association (WEA), travelling hours by bus every week to the remotest pit village to teach the miners about economics (or political economy, as he called it), as well as being secretary of the union branch at the university and of the local Amnesty branch. Lotte who never felt at home in Durham, locked herself away and wrote and wrote. She died twenty long years after Siegi. I scattered their ashes, now rejoined, in the park where together they loved to wander. I carried a handful ‘home’ to Germany, where they had refused to return, and scattered them into the winds from the rooftops of Berlin.
I became obsessed by the idea of singing Haben Sie Kummer at my parents’ memorial. Thomas Phleps was as ever kind, and sent me the words in English and German and Wolpe’s score. My ex-husband, Richard, and I independently tried to learn to sing the words to the tune! My friend, Sarah, a professional musician, warned me not to do it. You can’t sing it without far more practice, she warned, desperate to save Wolpe, whom she admired, from being massacred. The commemoration went wonderfully. We stood outside the house where my parents had lived from 1966, opposite Victoria Park in Hackney (London East End). I gave a speech recounting how the history of the twentieth century had deposited Siegi and Lotte here, and others read out a few of their many amazing poems. My son, Josh, handed out the music with the English words of Haben Sie Kummer. And in memory of my father, the twenty or so friends and relatives gathered there brought Wolpe’s music and my father’s words from the struggles against the Nazis in the early 1930s onto the streets of Hackney. My father, it seemed to me, was beside me with his gentle and self-deprecating smile. Even Sarah expressed herself satisfied! Then we sang the Internationale and bade Lotte and Siegi Moos, my extraordinary parents, inspiring poets and story tellers, and socialists till the end, forever farewell.
Our singing could not match that of Gunnar Brandt, accompanied by Johan Bossers, from the Muziektheater Transparant. The Wolpe concert started with Gunnar Brandt coming onto the darkened stage of the Hub and quietly chanting the beginning of Haben Sie Kummer. Then Johann Bossers started to play and my father’s poem, welcoming the downtrodden and the oppressed into the enlightenment and comfort of the performance, was sung right through.
Do you have sorrow, do you have worries,
Does nobody lend you anything any more?
With us you will find a more wonderful world.
Three hours of forgetfulness for so little money,
Oh, for how long you have craved this!
With us there is laughter, with us there are tears.
Come, come and get a ticket!
What we offer is first class!
Come in, come in, come in!
The theatre will be your heaven!
How very different must have been the circumstances when this inspiring poem was originally performed. I do not imagine a setting as salubrious as this concert hall. My father would, I suspect, have been very surprised to discover himself being performed at the beginning of a concert of Wolpe’s work at the Hub. “Don’t you understand that my poem should be part of agitprop,” I imagine him instructing me. “Where’s the excitement in this performance of songs and music? Who will it appeal to?” I nod. He looks pained in the way only my father could. No, I think, I cannot imagine the concert inspiring that audience to storm the barricades, or even the G8.
I do know that Siegi, like Wolpe, dedicated himself to the fight against the growing Nazi threat and that they collaborated on writing agitprop poems and songs for the workers’ theatre groups in pre-Nazi Berlin. They collaborated on the Sport Revue “Alles an den roten Start” (1931), which was performed at a large stadium. Siegi also wrote the texts for Rote Soldaten, Rote Kolonnen. Haben Sie Kummer was composed for the agitprop troupe Roter Wedding (named after a working class district of Berlin).
I sat in the Hub theatre wishing my father could have been with me. I found listening to Wolpe's music difficult. “Bet he didn’t,” I mused, “back in early 30’s Berlin!” He would have tried to show me the beat, the way he used to during my childhood when he wound up the old gramophone to play his prized vinyl record of Lenya singing Weill, and conduct the music. Why did he never play Wolpe to me, I wondered? Was it because no records of his work were available? Or was it that this music, for all its vibrancy and vitality, touched too much pain?
Merilyn Moos (born 1944, Oxford) grew up in Durham. BA, Oxford (St Anne’s); MA, Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. Many articles published, mostly about education.