There’s almost nothing I like better than sleuthing out a new song. This week, as it continues to be World War II at my house, the latter interest has intersected with the former. Just as one gets used to seeing the same news footage of D-Day, of the Zyklon-B can, and of the liberation of Paris, one hears the same music in sound tracks: “In the Mood,” “Run Rabbit Run,” and “The White Cliffs of Dover.”
As I branched out from British to German centric books and films, new songs begin to recur. One was stirring, unusual, and quite beautiful. Another was jolly and joyful. My familiarity with German music begins and ends with Lieder and Bach. If I wasn’t such a snob I would probably have already known both songs. My German wasn’t up to figuring out any lyrics and I don’t have a Shazam app (or a phone, for that matter) so that wasn’t going to help. But that would have been too easy. I like the thrill of the hunt.
I noticed that soldiers were mostly singing the first song. I remembered it as the song German POWs sang at the beginning of the Foyle’s War episode called “Broken Souls.” On You Tube I started through playlists of German war songs and soldier marching songs. Click, no. Click, no. Click, damn commercial. Click, no. Finally one of the clicks paid off and I heard my tune. It was called the “Horst Wessel Song.”
I entered the titles on Wikipedia and got a page in German. The Bing translation was barely more illuminating than the German language page but I did glean that it had something to do with the Nazis. Digging deeper I learned that this beautiful melody, originally from World War I, that lends itself to sumptuous harmonies, had been outfitted with really ugly words by a fellow named Horst Wessel in 1933. It became the official Nazi anthem.
The text and the melody are apparently illegal in Germany. I don’t know how that works out in practice. Anyone can listen to it on You Tube. The tenor line is to die for. It’s rather nice for me that the language doesn’t interfere with my appreciation of the music. A lot of us feel that way about the Latin mass and the 16th and 17th century Italian art songs, the staple of classical singing students.
The other song also came up on “Broken Souls. ” Johann, the German POW, sings it to the little boy on the farm where he works. And the crowd in the Dresden café that is bombed at the beginning of the episode “The Hide” sing it. It sounds like a folk song and that’s all I could gather about it.
I heard it here and there for months. “There’s that song again,” I’d think.
I don’t get all my World War II information from Foyle’s War. The soundtrack of the gruesome The Life and Time of Klaus Barbie, is ironically dominated by a children’s choir who sing the song. This was too easy. In the credits was the list of songs the choir had sung. I wrote them all down and sussed out that the song I wanted was called “Muss Ich Denn.” The tune was borrowed for the Elvis Presley song “Wooden Heart.”
I started through my books of folk songs and found “Muss I Denn” in an old tattered copy of a community song book published by the Inter-Collegiate Outing Association in 1948. You know—back when people sang together. The words are all in German so it was back to the internet to find some English lyrics. The OK Chorale is going to be doing this one sometime soon and you can’t imagine how they squawk when I ask them to sing in a foreign language.
The tenors in The OK Chorale—well, one tenor; you know who you are– are always asking me for better parts but I think we’ll skip the official Nazi anthem