Poem: Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig


As we head towards winter, today’s poem is a German hymn by Michael Franck (1609-1667) about the fleeting nature of human life and human affairs.   The hymn first appeared in print in 1650, after the Thirty Years Religious War (1618-1648) had devastated German society.  The hymn was famously set by JS Bach as Choral Cantata BWV 26, for the 24th Sunday after Trinity, which is this Sunday (23 November 2008).    The Cantata was first performed on 19 November 1724 in Leipzig, and the music for this cantata is among Bach’s most thrilling.

Alex Ross, writing in The New Yorker (11 April 2011), says this of John Eliot Gardiner’s interpretation of this cantata with the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists:    “In “Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig” (“Oh how fleeting, oh how trifling”) the orchestra even conveys the self-important bustle of an urban crowd. ”  This is not what I hear at all in the music; instead, I hear this music as portraying the roaring water of the verse and personal inner torment. But then, I’ve rarely shared Ross’s strange musical tastes.

The picture above is “Das Eismeer ” (The Sea of Ice) by Caspar David Friedrich, painted in 1823-4.  The text is a translation of that set by Bach, based on a translation into English by Francis Browne (see:  www.bach-cantatas.com).  (Browne has also completed a literal translation of all of Franck’s poem, here.)

1. Chorus

Ah, how fleeting, ah, how trifling
Is the life of man!
As a mist soon arises
And soon vanishes again,
So is our life, see!

2. Aria (T)
As swiftly as roaring water rushes by,
So hurry by the days of our life.
Time passes, the hours hurry by,
Just as the raindrops suddenly divide themselves,
When all rushes into the abyss.

3. Recitative (A)
Joy turns to sorrow,
Beauty falls like a flower,
The greatest strength is weakened,
Good fortune changes in time,
Soon honour and glory are over,
Knowledge and men’s creations
Are in the end brought to nothing by the grave.

4. Aria (B)
To hang one’s heart on earthly treasures
Is a seduction of the foolish world.
How easily arise devouring embers,
How the surging floods roar and tear away
Until everything is shattered and falls apart in ruins.

5. Recitative (S)
The highest majesty and spendour
Are shrouded at last by the night of death.
The person who sat on a throne like a god,
In no way escapes the dust and ashes,
And when the last hour strikes,
So that he is carried to the earth,
And the foundation of his highness is shattered,
He is completely forgotten.

6. Chorale [Verse 13]
Ah, how fleeting, ah, how trifling
Are mankind’s affairs!
All, all that we see,
Must fall and vanish.
The person who fears God stands firm forever.

Acknowledgment:  Francis Browne.

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