Zu Straßburg auf der Schanz, an early song by Gustav Mahler from Lieder und Gesänge, vol. 3:, a song with an interesting background. The text comes from Des Knaben Wunderhoirn. Clemens and Brentano used the original title Der Schweizer, which ius significant to meaning, since, in medieval times, Swiss peasants were so poor that men were forced to volunteer as mercenaries. To this day, the Pope is protected by Swiss soldiers in fancy Renaissance costumes. (Please see my article Arnold Schioenberg and the Swiss Guards) Pageantry apart, reality for most Swiss mercenaries was grim. Often living under harsh conditions, they fought and died in distant lands, never to return home. Then term Der Schweizer thus refers to a soldier who doesn’t “belong”, an outsider whose deepest loyalties cannot be fulfilled, and one who cannot be trusted nor integrated into the mainstream. Not a “romantiuc” ditty.
The poem, which dates from at least the 17th century, sets the action in Strassburg, a fortress on a river, in territory disputed French and Germans. In the Franco Prussian War, in the First World War and in the occupation that followed, exploited by Hitler, the people of Alsace-Lorraine knew only too well what nationalist blustering could bring. Never again, one hopes. Strassburg is symbolic : It’s the home of the Council of Europe and the Court of Human Rights, and shows that the EU is not centralized in Brussels. The photo above comes from a set illustrating each verse of the poem, amended with references to France and Prussia. The sequence also emphasizes the religious context of the original poem, where the deserter is redeemed by his faith in God. (Read the verse above which is in Wunderhorn, but which Mahler did not set)
Mahler, being a composer, was more influenced by the musical context. The Swiss man’s problems come to a head when “Das Alphorn hört ich drüben wohl anstimmen, Ins Vaterland mußt ich hinüber schwimmen” Thus the magical introduction, which suggests an alpenhorn calling out over long distances. Perhaps thee soldier was hearing military trumpets, but his mind connected to the Alps, the source of the river which flows through the city of Strassburg. Switzerland – so near and yet so far. The voice rises from the word “Alpenhiorn” as if the man is looking upwards, searching for distant peaks. But notice how the piano line suggests drum rolls, and military ritual. The man knows what’s coming and the “drums” dominate. In the song, the short final line is repeated, like a hollow death knell.
But then the an thinks of his “brothers” his fellow mercenaries, who’ve become like brothers to him, and of “Der Hirtenbub ist doch nur Schuld daran, Das Alphorn hat mir solches angethan, Das klag ich an“. He’s a simple shepherd boy, he can’t help being mesmerized by the sound of an alpenhorn. Thus the piano sings, trilling and elusive. A really good pianist (like Daniel Barenboim) can make the piano echo so the sounds hover in the air. But then the music ends abruptly with two final chords. Like gunshot.
Original Source: Mahler Zu Straßburg auf der Schanz : its context