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  • Writer's pictureMeirion Harries

DAY THIRTY NINE Schweinfurt's Fat Lynx

We were sitting in the market square under the statue of Friedrich Ruckert enjoying Kaffee und Topfenstrudel (strudel made with quark) when the waiter told us a sad story. Rufus, the obese lynx, a long-term resident of Schweinfurt zoo and beloved all across Germany, had died.

Rufus the Fat Lynx (c)photo-alliance

The average weight of a lynx is about 20 kg: Rufus had peaked at 43 kg and had become unwell. "He was fat," according to the director of the zoo, Thomas Leier. Animal expert Susanne Zirkel leapt to defend Rufus: "He was just sitting awkwardly," she said. "When we humans sit like that, we also have a few more rolls than standing up."

We were sorry for their loss - but that emotion seemed completely inappropriate with Friedrich Ruckert was looking down on us from his pedestal. Here was a man, born in Schweinfurt in 1788, incredible intellect, the greatest Orientalist in Europe with mastery of thirty languages. His translations were widely distributed in Germany: Nala and Damayanti, a story from the Mahabharata; his six volume Wisdom of the Brahmins; but it was his translation of the Maqamat of al-Hariri that brought him first to public notice.

Congregation scene by al-Wasiti in the al-Ḥarīrī Maqāmāt showing a mosque with various animals (c)wikicommons

In the Arabic maqamah (plural maqamat) rhymed prose alternates with passages of florid poetry: in the hands of al-Hariri of Basrah (1030 - 1122), it became a major literary form. In his maqamat, al-Hariri, who by his own account was an extraordinarily ugly man, recasts fifty stories from a man whose daughter had been taken captive when his home town of Saruj had been sacked. In his retelling, al-Hariri writes in desert Arab dialect, idioms and proverbs, all an serious challenge to the translator.

'Even worse, he employs twelfth-century Arabic literary artifices such as sentences that can be read in reverse to give a different meaning. He also made ambiguities: the Arabic alphabet has seventeen shapes but achieves twenty-eight consonants by using dots - but al-Hariri wrote sequences where there was a dot on only every other character. Almost as if he was taunting translators of the future, al-Hariri listed his conceits: “language, serious and light; jewelled eloquence; verses from the Qur'an; metaphors; proverbs; riddles; double meanings;orations; and entertaining jests.” To render such difficult poetry, the translator needs must be a poet. And Ruckert was: in parallel with his translating, he wrote poetry influenced by his immersion in orientalism – Ostliche Rosen was published in 1822; his collected poems were published in six volumes a decade later, and there were many subsequent editions and abridgements. In the public mind, for much of the nineteenth century, he sat in the pantheon of Goethe and Schiller, only a little below. Needless to say, his poetry attracted the great German composers. Schubert, Robert Schumann, Clara Schumann, Brahms and Josef Rheinberger all set his work. Franz Liszt reinterpreted Schubert's Ruckert songs while staying true to the original meaning of the poems. Below are recordings of both Schubert and Liszt's versions of Du bist die Ruh. Ruckert died in 1866 not far from here – over in Coburg, where we have enjoyed the town's speciality sausages. Slowly, in the following decades, he fell out of fashion supplanted at the turn of the century by the modern literary wave. He was identified as an important German poet in Rudolph Borchardt's anthology Everlasting Storehouse of German Poetry but his star had dimmed. Then, like a supernova, his poetry exploded in some of the greatest lieder ever written. The composer who refound him was advanced musically but, luckily for Ruckert, a literary conservative – Gustav Mahler, no admirer of turn of the century Viennese literature with its 'defeat of naturalism'. There is a story of Mahler asking some students for their views on Dostoevsky. When the consensus was that they only knew his name, Mahler rounded on the least ill-informed: ‘But Schoenberg, what's all this? Let the young people who are studying with you read Dostoevsky – that's more important than counterpoint.’ Among his other literary favourites were the great collections of German folk poems - Das Knaben Wunderhorn first and foremost. And in 1905 Mahler said: ‘After Das Knaben Wunderhorn, I could not compose anything but Ruckert – this is lyric poetry from the source, all else is lyric poetry of a derivative sort.’ And he did: his conviction produced both his Ruckert Lieder and his Kindertotenlieder. For ten years I worked with people with all sorts of mental conditions. One chap, whose employer wanted to get rid of him, found himself relocated to the front of a busy showroom with flashing neon lights and a constant stream of people. With a diagnosis of autism, he lasted only a short time before fleeing the shop - and, to my mind, Ruckert was on the spectrum. 'Autism' is not a single thing, but a varying selection from a menu of behaviours, which is why diagnosis can usually only be made by a multi-disciplinary team. There are, however, some key indicators, among them exceptional proficiency in languages - of the kind shown by Ruckert. There is also a characteristic melt-down under physical or emotional stress - and this too features in Ruckert's story. In the winter of 1833-34, two of his children died of scarlet fever and, in his anguish, Ruckert lost himself in what is possibly the most extraordinary frenzy of creation in the history of literature. Over a six month period, he wrote 428 poems - in the words of Karen Painter, the historian of musical listening, 'the manic documents of a psychological endeavour to cope with such loss. In ever new variations, Rückert's poems attempt a poetic resuscitation of the children ... punctuated by anguished outbursts." These were extremely personal poems, not for publication, only appearing after Ruckert's death. They fascinated Mahler whose attitude to death was coloured by his mentor Gustav Theodor Fechner, the father of panpsychism: “We must never believe that death will spirit us away to a completely different world. Even after death we shall continue to inhabit the same earthly world as the one in which we now live.”

To Mahler, this was Ruckert's vision in his agony of bereavement. One of the Kindertotenlieder reads:

They have merely gone on ahead of us

And will not ask to come home again.

We shall overtake them on those hills

In the sunshine, the day is beautiful.

Alma Mahler begged Gustav not to write Kindertotenlieder, seeing them as ill-omened. Later, after the death of their elder daughter,she came to believe that through music a genius can foresee the future. Her evidence – the three hammer blows in the Sixth Symphony which to her represented their daughter's death, Mahler's heart disease and her affair with Walter Gropius.

Christian Gerhaher - Schubert Du bist die Ruh -

Sato Takashi - Liszt Du bist die Ruh -

A 1969 recording of Ruckert-Lieder by Janet Baker -

Schwarzkopf, with Bruno Walter, singing Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen -

And Jessye Norman, with Zubin Mehta, also singing Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen -

And, some might argue, how it should be sung -

A reading in English of six of the Songs on the Death of Children -

A reading in German of Ruckert's Abendlied -

And here is my favourite Janet Baker repertoire - Sea Pictures -

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