Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Day the Music Died

It was called the bloodbath of Liege – the first battle of World War I, in which German troops invaded Belgium in early August of 1914 as the initial step in their plan to bypass strong French defenses.  One of their first military objectives was the town of Visé, but to delay the German advance, Belgians destroyed the town's bridge over the river Meuse and stiffly resisted German attacks.  When German troops finally took Visé, they executed civilians in reprisal for snipers who had killed German troops. They also burned two-thirds of the town’s homes and rounded up its citizens, sending men to prison camps and exiling women and children. 

Maria Dobler Benemann was a German writer and associate of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke.  Her husband, Ernst Gerhard Benneman, was fighting with the German army, and he wrote a diary account of his time in Visé.  When his friends returned home on leave, they told Maria that while in the devastated town, her husband had found a piano in ruined home and sat down briefly to play.  She used the story as material for the following poem.  Ernst Gerhard Benemann was killed sometime in autumn of 1915 on the Western Front.

Visé (After a Letter from the Field)

Smoke-black the air, the city in rubble,
buildings reduced to beams all charred
that strew the streets like barricades.
No roof shields the weary, just distant stars.

On paving stones troops take hard rest,
barely covered by a coat. 
Around, fatigue-dulled men breathe deep,
while you alone lie awake so late.

Behind, a heap of ashes haunts you,
an elegant house that you transformed
when hunting for a sniper's nest.

One room still held an instrument,
above it a fearful Virgin hung;
the quiet greeting and silent respite
caught you in their sudden embrace.

As light waned you plucked some chords,
Hollow echoes of the home's dead souls.
The Queen you salvaged in your coat
To bring her to me, when you make peace.

Then set fresh flames: you do your duty,
Blow this house up like all the rest.
…Was that a cry?  Or just a broken string?
Music, music behind you has collapsed.        
-1915 (unknown translator)[i]

What does victory cost the men who win the battle?  Benemann’s poem chillingly relates details of destruction: black smoke rises from rubble, roofless buildings, and charred beams. The men responsible for the violence “take hard rest,” and while some fall into the deep sleep of utter exhaustion, one man lies awake.  Intent on destroying a sniper’s nest, he was responsible for the hungry flames that “transformed” a home into a haunting “heap of ashes.” After the destruction of Visé, an occupant of the town reported, “I saw commissioned officers directing and supervising the burning….It was done systematically with the use of benzine, spread on the floors and then lighted.[ii] 

Sleepless under the distant stars – alone and isolated from everything and everyone --  the German soldier thinks back to the time before the fire.  “As light waned,” he wandered the deserted rooms of “an elegant house” and “plucked some chords” on a piano that remained, a lonely requiem for the “dead souls” who lived there.  He failed to save the home’s occupants or piano, but he “salvaged” – or looted – a painting of the Virgin Mary.  He hid The Queen of Heaven in his coat, hoping to bring her back to his wife as a stolen treasure of the war, looking forward to a time when the army would be able to “make peace.”

The poem’s mention of “peace” is immediately followed by a jarring image of the man “setting fresh flames.”  A good soldier, he does his duty – but he cannot shake the memory of what follows, what he heard:  a human cry?  Or “just a broken string”?  In either case, in burning a home, he has destroyed a part of himself; in following orders, he has contributed to the collapse of culture and civilized life.   The poems "Visé" and "Bach and the Sentry" (the subject of the last post) both realize that the world that existed before the war has been lost forever.  

                                                                  Maria Dobler Benemann                             Ernst Gerhard Benemann


[i] Want to read the poem in German? https://www.vhs-essen.de/cushy/Kriegslyrik-1914.pdf (page 121)