What’s in a Song?
By Roon Lewald
What’s in a song? Oh, many things, many many memories, as I discovered when I surfed the Worldwide Web on a sudden sentimental impulse, looking for the half-forgotten words of the poem for which composer S. le Roux Marais wrote the music of probably the most beautiful Afrikaans art song I know. I searchtagged “My hart verlang na die stilte” and immediately found the text of S.L.R. Bruggen’s poem “Heimwee” (Longing, or Homesickness). Not only that, but a link on the same page took me straight to South African singer Mimi Coertse’s homepage
I clicked “Heimwee” and found myself listening for the first time in 50 years to the recording of the song she made in 1956. That was the year when Mimi, fresh from triumphs “overseas” (magical word to post-colonial South Africans in those days!), toured South Africa to wow her countryfolk as South Africa’s first internationally acclaimed classical singer.
As a star of the Vienna State Opera ensemble from 1955 to 1973, she sang lead roles on major European opera stages with such famous greats as Giuseppe di Stefano and Fritz Wunderlich. How Boer hearts swelled with pride over the fame and artistry of this daughter of the Volk! As the 14-year-old son of a Pretoria singing teacher, I registered my father’s opinion that, while not quite up there with Maria Callas and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (well, who is?), Mimi in her heyday was a highly trained singer with a gloriously full, sweet soprano and a gift for sensitive, tasteful interpretation. But his cautious professional verdict was forgotten when, like many South Africans who heard her sing in 1956, I was thrilled by the Afrikaans art songs she included among various opera arias in her concert performances.
“Heimwee” especially plucked at my heartstrings. The Bruggen poem is deceptively simple, but it has nuances of feeling which S. le Roux Marais’ minor-key setting brings out with a sensitivity that demands equal insight and emotional control of the singer. Listening again to Mimi’s 1956 recording, I was once more enthralled by her tasteful restraint and careful phrasing, clearly enunciating every syllable to bring out the meaning of the words as her voice soared from introspective piano to a swelling cry from the heart in the final couplet: “…for oh, how I long for the veldt / and the eternal light of the sun.”
So there it was again: a perfect symbiosis of poet, composer and vocalist, combining to conjure up all the sadness of a lonely expatriate in a grey, cold European city, yearning for his idealised Afrikaner homeland in the free, open, eternally sunbathed veldt. It is hard to explain to an outsider what associations are hidden by the simple Afrikaans words of the poem. They express a sense of loss, a kind of longing for home that transcends sentimentality. The poem highlights a quintessential facet of the historically agrarianl Afrikaner’s deep, almost religious attachment to a traditional rural environment that still exists in his mind, even if it is fast losing out against urban encroachment today. This attachment is idealised and intensified by the context in which Bruggen wrote it as a student in Belgium in the early 20th century, at a time when South Africa was still a remote, rugged country separated from Europe by a vast continent and a ship voyage of several weeks. Especially on dreary winter days, the absence of Africa’s eternal light and sun is a depressive factor for expatriate South Africans in Europe even today, as I know to my cost. Bruggen reflects on the gloomy skies over Brussels and the meaningless bustle and clamour of money-mad urban life. Dreams of the sun-drenched veldt “swim in my eyes” and invade his song, making it climb up above the grey city skies in search of the “ever-shining sun.”
Here is the text, followed by an English translation:
Text: J.R.L. van Bruggen
Music: S. le Roux Marais
My hart verlang na die stilte
van die wye wuiwende veld;
ver van die stadsgeluide,
en die klinkende klank van geld.
Ek is moeg vir die rustelose lewe
van mense wat kom en gaan.
‘k Wil terug na die vrye ruimte
waar ‘n siel in woon, wat verstaan.
O, ek sien weer die son op die velde
en die ewige blou daarbo.
En my hart skiet vol van heimwee,
en my drome swem in my oë.
Ek sien weer die ylbloue berge
daar ver oor die westerkim,
en wonder nie meer waarom weemoed
so sag uit my liedere klim.
Klim na die grys lug bowe
waar die son in die miste kwyn,
want o, ek verlang na die velde,
Na die ewige sonneskyn.
My heart longs for the silence
of the wide-flung, waving veldt;
far from the noise of the city
and the clink of coin against coin.
I ‘m tired of this restless existence,
of people who come and go;
I yearn for the freedom of space
where a soul lives that understands.
Oh, I see the sun on the veldt again
and the infinite blue above;
and my heart yearns for my homeland,
and my dreams swim in my eyes.
I see the pale blue mountains
far off on the western rim,
and no longer wonder why longing
steals softly into my songs.
(They) Climb to the grey sky above me
where mists obscure the sun;
for oh, how I long for the home veldt,
and the ever-shining sun above!
Mimi is reported to be aging gracefully after settling in South Africa in 1973, since when she has done good work by establishing her own vocal ensemble.