What’s in a Song?

May 22, 2010 at 2:27 am 10 comments

By Roon Lewald

Mimi CoertzeWhat’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:

HEIMWEE

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.

LONGING

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.

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Entry filed under: Afrikaans, Boere, Essay, Lewald, van pletsen, van pletzen.

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10 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Jenny  |  May 23, 2010 at 12:52 am

    This is a lovely interweaving of personal recollection and informative observations about a noteworthy figure in music. I’m glad your reveries led to this!

    Reply
    • 2. Roon Lewald  |  May 23, 2010 at 1:09 am

      Thanks, Jenny – as often before, bouncing my reflections off you helped me to develop my thoughts. I look forward to our next E-mail dialogue!

      Reply
  • 3. Darryl Vickers Milner  |  February 11, 2011 at 8:12 am

    I was born and grew up in SA, was ordained an Anglican priest and movied to New Zealand in 1976. I can identify with so much in this blog. I also found Heimwee on Mimi’s webpage, downloaded it and listen from time to time when Heimwee strikes! Thank you.

    Reply
  • 4. Roon Lewald  |  July 18, 2011 at 7:57 am

    I belatedly saw your comment, Darryl. Thanks for your thanks. Out here in my European diaspora, I’m always glad to hear about SA-born fellow-expatriates in faraway places globe whose souls are tuned into my sentimental wavelength!

    Reply
  • 5. Clive Basson  |  December 6, 2012 at 2:58 pm

    Hello Roon, I have been searching for a recording of Heimwee for some time now. I have recently taken voice training lessons and I am working on Heimwee. I heard the SA tenor Johan Botha singing it in Jhburg and Cape Town, and had hoped to find his recording which was truly great. I have been searchin under Ge Korsten to no avail as I wan to have a tenor recording. Further searching lead me to your blog and thanks for directing me to the old recording by Mimi Coertzer. Ek se danki vir jou.
    Greetings, Clive Basson

    Reply
    • 6. walter dammann  |  March 21, 2015 at 9:53 pm

      Dear Clive, not many male singers venture into the Afrikaanse Kunslied, which onse Mimi has immortalised. I did and posted it on Youtube under Dammann Musik. I am a bass-baritone, but hope that it will be of interest to you. Greetings, walter dammann

      Reply
  • 7. Roon Lewald  |  February 17, 2013 at 11:34 am

    Hello Clive,

    Just seen your comment – belated thanks! Your remark about Johan Botha’s performance is interesting – haven’t heard a male voice rendition of Heimwee myself, actually. Keep well!

    Roon Lewald

    Reply
  • 8. walter dammann  |  March 21, 2015 at 9:48 pm

    Dear Mr Lewald, I am looking for a translation of Louis Leipoldt’s poem “Oktobermaand” and hope that you might be able to help me. Thank you, walter dammann

    Reply
  • 9. Faruk Waja  |  December 7, 2015 at 4:16 pm

    Lovely

    Reply
  • 10. Benjamin Fourie  |  December 31, 2015 at 12:59 am

    Hello Roon, I recently performed Heimwee in an Afrikaans Art Song recital with Henriet Fourie, a relative who has a successful career in Chicago as soprano, at Hartbeespoortdam, near Pretoria. We started our programme with Heimwee, and included two South African premieres of cycles by Dirk de Klerk (Vlugge Ewigheid) who resides in London and Etienne van Rensburg (Blou Orkaan W44/98) amongst other songs. Do you perhaps know when Heimwee was composed?

    Reply

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