Nuns, monks and monasteries

Goya, Monk talking to an old woman, 1824-5
Goya, Monk talking to an old woman, 1824-5

Monks and nuns represent the obverse of the classic figure of the ‘wanderer’ in the Lieder repertoire. Confined in their cells and cloisters, they have nowhere to travel to other than in their imagination and frustration. The monk in Leitner’s Der Kreuzzug (D 932)  watches crusaders setting off to Jerusalem from the window of his cell and tries to tell himself that he too is on some sort of journey to the Holy Land. The young nun in D 828 hears the thunder and tries to remind herself that she is supposed to have found peace in the nunnery, but she is all too aware that the turbulence within her is even greater than the storm breaking outside.

The figure in Mayrhofer’s ‘Einsamkeit’ (D 620) embodies this approach to the monastic life as an ongoing struggle. Mayrhofer and Schubert almost certainly planned the work together as a sort of response to (or development of) Beethoven’s ‘An die ferne Geliebte’, in which the poetic persona is conscious of always being cut off from the beloved. Happiness itself is frustratingly deferred. If we travel, the destination is never here, but entering a cloister is no guarantee that we will attain our goal either. The central character of ‘Einsamkeit’ enters a monastery as a very young man, only to find that his inner turbulence forces him out into the world again. Only after social and military escapades is the character in a position to return to the solitary life.

It is not the same, though. Mayrhofer’s figure eventually finds fulfilment in solitude in the  woods, presumably as a hermit rather than as a member of a monastic community. From the very beginnings of Christian monasticism, when the desert fathers retreated further and further from other human settlements, and lived on higher and higher pillars in Syria or Egypt, there was always a tendency to focus on the solitary individual. Competitive asceticism eventually forced people to realise that it might be even more challenging to live a good, devoted life within the confines of society. What was needed waa an enclosure so that people would be forced to live together and resolve their differences. There may be a reference to this very challenge in Seidl’s ‘Am Fenster’ (D 878), where the poetic persona continues to look at the enclosing wall after a lifetime of distress and struggle:

Du Mauer wähnst mich trüb wie einst,
Das ist die stille Freud;
Wenn du vom Mondlicht widerscheinst,
Wird mir die Brust so weit.
An jedem Fenster wähn ich dann
Ein Freundeshaupt, gesenkt,
Das auch so schaut zum Himmel an,
Das auch so meiner denkt.

Wall, you imagine that I am as gloomy as I used to be,
Because this is a quiet joy;
When you are reflected in the moonlight
My breast opens up.
I then imagine that at each window
There is a friend's head, bent over,
Which is also looking up to heaven,
Which is also thinking of me!

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