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  • Modes of Musicality in Paul Celan’s Die Niemandsrose
  • Axel Englund

In an often quoted answer to an inquiry posed by the Paris bookshop Flinker in 1958, Paul Celan stated the following:

Die deutsche Lyrik geht, glaube ich, andere Wege als die französische. Düsteres im Gedächtnis, Fragwürdigstes um sich her, kann sie, bei aller Vergegenwärtigung der Tradition, in der sie steht, nicht mehr die Sprache sprechen, die manches geneigte Ohr immer noch von ihr zu erwarten scheint. Ihre Sprache ist nüchterner, faktischer geworden, sie mißtraut dem “Schönen,” sie versucht, wahr zu sein. Es ist [...] eine Sprache, die unter anderem auch ihre “Musikalität” an einem Ort angesiedelt wissen will, wo sie nichts mehr mit jenem “Wohlklang” gemein hat, der noch mit und neben dem Furchtbarsten mehr oder minder unbekümmert einhertönte.1

In the following year, Celan wrote the first poems of the collection Die Niemandsrose, published in 1963. In this book, music and musicality seem to play a significant role: not only does every fifth poem explicitly thematize music, but many poems seem deliberately to foreground the auditory aspects of their language. In the statement quoted above, Celan expresses the need to abandon the romantic conception of euphony without giving up poetic musicality as such and the need to distance his work from its questionable surroundings, while nonetheless allowing it to remain mindful of the tradition in which it stands. The aim of this article is to suggest a way of reading Celan’s own work as an answer to these demands and in this way to contribute to the relatively neglected topic of Celan and music. After a brief survey of the critical discourse on this topic and of the historical context of the role of music in German literature, it will proceed with some comments on “Todesfuge,” a crucial poem in this context, and then address its main examples, the poems “Es war Erde in ihnen” and “Anabasis” from Die Niemandsrose. The main objective of this analysis is to show that these poems cannot be thoroughly understood without consideration of their critical engagement with notions of poetic musicality. [End Page 138]

As yet, no longer studies have been devoted to the topic of Celan and music, with the exception of the immense commentary on “Todesfuge” and, to some extent, “Engführung.” Theo Buck expresses a widely held view when he claims that “[s]eit dem Ende der fünfziger Jahre verzichtete [Celan] bewußt auf jegliches ‘Musizieren’ mit Worten. Konsequent verbannte er deshalb Gestaltungselemente wie [...] Klangschönheit zunehmend aus seiner dichterischen Arbeit” (“Todesfuge” 11). This opinon – which this article hopes to disprove – might stem from superficial readings of statements such as the answer to the Flinker inquiry above, or of Hugo Huppert’s recollections of a conversation with Celan, in which the poet is to have said the following: “Auch musiziere ich nicht mehr, wie zur Zeit der vielbeschworenen Todesfuge, die nachgerade schon lesebuchreif gedroschen ist. Jetzt scheide ich streng zwischen Lyrik und Tonkunst” (320). Taken out of context, this statement can be interpreted as a categorical refutation on Celan’s part of any kinship between music and his poetry. But if related to the poems themselves, such a conclusion proves untenable. In the light of his frequent return to music as a theme, even in the later collections, these negative statements underscore how central an issue Celan felt this to be and how strange it is that the extensive criticism on his work has paid so little attention to it.

A few essays have acknowledged the problem and made attempts to approach it from different directions. Peter Horst Neumann has situated Celan at the endpoint of a German tradition that uses the motif of song as a means of poetological reflection, his main examples being four poems from “Atemkristall,” the cycle opening the collection Atemwende of 1967. Above all his historicizing perspective has served as an incentive to the present article. Moreover, Otto Pöggeler has emphasized relations to music as a desideratum of Celan research and demonstrated the persistence of musical motives in Celan’s late work, specifically in two poems related to Mozart: “Müllschlucker...


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