Lord, preserve us from the witches

🐅 🐅 🐅 tiger tiger tiger for ultimate April, also Walpurgis Night / Eve, the first of two days marking what we might think of as “high spring” (in the northern hemisphere), turning to the last of the spring months; tomorrow, May 1st, is the more famous (it’s  May Day and also the Celtic festival Beltane).

The capsule story, from Wikipedia:

Walpurgis Night, an abbreviation of Saint Walpurgis Night (from the German Sankt-Walpurgisnacht), also known as Saint Walpurga’s Eve (alternatively spelled Saint Walburga’s Eve), is the eve of the Christian feast day of Saint Walpurga, an 8th-century abbess in Francia, and is celebrated on the night of 30 April and the day of 1 May. This feast commemorates the canonization of Saint Walpurga and the movement of her relics to Eichstätt, both of which occurred on 1 May 870.

Saint Walpurga was hailed by the Christians of Germany for battling “pest [AZ: bubonic plague], rabies, and whooping cough, as well as against witchcraft”. Christians prayed to God through the intercession of Saint Walpurga in order to protect themselves from witchcraft, as Saint Walpurga was successful in converting the local populace to Christianity. In parts of Europe, people continue to light bonfires on Saint Walpurga’s Eve in order to ward off evil spirits and witches.

A painterly moment. From the Tate Gallery site on the 1935 Paul Klee painting Walpurgis Night (gouache on fabric on plywood):

(AZ note: Wonderfully creepy: dark flames in the night, from which peer eyes — the eyes of evil spirits and witches, presumably)

During the rise of the Nazi regime in the Thirties, Klee [who was born in Switzertland, but established his artistic career in Germany] became a target of their campaign against ‘degenerate art’. In 1933 Klee was stripped of his teaching post at the Bauhaus and fled [back] to Switzerland where he fell ill, produced far fewer paintings, and died in 1940. More than a hundred of his works were confiscated from German museums and collections. Walpurgis Night is the night that marks the transition from winter to spring, falling on the eve of the first of May. In folk tradition, witches would gather on the Brocken, the highest of the Harz Mountains, to perform rituals to ward off evil. According to his son Felix, such legends exerted a particularly strong influence on Klee’s work.

A deeply sad story. Klee wasn’t a Jew, but he was a “degenerate artist” — so, in 1933 not shipped to a concentration camp to be murdered, but merely ruined.

A poetic and musical moment. From Wikipedia:

Die erste Walpurgisnacht (The First Walpurgis Night) is a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, telling of the attempts of Druids in the Harz mountains to practice their pagan rituals in the face of new and dominating Christian forces.

It was famously set to music by Felix Mendelssohn as a secular cantata for soloists (alto, tenor, baritone, bass), choir, and orchestra. He completed an initial version in 1831, and extensively revised it before publishing it as his Opus 60 in 1843.

… The story is about how a prank allows for a local tradition to take place in spite of opposition from an intolerant new regime. The Druids and local heathen would celebrate May Day, but, as a women’s chorus warns, this is now forbidden. The Druid priests counter that those who fear to sacrifice deserve their chains. A comic solution emerges as a Druid watchman suggests a masquerade of the Devil, spirits, and demons to frighten the occupying Christians. The Christians are scared away, and the Druids and heathen are left to celebrate Spring and the Sun.

The attractions of this text for Mendelssohn likely were the ghost scene (compare his incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and the triumph (by guile) of an oppressed group in an occupied land, an important Enlightenment idea, as well as one perhaps reflecting the composer’s Jewish background: the final verses of the oratorio emphasize an abstract divinity (dein Licht) over a threatened earthly ritual (den alten Brauch).

So the more or less historical story, of an indigenous religion being savagely attacked by the juggernaut of Christianity (specifically, the Roman Catholic Church), is replaced by a comic story, with plenty of opportunities for Mendelssohnian scene-painting.

You can listen (via this link) to a 2007 Polygram recording of a performance with Christine Cairns, mezzo soprano; Jon Garrison, tenor; Tom Krause, baritone; and Jeffrey Wells, bass baritone; and the Cleveland Orchestra as conducted by Christoph von Dohnányi.

(This is just a taste of the wide range of Walpurgis Night material, from all sorts of high art and popular culture too.)

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