Remembering Marie A.

Erinnerung an die Marie A. (Ernst Busch.)
Erinnerung an die Marie A. (Ulrich Mühe)
Remembering Marie A. (Bowie, broadcast).
Remembering Marie A. (Bowie, studio).

Brecht wrote a poem he called “Sentimental Song No. 1004″ on a train to Berlin in February 1920. Allegedly written for Marie Rosa Amann, an Augsburg girl that Brecht had met in an ice-cream parlor (she later allegedly said Brecht was the first boy to ever kiss her), “Song,” later retitled “Erinnerung an die Marie A.,“* was based on a sentimental popular hit of the era, a French song called “Tu ne m’amais pas” that Brecht knew in its German version, “Verlorenes Glück.”

“Marie A.” was something of a” hit single” for Brecht as well. He sang it, accompanied by his own guitar, several times in public in the early Twenties. After being published in 1924, the poem was sung in several stage productions and recorded by Kate Kühl in 1928, and, a few years later, by Ernst Busch. While not written or intended for Baal, the song, being quite popular, was sometimes used in productions of it, including one of Baal‘s earliest 1926 performances.

In the BBC’s revival of Baal, “Marie A.” was substituted for Baal’s coarse ode to sitting on the toilet (“a place that teaches you, so Orge sings/be humble, for you can’t hold on to things“). The setting is Baal’s favorite tavern, during an evening when he’s humiliating Emily, the society woman he’s recently seduced, while beginning his offensive on his next target, the virgin Johanna. The toilet song is used as a further debasement of Emily, but swapping “Marie A.” in its place changes the mood, suspending the sordid atmosphere for a moment.

“Marie A.” is a quietly anti-romantic piece. The narrator begins by recalling a splendid late summer day in his youth that he spent with a long-departed love. But as the three-stanza verse proceeds, the memory fades: he claims that the girl means nothing to him now, nor ever did; he can’t remember what it was like to kiss her, or what her face looked like, or her last name. Instead, all that he really remembers is a cloud that he had spied for a moment, dissipating in the air as he watched it pass on that lost afternoon—a cloud that, vanishing just as it was born, has come to stand in his mind for everything he’s forgotten, everything since destroyed or worn-out (the wood’s been chopped down, Marie A. is likely now on her seventh child).

For the BBC Baal, Dominic Muldowney again took as a start Brecht and Franz Bruinier’s original music for “Marie A.,” which used a soaring, romantic melody that the cold, disillusioned lyric seemed to mock—the vocal is a series of steady but aborted climbs that finally reach the top at the climax of each verse (on a high D, e.g. “it was quite WHITE”). I prefer the broadcast performance of “Marie A.” to the studio remake, as Bowie’s in wonderful voice for the former (even the odd garbled note on the final “moments” gives it character); his more genteel performance in the studio take seems weighed down by comparison.

Baal was taped on 8-12 August 1981, BBC Television Centre; shown on BBC1, 2 February 1982. Studio version recorded in September 1981 at Hansa, Berlin; EP released 13 February 1982.

* When spoken (in German) “Marie A.” sounds like “Maria,” the Virgin Mary. It’s likely Brecht did that intentionally. He was fond of “Marie” (as the name “spanned the distance between housemaids and Saint Mary”), using it in several poems. (From Hugo Schmidt’s notes on Brecht’s Manual of Piety.)

Top: Clare Grogan, 1981.

8 Responses to Remembering Marie A.

  1. Brendan O'Lear says:

    Sorry, for some reason I thought the last entry was covering the whole EP. Of all the songs I’ve revisited on this site, this EP is the one that has surprised me the most. Pleasantly.
    The arrangement and the vocals on the studio version seem to be begging for a 5-minute epic.

  2. Maj says:

    Oh I love this. I haven’t seen Baal yet (only read abt it in Pegg’s book years ago) so I haven’t given the EP much thought or even a proper listen so far. Seems it was my loss.
    I’ll read the other entry later this week, I promise. :)

  3. giospurs says:

    Great vocal performance from Bowie in the broadcast version but I can’t help liking Ernst Busch’s version better.
    p.s. fantastic picture of Clare Grogan :)

  4. diamond dog says:

    I’ve dug out the copy of the bbc play so will give a spin at the weekend , although I’ve had it for years I’ve not watched it since I got it. Must say your write is for me far more interesting than the end product. The release of Baal would today just commercial suicide it is amazing to me that it charted highly in the uk. in some countrys it was released as an 12 inch long player in the uk a 7 inch ep. Was this a contract get out ?

  5. Remco says:

    I prefer the recording actually. To me the song seems to be about using the language of a love song to sell a decidedly unromantic message (‘Had this girl once but I soon discarded her’) The arrangement of the recording takes the same route, both the strings and the singer give a decidedly sentimental flavor. I miss that in the broadcast, which is too quick, too offhand. His voice is great, I agree, but he gives the game away almost immediately. The recording is much more sinister.

  6. Jeremy Earl says:

    I agree – great voice on these tracks, but still can’t get into it. Perhaps one day it will click and I’ll have more Bowie to love.

  7. Oh, to have a Bowie recording of the toilet song!

    Kidding aside, I’ve seen the bootlegs of Baal and was very impressed with Bowie’s work. Baal isn’t actually very representative of Brecht’s ouvre (this came before he had created his notions of “epic theater”) which sometimes seems to confuse directors who impose post-Epic Brechtian acting on what was a fairly straightforward play. The BBC Baal seems to find a middle-ground- it doesn’t rely to much on Stanslavsky-esque method naturalism, but it is not nearly as over the top or deliberately articicial as later Brecht.

    Bowie naturally does Brechtian detachment very well. When I saw the revival of Threepenny Opera on Broadway a few years ago (with Alan Cumming as Macheath and Cyndi Lauper as Jenny Diver) I found myself wondering what Bowie would have done with Mack.

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