Remembering Marie A.

October 4, 2011

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.