Monday 14 October 2019

The German roots of the drinking song

ClassicTalk with George Hamilton

'Libiamo' from Verdi's Traviata
'Libiamo' from Verdi's Traviata

George Hamilton

If Munich's famous Oktoberfest was on your to-do list for this year, I'm afraid you've missed it. The annual celebration of Bavaria's favourite brew belies its name, for it's now staged mostly in the month of September to try to guarantee good weather, and it ends tomorrow night.

It's not all about huge foaming steins full of beer. The fairground teems with attractions, and there's plenty of music too.

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Drinking songs have always had a part to play in social gatherings the world over. You can find their roots in the 11th century.

The Carmina Burana - the texts that turned up in 1803 in a Benedictine monastery in Bavaria - were the basis of some boisterous and none-too-reverent pieces attributed to various groups of travelling monks.

In their setting, by Carl Orff, you'd never guess their origin.

There are drinking songs aplenty in opera, the most obvious in The Student Prince, a production that had its premiere in 1924.

Sigmund Romberg's operetta is the story of an heir to a throne who falls for a barmaid when he goes to university in the historic old German city of Heidelberg.

But beneath the surface jollity, disappointment awaits. There's no happy ending. Duty trumps love in this tale.

The music throughout is a delight, and it features the definitive example of the style, with the glaringly obvious title of 'Drink, Drink, Drink'.

It certainly wouldn't be out of place at the Oktoberfest.

Verdi had a great ear for a melody and he came up with what is probably the best known of the operatic drinking songs - 'Libiamo' from his La Traviata.

"Let's drink," they sing early in Act One before the dancing starts. "Let's drink to love's sweet thrills."

Alfredo starts it. His love interest, Violetta, joins in. And before long the chorus is swept up in the joy of it all.

You'll find the bullfighter, Escamillo, raising a glass in Bizet's Carmen. "Votre toast," he sings as he makes his entrance in Act Two of the opera.

But he's not really suggesting a round of refreshment, it's more an ode to the courage of those in his line of work. That opening line of the 'Toreador Song', and the music that goes with it, fit it right into the category, even if the toast at the start is the only reference over the course of the tune.

One of the numbers in Mozart's Don Giovanni is actually nicknamed the Champagne Aria, as it's most often sung with a glass of bubbly in hand. It's Don Giovanni himself giving instructions to his manservant Leporello for the party he's about to lay on.

Fin ch'han dal vino - as long as they have wine, he sings, it'll be a great night.

The composer Mascagni offers his own salute in Cavalleria Rusticana when he has the soldier Turiddu perform 'Viva il Vino Spumeggiante' - "Here's to the sparkling wine".

Those - the 'Toreador Song' apart - are just some examples of what's known in opera as a brindisi.

Nothing to do with the Italian city of that name. Rather it's an Italian word that grew from a corruption of what Germans would say when proposing a toast - (ich) "bring' dir's" - I give you. Which, linguistically, completes our circle. We're back in Germany at the Oktoberfest. As they'll have said freely and often these past few weeks in Munich - Prost. Cheers!

George Hamilton presents 'The Hamilton Scores' on RTÉ Lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday.

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