Songcycle: Quatrains by Jacob Israel de Haan (Work in progress)

(soundsamples: at the bottom, also a link to Wikipedia about the author in English)

December 2018 I started breaking some new ground for myself. Although I composed music to lots of my own songs over the years, I rarely put the lyrics of others to music. I started out putting a Quatrain a day to music, but even though the cycle comprises of twenty four compositions by now, I confess that only the first six of them generate from the first weeks. 

Jacob Israel de Haan’s poetry is famous, but even in the Netherlands not everyone knows it. He is best known for the quote on the Amsterdam Homomonument: “For friendship such an immeasurable longing”, written in 1919. The poem “To a young fisherman” from which it originates I put to music too, but now I want to talk about his approximately thousand Quatrains. A truly overwhelming body of work, with some of the the most beautiful and important Dutch poetry of the first half of the 20th century, according to even more famous fellow poets/critics after him, like Martinus Nijhoff.

The story behind the Quatrains: Jacob de Haan (brother to another great Dutch author, Carry van Bruggen) migrates to Jeruzalem and visits a diversity of cities on his way, notably London and Naples. In the Quatrains he makes notes of impressions, expectations, feelings, and memories of Holland.

After his arrival in Palestine he keeps on doing just that, living his life, traveling around and engaging himself intensely, religiously, politically and socially. Eroticism and an eye for cute boys is a prominent thread running through all of his observations.

My work as a singer, writer/translator and voice-over (and certainly my alter ego Hella Holland) seem hardly connected with this subject matter. Still I would like to find room for this work on this website (and in my life), although it is not yet clear how and when the songs will be performed. The talented composer Lucas Wiegerink has already advised me somewhat, and that’s why I dare to publicize a sample: three songs I recorded with pianist Maarten Hillenius - singing them myself. They are eventually intended to be sung by more classically trained voices.

Cyclenumber 2. “Jeruzalem” (Jerusalem), number 17. “Een matroos” (A sailorboy) and nr. 38.“Avond”(Evening)

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Translation of Quatrain nr.2: Jeruzalem (Jerusalem)

The voice of Jerusalem,

through the day Jerusalem calls, through the dark night.

Like a mother comforts her wailing sons,

that’s how that city of cities consoles our complaint.

Translation of Quatrain nr.17: Een matroos (A sailorboy)

A sailorboy, his dark hair,

his eyes flowering, his cheeks blushing.

Don’t think of the thousands of sailorboys

that were young and fair as this one.

Translation of Quatrain nr.38: Avond (Evening)

Stripes of light along the land,

In the sky a shimmer of red.

The City, it pants and burns.

What is life, mother, and what is death?

(by Jacob Israel de Haan, translations by Ron Mesland)

About Jacob Israel de Haan: Wiki-pedia