by ECO soprano soloist Sari Gruber
<ning through flower-speckled fields, climbing apple trees, chasing cows and chickens on the farm up the hill, playing in the hay loft, helping my mother in the vegetable garden, tasting the flavors of various flower nectars, being called back inside for the day by an alpine cow bell…such was my idyllic childhood growing up on the Berghof, the Zundel family estate majestically situated on a hill overlooking Lustnau, small farming village outside Tübingen, Germany, where my father did research in physical chemistry at the institute located on the grounds. Having both lived in Germany prior to my birth, my American parents spoke fluent German, and were happy to raise my older sister and me fully immersed in German language and culture, taking in the many musical and operatic offerings at the University of Tübingen and in nearby Stuttgart. My first language was Swabian, my second was German, and my third was English. (Why do I separate Swabian, an ancient dialect, from German? Just ask any German!)
Every weekend, my family went for hikes or bike rides in the surrounding forests, going on mushroom hunts for stew in the fall, and grilling sausages on twigs in the summer. We bottled our own water from a special spring in the far woods, where I remember the cuckoos calling as we walked through tall-as-the-sky pines. I can still smell the pretzels being baked at the bakery in town, and hear the sound of the church bells pealing at mass. In the Spring, we ate Spargel (white asparagus) wrapped in ham with butter. (You have not lived until you have tasted it!) We made our own apple cider every two years after picking the farmer’s apples on the Berghof, and my father would always bring me to the town’s apple press to watch the old wood and iron machine crush the apples into juice. He kept the old cider from two years prior to make “Mosht” in a big barrel in our basement – a truly awful brew, but, a chacun son gout, right?
The German culture really knows how to nurture young children, and that is a good thing since their high schools, which begin in grade 4, are quite academically rigorous. But the childhood is sacred there, and the social structure is geared towards nurturing the youngest in the herd. I had a marvelous time exploring, crafting, pretending, imagining…all to this splendid backdrop of rolling hills and forests, a close-knit community of friends and neighbors – and incredible food.
I left this bucolic childhood behind when my mother returned to the States with my sister and me when I was nine, but my vivid sensorial memories have helped me sustain a deep connection to that time in my life. Oddly enough, even though I have been a singer for a number of years, I have not had the opportunity to sing in German very often on the operatic stage where my repertoire has been predominantly Italian. Instead, I have found great joy on the recital stage singing German Lieder, and have even had the occasion to sing a few songs in Swabian (a rare treat, indeed!).
Few pieces describe my early childhood as accurately and beautifully as Mahler’s 4th Symphony, with its childlike view of heaven from the “Knaben Wunderhorn” in the final movement. Some Schubert, Brahms, Wolf and Strauss songs come close, as do some of Mahler’s other “Wunderhorn” settings. But in Mahler’s Symphony #4, brimming with the wonders of delicious foods, beautiful nature and the safety of being cared for by various saints, the sights, sounds and simplicity of life in the world beyond sound a lot like the heaven I had on earth for those few years in Germany, and I delight in stepping briefly back into that existence. Each time I approach this work, I am so humbled by the gift Mahler gave us in this symphony, and by the fact that I am lucky enough to have tasted something pretty close to heaven in my own childhood.