KATHLEEN KELLY: Heidenröslein
“MURDER! A HORRIBLE SIGHT!”
St. James Journal, the hometown paper
“The Deed of a Maniac”
New Ulm Review, the county seat’s paper
“A MANIAC ASSASSIN – SOUTH BRANCH THE SCENE – CRAZED OVER A LOVE AFFAIR –” St. Paul Globe, the state capitol’s paper
The same basic story unfolds below the lurid headlines. John Cable was a hired man on the farm of Henry Joblinski, a well-to-do Polish immigrant with a wife and eight children. He was enamored of the oldest daughter, Annie, but Henry objected. At about 6 am on the morning of December 22, 1896, Henry accused Annie of improper conduct with John and threatened to beat her. A fight between the two men erupted, and John came into the house with a weapon.
The two oldest sons ran back from the barn when they heard the shot that killed their father, and John shot them too. One son, still upstairs, leapt from his bedroom window into the deep snow and began running the mile to the neighboring farm. John held Annie in one hand and his revolver in the other, and ordered Annie’s mother, Anna, to leave the house with the smaller children.
Anna, my great-great grandmother, took them and headed into the snow. Eight-year-old Ella, my great-grandmother, certainly heard the last two shots that John fired.
On the day that she was killed, Annie Joblinski was thirteen years old. John Cable, who died stretched across her body, was twenty-five.
Jennifer and I are working on music commissioned for tonight’s concert. The first song we have to do is the old Schubert chestnut Heidenröslein, which can wait until January; we skip it in favor of the new commission, She Who Continues. It’s our first rehearsal, and so our brains are on pitches and rhythms: eighth note, eighth note, dotted quarter, F sharp, glissando, G natural. Concentrating on putting these building blocks in place helps me ignore my rising discomfort as Jen sings the words of the poem.
A fishwife a cunt
A harlot a harlot a pussy
Suddenly Jen stops cold, and we stare at each other for a second before we laugh, a huge release of tension and embarrassment.
“Oh. My. God” says Jennifer. “Am I going to sing these words in public?” We’re still laughing.
“I’ve heard these words a million times,” I say. “I’ve said these words. Why is it so icky when you sing them?”
“I’ve got another thought,” says Jen. “There’s like no soundproofing in this building. What do you think the people in the hall are doing?”
I’m giggling like an eighth grader when I open the door. All three people waiting on the bench outside immediately drop their gazes to their phones.
We go back to work, snickering like virgins.
A two dollar whore
A ten dollar whore
A million dollar mistress
“The two urchins reported that things were not as they should have been between the man and their sister for the past year...the case is a terrible one in its every aspect – the debauching of the little girl, the brutal murders and suicide.” - St. James Plaindealer
“Among his children was a daughter, Annie, who was indirectly the cause of the wholesale murder... It is claimed Cable wanted to marry the girl but could not on account of her age.” - New Ulm Review
“CRAZED OVER A LOVE AFFAIR...Cable became attached to Annie, whose father began to think they were too intimate... St. James has been a bloody corner of the county through many years, the last fight between the Northfield robbers and their pursuers taking place only a few miles north in 1876.” - St. Paul Globe
Karen and I are diving into the first rehearsal on our piece for tonight’s concert, the words written by a childhood friend of hers. There’s nothing in this poem like the raw list of epithets in Jennifer’s piece. But as Karen reaches the text
She says, “I wonder if we should cut that.” We look at each other. “I mean, I don’t really want to,” she says, “but I’m so uncomfortable saying it.” The words are not even a strong version of their meaning, but we’re both ill at ease.
“I sing Tosca,” she says. “I literally kill Scarpia to avoid being raped by him, right? I was never squeamish about that for a second. Why is this song different?”
We talk further about the themes of the song, the secret stories that ordinary women bear far from the media spotlight. We tell each other stories, our own, and others. We talk of being well into adulthood and surprised by the confessions of dear friends, of being chastened to learn of a sister’s long-borne burden.
Nobody knows, she sings, but we’re both thinking everybody knows.
It’s the centennial anniversary of the Jesse James Gang’s raid on the bank in my hometown: the “Northfield robbers,” who were killed near St. James, Minnesota, in 1876 as they tried to outrun the law. My junior high class has dug into the history of this event, and it leads me to an interest in my own family tree. I’m interrogating my grandmother about her first husband, my mom’s father, who died in the war. What was his family like?
Grandma says something about how fearful her mother-in-law always was, how hard to know. But that’s because something really sad happened when she was young. A hired man was in love with her sister, but the parents wouldn’t let them get married. “He was so sad, and he killed himself,” Grandma told me. “And he killed his sweetheart too.”
Junior high has also introduced me to Romeo and Juliet. I’m swept away to find that my own family contains a tragic romance, its own beautiful, dead sweethearts.
After bringing Karen to the airport, I go home and read through the rest of the music for tonight’s program. I haven’t had my fingers on the simple little chords of Heidenröslein for a hundred years.
Röslein wehrte sich und stach,
Half ihr doch kein Weh und Ach,
Mußt es eben leiden.
The little rose defended herself and pricked him,
But all that effort didn’t help her:
She had to suffer being plucked after all.
Just a song about a flower, the brevity of beauty. Isn’t that how I learned it?
I get on my computer and dig out all of the documents I’ve found about that old family murder, not really sure of what I am looking for. Then I realize: the terrible story is simultaneously softened and sensationalized as it spreads over time and distance, and as decisions are made to attract and keep readership. I can watch my own distant flower of an ancestor fade away in the story of her own death, Annie Joblinski reduced to a series of salacious vignettes.
As the news travels from the little farm town to the state capitol, “debauching” turns into a “love affair,” the “horrible sight” of the hometown paper becomes an emphasis on “the maniac.” The girl becomes an “indirect cause” of the murders before she is named as one of the dead; each paper lists the name of every man in her family, including the murderer’s, before hers. And for the big city audience, the celebrity Jesse James Gang is thrown in for the readers’ further arousal.
By the time the story reaches my generation, it’s told—and I hear it—as a tragic romance.
Maybe in that progression lies an answer to Karen’s question. We can easily watch an attempted rape and murder in a Puccini opera because those brutal acts are at once sensationalized and sweetened. Costumes and beautiful melodies and oversized emotion give us catharsis, but they also give us distance from acts that are brief, ugly, and often devastatingly simple. And over time, a patina of nostalgia develops. Sorrow over the heroine’s death mingles with a nostalgia for the sweetness of the music and the pang of the emotional release. Murder on stage turns into something more like church.
When you think of Violetta and Butterfly, do you think of their beautiful and brave spirits, or do you think of their social circumstances? Do the gorgeous arias of these characters reveal them, or hide them?
If I use the phrase “human trafficking” to refer to those stories, does any part of your spirit balk? Do you wonder why I can’t just let the music be?
Our classical music community finds itself at an important cultural moment: there is an opportunity to recognize the people and stories it has minimized or censored, and to hear those who have accepted grave compromise in order to earn a belated place at the table. We revere our compositional canon, and we prize expertise and talent. For this reason, it can be very painful, sometimes almost impossible, to accept that these things have not provided inspiration and opened doors to everyone, that the great tradition we adore and nurture has brought exclusion, silencing, and abuse alongside its greatest gifts.
Our human instinct is to smooth the hard edges of our most brutal stories. Music is a way to sing the stories of war, of loss, of all kinds of brutality, and to open our grieving hearts. Is it human nature to yield to the sweep of that beauty and the release it brings, but also to hold it up as a shield between ourselves and the hard, unforgiving core of the greatest shame, the most profound ugliness? Does it help us avoid unpacking and understanding evil, even as it brings us solace from evil’s effects?
When you hear us speaking through music tonight—when you hear beautiful voices pronouncing the trash language thrown at us in hate, or naming the various violations of our bodies—will you focus on the beauty of the sound, grateful for the emotional catharsis that music provides for these heartbreaking topics?
Or will you stay with the discomfort, the embarrassment, even the anger of having to hear it? Will you stay with us, come down closer to the source, and hear what the eyewitnesses have to tell you?
Please, let us dig down deep—together. Everybody knows.
Kathleen Kelly maintains a multifaceted and international career as a pianist, coach, conductor, educator, and writer. The first woman and first American named as Studienleiter at the Vienna State Opera, Kathleen held positions at the Metropolitan Opera, Houston Grand Opera, and San Francisco Opera. She maintains coaching relationships with national and international conservatory and professional training programs. She is in demand as a recital partner, masterclass clinician, and jury panelist. Kathleen is currently on the faculty of the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music and is artistic director of the Kerrytown Concert House in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Editors note: This article will be the program notes for the January 20th songSLAM festival recital #Metoo: Pathways to Healing. We just couldn’t keep this beautiful, important writing only for our immediate audience, and had to share with everyone. The full program can be found HERE.