The Hearse Song - (2007)
for baritone and piano
for Choi Woong-Jo
The old grey hearse goes rolling by,
You don't know whether to laugh or cry;
For you know some day it'll get you too,
And the hearse's next load may consist of you.
They'll take you out and they'll lower you down,
While men with shovels stand all a-round;
They'll throw in dirt and they'll throw in rocks,
And they won't give a damn if they break the box.
The worms crawl in and the worms crawl out,
They crawl all over your chin and mouth,
They invite their friends and their friends' friends too,
And you look like hell when they're through with you.
Duration - 4 pages, circa 2' 00"
Tessitura in the edition for alto
In Wagner's Der Fliegende Holländer, the title part's opening aria, "Die Frist ist um," modulates to C minor after a recitative of sorts, and begins its arioso agitato with the text "Wie oft in Meeres tiefsten Schlund stürzt ich voll Sehnsucht mich hinab...." The melody for this line becomes the opening vocal phrase of this dark yet comic parody of both the tone of that Wagnerian masterpiece and the childhood favorite lines about "the worms crawl in and the worms crawl out" as found in this anonymous text.
The accompaniment only echoes the aria's gesture to provide the atmosphere for this little song. What remains is to answer the conundrum; should we "laugh or cry?"
After two similar strophes, the thematic mood is broken by a quirky little meno mosso, before a shortened recapitulation of the opening mood, dark and threatening all the while silly and comic.
Proving the popularity of such silly though macabre verse, another version of the text is as follows:
Did you ever think as the hearse rolls by
That some of these days you must surely die?
They'll take you away in a big black hack,
They'll take you away but won't bring you back.
The men with shovels stand all around.
They shovel you into that cold, wet ground.
They shovel in dirt and they throw in rocks.
They don't give a damn if they break the box.
And your eyes drop out and your teeth fall in,
And the worms crawl over your mouth and chin;
And the worms crawl out and the worms crawl in,
And your limbs drop off of you, limb by limb.
There are so many, many more versions of this that one could post a dozen different versions, each stressing something a little bit different.
Most certainly the variations on this theme become all the funnier as they become more gruesome, as with the lyric variation: "The worms crawl in and the worms crawl out, / they crawl in thin and they crawl out stout." Or ponder the dark humor of "two maggots fighting in dead Earnest."
It has been the observation of many that one purpose of art is to confront those "ultimate realities," as some theologians are wont to say. Given that the theme of much drama as well as much other prose, poetry, libretti and similar literature is death and our relation to its looming significance, it seems only meet and right to have a laugh at our own expense.
Bass-baritone Woong-jo Choi was born in 1974 in Seoul, South Korea, and has studied voice in Seoul and Vienna. From 2003-2004, he was in the ensemble of the Lucerne Theater, as well as making guest appearances in Austria, Spain und Japan. He has been in the ensemble of Theater Aachen since 2005. His first Holländer was very well sung.
The score for The Hearse Song is available as a free PDF download, though any major commercial performance or recording of the work is prohibited without prior arrangement with the composer. Click on the graphic below for this piano-vocal score.
The Hearse Song