So, I was thinking a lot about what I wanted to write for today and I came to the conclusion that maybe an analysis of songs might be in order. Now, I don’t know how that’s going to work. We’ll see how it goes. I think that this might be a week-long thing (hopefully) and it should be a lot of fun! For today’s post I’ve decided that I’d do an analysis of both the German and English versions of a beautiful song, “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” [Dunkles Schweigen an den Tischen] from LES MISÉRABLES, however, for the following posts this week, I’d like to take your recommendations into account! Anyhow, this should be an interesting post for me to write as I’ve actually (and quite embarrassingly on my part) never listened to the German version of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” even though it’s one of my favorite songs from the musical. Los geht’s?
First and foremost, let’s note the titles, shall we? “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” speaks to the chairs and tables at which the barricade boys sat and talked. But now… they’re empty. “Dunkles Schweigen an den Tischen” means “Dark Silence at the Tables”. And again, that dark silence hangs over Marius’s head as his friends are all now dead and gone.
Throughout the song, Marius sings about a few things:
1. His grief
2. His feelings of guilt
3. His memories of the students inside of the Musain.
The first stanza mostly speaks of his grief and really sets the scene. Let’s start with the English version, shall we?
“There’s a grief that can’t be spoken. There’s a pain goes on and on. Empty chairs at empty tables Now my friends are dead and gone.”
As said before, the first stanza is really, really talking about the grief that Marius feels in regards to the death of his friends.
“Dieser Schmerz kennt keinen Namen. Niemand bringt sie wieder her. Dunkles Schweigen an den Tischen Meine Freunde sind nicht mehr.” [This pain has no name. No one can will bring them back. Dark Silence at the tables, my friends are here no more.]
I’d say that what’s being said in the two versions are very similar. Marius tells us about his pain. He speaks about the pain that’s weighing down on him due to the dreadful silence that lingers over the Musain, now that his friends are gone. So far, the translation remains… pretty faithful. On to the next stanza then?
“Here they talked of revolution. Here it was they lit the flame. Here they sang about tomorrow And tomorrow never came.”
Now, we’re jumping down to #3, namely, remembering what was and now no longer is. He speaks a little more, demonstrating the horrible pain he feels with the quick reflection “And tomorrow never came.”
“Hier erhob sich ihre Flamme hier ergriff sie Mann für Mann Hier besangen sie die Zukunft Doch die Zukunft brach nicht an” [Here their flame arose, it seized man for man. Here they celebrated the future. But the future did not begin.]
Now, maybe it’s just me but something about the German lyrics seem… weightier. Sure, in the German and English versions, Marius is essentially singing about the same thing. All the same, though, the illustration of the rebellion and the hope that they had seems to carry more weight. In the German version, we get to see more of their passion for the rebellion in the words “Hier erhob sich ihre Flamme hier ergriff sie Mann für Mann.” [Here their flame arose, it seized man for man.] It just really seems to speak to the power of revolution, doesn’t it? And then, the contrast of mere singing about the future compared to celebrating the future. “Tomorrow never came” in the English version, but in the German version, “die Zukunft brach nicht an” [the future did not begin]. Anyways… on to the third stanza!
“From the table in the corner They could see a world reborn And they rose with voices ringing And I can hear them now! The very words that they had sung Became their last communion On this lonely barricade at dawn.”
Here, we get some more reflection on what was. And it’s here in the English version that we get to see that passion for their cause that the German version brought up in the second stanza. We see that future [die Zukunft] that the German version talked about earlier as well.
“Von dem Tisch dort tief im Winkel Schauten sie die neue Welt Und ihr Lied stieg hoch zum Himmel Ich vernehm’ sie noch Denn jedes Wort hat sie geeint Zum Abendmahl der Freundschaft Für den Barrikadentod als Held.” [From the table there deep in the corner, They looked upon the new world And their song rose to heaven—I can still hear them. For every word had united them To the supper of friendship For the barricade death as a hero.]
So, more of the same stuff from the German version. More reflection. However, note that in the English version Marius doesn’t see the students’ deaths as heroic—at least, not here. But in the German version he calls their deaths “den Barrikadentod als Held” [The barricade death as a hero].
“Oh my friends, my friends forgive me That I live and you are gone. There’s a grief that can’t be spoken. There’s a pain goes on and on.”
Finally, we’re starting to see some of that guilt I talked about earlier creep into the song. Yet, the grief is still there. If anything, I think, the guilt adds to his grief.
“Meine Freunde, seid mir gnädig, Ich vermisse euch so sehr. Dieser Schmerz kennt keinen Namen. Niemand bringt euch wieder her.” [My friends, be merciful to me. I miss you so very much. This grief has no name. No one will bring you back.]
Okay, so the first time I listened to the German version of this song (today), I just clapped my hands at this part. Why? Because to me, this part finally, finally made sense. To me, in the English version, it made very little sense as to why Marius was asking his friends to forgive him for surviving. I’ve always felt that they wouldn’t have been angry at him for it. In the German version, however, Marius is asking for their mercy for a few things: first, not being as much a part of them as he should have (not being as dedicated to the cause), and second, for not being stronger. Or, if you really wanted to, you could interpret it as Marius asking them to forgive him for missing them so much when he should be celebrating “their barricade deaths as heroes”. Another thing that I fell in love with from the German version is the part where Marius says “Ich vermisse euch so sehr” [I miss you so very much]. It just seems fitting. Something that I like about the two versions combined, though, is that the English version speaks more about his grief in terms of his own pain whereas the German version speaks of his grief due to the fact that his friends are dead and no one can bring them back.
“Phantom faces at the windows. Phantom shadows on the floor. Empty chairs at empty tables Where my friends will meet no more.”
Here, we get a feel for the real grief and pain that Marius is grappling with. He feels haunted, almost. Then, again… his friends will no longer meet in that very room.
“An den Fenstern starr’n Gespenster Werfen Schatten in den Raum. Dunkles Schweigen an den Tischen, Keiner teilt mit mir den Traum.” [In the windows, there are ghosts, Throwing their shadows in the empty space. Dark silence at the tables, No one shares the dream with me.]
It’s interesting here, that we get to see a bit of a sense of regret in Marius, I think. In both versions we see lots of pain and grief. But in the German version, we don’t see the fact that his friends will no longer meet there, we see the more pressing issue… no one’s left to dream of the future with Marius. He’s alone.
“Oh my friends, my friends, don’t ask me What your sacrifice was for. Empty chairs at empty tables Where my friends will sing no more.”
So, in this finale, we see the grief just pressing down. One can only imagine that those “Phantom faces and shadows” are haunting and asking Marius “what their sacrifice was for”.
“Meine Freunde, fragt mich niemals, Ob sich solch ein Opfer lohnt. Dunkles Schweigen an den Tischen, Weil kein Freund die Nacht bewhont.” [My friends, never ask me Whether such a sacrifice is worthwhile. Dark silence at the tables, Because no friend the night survives].
This made me bawl. I just couldn’t keep the tears back. Sure, the English version’s sad—heartbreaking, even—but Marius’s cry for his friends not to ask him if the sacrifice was worthwhile just was too much. It’s a perfect characterization of Marius. Marius isn’t as passionate about the whole revolution thing as say, Enjolras. And he doesn’t know if their sacrifice was worth it. He doesn’t want to be faced by that question. Then, he’s being haunted by the daunting silence, reminding him that his friends are gone. Then, there’s that other part that made me hunch over with the tears. “Weil kein Freund die Nacht bewhont” [Because no friend survives the night].
So, that was a lot of fun! I was really able to delve into the heartbreak within the song and I think that I’ve really learned something about Marius today!
Did you think that this analysis was interesting? What song should I analyze next? Vielen dank und tschüss!