The subject of Todesfuge—the Death fugue—is the Nazi labour camp. The poet, Paul Celan, was a Romanian Jew and a polyglot whose mother tongue was German. For eighteen months during World War II, he was incarcerated in one of the Romanian labour camps, until liberated by the Red Army in 1944. Todesfuge was written in that year.
Celan wrote, when he arrived to live in Paris in 1948: “There’s nothing in the world for which a poet will give up writing, not even when he is a Jew and the language of his poems is German.”
The original German text is given here.
John Felstiner’s fine English translation is given here, so fine that even the prominent end-rhyme in the last stanza of blau and genau is preserved in the translation as blue and true; and so, then, is the bitterly heartless irony as well.
An explanation of the musical fugue, its logic, and the inexorability of its architecture, is given here.
The characteristics of fugal architecture are presented visually in this presentation of J.S. Bach’s well-know Toccata and Fugue in d minor, BWV 565:
Todesfuge deliberately and effectively uses fugal technique and allusion; in particular, the immutability, the basic intractability, of the subject.
When one listens to Celan himself reading his poem, one will note the fugal interplay imposed upon the poetry, including the remarkable cadence, rallentando, at the poem’s end.
A visual overlay on the poem is found here: