My daughter Jess loved metalcore. I’m not a fan. My tastes lean toward Verdi, The Blind Boys of Alabama, Johnny Cash, prog rock, and Dave Brubeck. But I listened with her anyway, because, well, Dad. I still put on her CDs now and then. They are a bridge of sorts, conciliatory and consoling. In such moments our bond continues. Jess died in 2015, yet through music, she feels less absent somehow.  

The leap from classical to metal is shorter than we might think.

Metalcore has meaning that cannot be denied, whatever our personal tastes. When I resist my daughter’s love for the genre, I recall her patient enthusiasm for my opera CDs, singing along with Pavarotti as we drove the busy streets of Columbia, South Carolina. “Turn it up,” Jess cried with delight. “Luciano-o-o!” We wore ourselves out trying (and failing) to match the tenor’s thrilling high Cs. Pavarotti died on September 6, 2007. Jess called the moment she read the news: “Oh, Dad, I’m so sorry.”

The leap from classical to metal is shorter than we might think. Metalcore has a surprising place with Evangelical Christians. In Finland, for example, hundreds of Metal Masses have been conducted in Lutheran churches since 2006. Each Mass presents the conventional liturgy, including communion, with a heavy metal band instead of a cantor at the organ. Robert Walser with Case Western Reserve University insists that the power cords of metal music serve a purpose that runs parallel with the volume and force produced by pipe organs “to display and enact overwhelming power—usually, in that context, for the greater glory of God.” 

I still prefer Bach, but I’m not sure Pavarotti would agree. “Some say the word ‘pop’ is a derogatory word to say ‘not important’—I do not accept that,” the tenor said. “If the word ‘classic’ is the word to say ‘boring,’ I do not accept. There is good and bad music.”

Recently I discovered the well-known German metalcore band Maroon. In 2009, André Moraweck, the group’s lead singer, used one of Friedrich Rückert’s most beloved laments as the lyric for his song “Shadows” (Schatten). Rückert wrote the poem in 1834 after his two youngest children died of scarlet fever. His verse is honest, tender and steeped in desperate grief:

You are a shadow in the day
and a light in the night;
you live in my sorrow,
you do not die in my heart.

Here I pitch my tent,
here you are with me;
you are my shadow in the day
and in the night, my light.

Here I ask after you,
here I find you,
you live in my sorrow,
you do not die in my heart.

You are a shadow in the day,
but at night, a light;
you live in my sorrow,
you do not die in my heart.

“‘Shadows’ is probably the darkest, most captivating and emotional song on Order,” Maroon’s record label notes of the group’s final release, “and a great climax to the most ambitious and intense album in the band’s career.” Moraweck’s reading of Rückert is, in one metal fan’s words, “loud, dark, violent, meditative, powerful.” For genre fans, Maroon’s choice of “Shadows” makes perfect sense.

Metal enthusiasts have a keen interest in the “genealogy” of their preferred genre. Jess certainly did. Influences range from religion, myth, and literature to horror films and graphic novels, but for the most part, listeners are eager to uncover the innumerable musical references from previous groups (Iron Butterfly is a worldwide favorite). 

As with my daughter, the personalities and backgrounds of devotees may surprise us. Ethnologists have found that the majority of metal fans are predominately in their mid-thirties, educated, employed, Caucasian, middle class, and well-adjusted: “bourgeoisified,” as one researcher puts it. Most avid female fans are neither subordinate nor groupies. 

Germany lays claim to nearly one-tenth of the world’s metal bands. In this milieu, it is not surprising that Maroon, one of the most sought-after acts in metalcore, dipped into their country’s history for a song that fans would recognize and appreciate. 

Moraweck was following a long line of composers who have set Rückert’s work to music over the last 150 years. Some 500 of the poet’s pieces have been used in over 2,000 compositions, including settings by Schubert, Brahms, Mahler, Strauss, Robert and Clara Schumann, Bartók, and many others. The popular verse, “From Days of Youth,” for example, has at least sixty separate musical interpretations from as many composers. Yet another sixty settings were created for Rückert’s “I Love You.”

A preexisting text like “Shadows” is often the stimulus for a composer’s inspiration. The result is an art song, or lied, that is as much literary work as musical structure. Durham University’s Mark Sandy comments on the appeal: “Romantic poetry about grief acts as a defense against, and encounter with, the final silence of death that challenges poetry’s eloquent capacity for meaning.” 

Music styles have changed in our century, but the catharses they provide have not. “Metal saved my life,” writes the pseudonymous Nachthexe in her academic essay for Emerald Publishing. “The death of my mother when I was twenty-one meant that I was alone, and if it had not been for metal, my grieving process may have been the end of my story.” 

Nachthexe relates that she bought her first guitar after her mother died at age forty-five. Through metal she dealt with the trauma of domestic abuse, suicidal thoughts, and her own journey through the abyss, as she calls it. “I still have the grief, loss and pain,” she admits, “but I also have metal.” Devotees are not all thugs, Nachthexe continues, nor does the music necessarily cause anger. Instead, she cites research that states metal can be liberating. “Extreme music matches and helps to process anger,” she writes. “It matched my pain, sonically, texturally, musically and aesthetically.”

While we may sense that our children live on—the light of solace—this never completely eases the shadow of grief cast daily in their absence. 

The lead singer of Maroon might agree. “Shadows” remains one of the most popular of Rückert’s laments because it resonates with mourners. Respected poet and translator Karl Krolow admires its simplicity. He considers it the “most delicate piece” of Rückert’s songs and the “most artistic” German poem of the nineteenth century. Ralf Georg Czapla, an expert in literary studies, gives special attention to its repetitions and refrains. “The poet’s wish that his children live on in poetry,” Czapla observes, “is realized in the memorable wording.”  

I have listened to Maroon’s interpretation of “Shadows” a number of times. Their cover, as with music created by Jess’s other beloved metal bands, does not speak to me. But focusing on that fact would miss the point. We swapped her favorite discs while she was alive. The tradition continues to comfort me. “If you find an abundance of people that like that kind of music,” observes Ray Charles, “you can be sure it has some kind of meaning for them, it may not be your type of music, but if you really stop and analyze it, really listen to it, you can understand.” 

Maroon’s choice makes sense for its pedigree—and also for its revelations. At first the themes sound like standard consolation poetry: “in the light,” “do not die,” etc. But here Rückert surprises us. We anticipate that the comforting light of his evenings will also accompany him during the day. Instead, we find shadow. This has led to a certain amount of debate. 

Biographer Annemarie Schimmel holds that the song progresses from mourning to remembrance. “This simple poem seems artless,” she writes, “but that impression is deceptive.” She suggests that the piece begins with a plaintive tone that soon turns to trust. The shadow in the day comes unbidden at first, a seeming shade or the darkness of grief. As the poem continues, Rückert realizes that the shadow is his own, linked to him in the blazing sun, a tent protecting him from the heat. The light is a guide at night. “If the final verse seems to repeat the first, the tone has changed,” Schimmel concludes. “Lament has become consolation.”

Another Rückert scholar, Sascha Monhoff, notes that this poem breaks free from traditional consolations that use light to represent God as an image of hope. “The fact that ‘you’ is only addressed as ‘shadow’ and ‘light’ emphasizes the absence of a living body—or rather: its non-existence—all the more clearly,” Monhoff writes. “Here there is no body to cast a ‘shadow.’ In no way does the body emit a ‘light.’” Commenting on Rückert’s religious beliefs, Monhoff draws a parallel between this piece and the Book of Exodus, in which God’s disembodied but visible presence corresponds to a primal, shadowy memory of the poet’s children in his heart. “Rückert’s poems are interesting,” Monhoff concludes, “precisely because they ultimately undermine superficial metaphysical references.” 

My interpretation of Rückert’s lament takes a direct approach that seems to echo the raw emotions evoked by Maroon. While we may sense that our children live on—the light of solace—this never completely eases the shadow of grief cast daily in their absence. 

I take to heart the lessons of Pavarotti and Nachthexe. As I write these words, I am singing along in German to Maroon’s “Shadows.” Metalcore is harder on the voice than opera, but I keep at it. “You live in my sorrow,” Moraweck growls. “You do not die in my heart.” He repeats the last line lower, slower, coarser, hoarser: Not die . . . in my . . . heart

Something unexpected happens. During Maroon’s long prog rock-inspired guitar riff, my emotions overwhelm me. I am weeping, and laughing, to metalcore: for Jess, for Rückert’s children, for myself. Ray Charles was right. I really listened.  

I may never fully understand my daughter’s love of metal. But today, in music, I sense Jess is near. Our love triumphs over absence; we defy separation; death is no longer absolute.

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