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Die Gedanken Sind Frei

"15th century Peasant," from the manuscript La Danse Macabre

A centuries-old protest song, recast with wit and defiance
16th c. German protest song / Elizabeth Alexander

"Die Gedanken sind frei" — "My thoughts are free" — was the rallying cry and protest song of the German Peasant Wars, class uprisings which predated the French Revolution by two centuries.  The song reappeared in the 1960s, popularized by Pete Seeger. Here, this timeless demand for free thought is given a feisty new English singing translation and an arrangement full of wit, color, surprises, and some healthy defiance.  (Fie!)

Die Gedanken Sind Frei was originally composed as part of the concert-length work, Go Out!

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Die Gedanken Sind Frei

German 16th c. protest song
English translation and additional lyrics by Elizabeth Alexander

Die Gedanken sind frei, I proudly profess them.
As hard as you try, you cannot suppress them.
No fence can confine them,
No creed undermine them,
They ring from on high:
Die Gedanken sind frei!

They laugh like a child, and sing and make merry,
They bloom ever wild like flow'rs on a prairie,
They wind and they wander,
They pensively ponder,
They soar to the sky.
Die Gedanken sind frei!

If you try to bind my thoughts in a prison,
The next day you'll find that they have arisen!
A brainstorm will thunder,
And burst chains asunder,
And off they will fly,
Die Gedanken sind frei!

They're liable to change as I become older,
So don't think it strange if they become bolder!
They won't remain static
Packed up in some attic;
To that, I'll say: "Fie!"
Die Gedanken sind frei.

...Tho' you may despise them,
I shall not disguise them,

You can't codify them,
And I won't deny them,

Go on and deride them,
I'm not going to hide them,

Assail me or jail me,
My thoughts shall not fail me,

It's useless to ban them,
Or pan them or can them,

So don't even try....
Die Gedanken sind frei!


Composer's Note: 

Most people are familiar with the game-changing French Revolution of 1789, but far fewer have heard of the German Peasant Wars of 1524-25. This is probably because they weren’t successful! Nevertheless, these early political and economic rebellions set the stage for what happened two centuries later.  They rebellions also created a fertile environment for the ideas of Martin Luther and other Protestant reformers, who claimed that people might interpret scripture for themselves, rather than blindly believing what priests said — a notion referred to as “the priesthood of all believers.” The folksong Die Gedanken Sind Frei predated the German Peasant Wars by hundreds of years, but it quickly became their rallying cry and protest song.  Centuries later, this song was made popular by Pete Seeger, who sang an English translation by Arthur Kevass.

Desiring to create my own arrangement of this great protest song, I initially sought permission to use Arthur Kevass’ well-known lyrics, but I wasn’t able to reach an agreement with the copyright owner. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I sulked about this rejection for nearly five years before realizing that I might create my own English translation, using the original German lyrics as a starting point.  (After all, Die Gedanken sind frei!)

It soon became clear to me that this enduring protest song was written in an era which lacked not only freedom of speech, assembly and religion, but also due process and legal representation. 16th century peasants who sang this song reveled in the right to “think what I wish, but always discreetly,” and to “laugh and joke and think in my heart,” because at that time, to disagree with political and religious powers was to invite not only ridicule, but also imprisonment or death. Thus, a literal translation of the song's original opening line reads: “My thoughts are free; no one can guess them.”

Desiring to capture the song’s spirit in a compelling way, I realized that the challenge of our own time is to take this courageous stance one step further. We are now offered the possibility of effecting change through the open vocalization of our thoughts — a possibility that was (literally) “unthinkable” for a 16th century German farmer. Thus, my lyrics challenge us to not only think free thoughts but also — in the words of my opening line: “proudly profess them.”

This more overt tone notwithstanding, the first three verses of my lyric are an entirely solid singing translation of the original German lyric. But from that point on, the creativity of this 20th century lyricist could no longer be held in captivity. Beginning with "They're liable to change as I become older..." through the final "Fie!", the lyrics are entirely my own!


SATB, piano:
Walden Hill Vocal Ensemble / Joe Mish ~
     Unity Church-Unitarian (Saint Paul, MN)   * Premiere

Choir of Church of the Messiah / Rick Rosen (Gwynned, PA)
Choir of East Shore Unitarian Universalist Church / Marjorie Hill (Kirtland, OH)
Choir of The Ethical Society of Saint Louis / Marcia Hansen, (Saint Louis, MO)

Vocal duet:
Susan Peck and John Hubert - Elizabeth Alexander, piano ~
     National UUMN Conference (Madison, WI)   * Premiere

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