Now no one will listen to songs…
Now no one will listen to songs, written in 1995, is a setting of texts by the Russian poets Anna Akhmatova, Mikhail Lermontov, Dmitry Bobyshev, and Osip Mandelstam. Many people ask: why in Russian? Most importantly, I was drawn to the understated and evocative poems as well as to the beautiful sound of the Russian words. Though the cycle was intended for an English-speaking audience, I feel that it can still be appreciated on a musical level even if the words are not automatically understood. In fact, when five of the songs from the cycle were premiered (as a work in progress last April), the translations were inadvertently left off the program, and the audience had no idea what was being sung! Translations are included here, however, and I recommend either reading the texts before hearing the piece or following along with the performance.
The process of selecting the poems was rather difficult; I spent two weeks going through piles of poetry anthologies looking for poems that would fit together as a coherent work with each poem being unique and contrasting with the others. My search turned up these seven poems, and I set them for bass-baritone, violin, clarinet, cello, and piano.
The first and last poems in the cycle, by Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966), were written only a year apart (1917 and 1918) and are nearly identical in their length, form, meter and rhythm. Their similiarity suits them well for the opening and closing movements of the cycle – something like an exposition and recapitulation.
“A House Was There,” by Dmitry Bobyshev (b. 1936), is unique in this cycle because it does not have a metrical and rhyme pattern like the other poems. In addition, it is the only poem in the cycle that was written after 1920! For me, the beauty of this poem is the way it implies a lot in just a few words. This is also true of the Akhmatova poem (“This was why I carried you…”) which follows.
The “Ballad” by Mikhail Lermontov (1814-1841) instantly caught my eye and I put it right in the middle of the cycle; it brings an unlikely taste of the 19th century into a late 20th century work. The poem that follows (“I am bored and sad…”), also by Lermontov, is cynical and depressing, but in spite of this – or maybe because of this – it seemed appropriate to follow the “Ballad.”
The calm and contemplative “With vaguely-breathing leaves” by Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938) struck me not only because of the images it evokes, but also because of the question it asks in its final stanza: “Why is there so little music/ And such silence?” The last poem is Akhmatova’s “Now no one will listen to songs…” from which I took the title of the whole cycle.
There is nothing particularly Russian about the music. There are no conscious links between the time period in which the poems were written and the style of the music to which they are set (except, perhaps, for the “Ballad”). The music should speak for itself; it is simply my own present-day interpretation of the poems, taken at face value, out of their historical and political context.
I completed most of the score between January and March of 1995; the rest was finished in one weekend in June.
© 2001 Gordon Beeferman. All rights reserved.