Posts in Category: Musical settings

May by Karel Hynek Mácha

This is The Tone of a Broken Harp, The Sound of a Snapped String performed by the composer, Jiří Kadeřábek, and Fourbythree. It uses two brief excerpts from the poem, which may be read in its entirety here. Kadeřábek writes,

This piece is inspired by the dark, almost decadent level of the Czech romantic poem May by Karel Hynek Mácha. Poetic images of love and spring nature mix with description of ruin, despair and death. The quotations, used in the piece as well as in its title, have been taken from the latest English translation of the poem. The concept of the piece as well as the exact image of the video came to me, when I suddenly and unusually took a nap one afternoon.

My spirit – my spirit – and my soul!
that’s how his words, each one distinct,
escape from his clenched lips.
Before the voice reaches the ear
these awful words are once more nothing –
they die – as they were born.

It was late evening – first of May
was evening – the time for love.
The turtledove invited love
to where the pine grove’s fragrance lay.

The video is as effective as the music, I thought. It was put together by Avion Film and Sound Postproduction in Prague.

Epilogue (from Requiem) by Anna Akhmatova

Poet: | Nationality: | Filmmaker:

This film is an artifact from a performance called Black Over Red, “a multi art-form choral work combining live music, dance and video on a grand scale with a cast of 25.” It was staged in 2001, a co-production of the Latvian Radio Choir and the Scottish dance/theatre troupe Cryptic, directed by Cathie Boyd, who uploaded the video. The composer was Anthea Haddow.

Epilogue (from Anna Akhmatova’s Requiem)


I know now how the faces have fallen,
How from under lids gazes out terror,
How cuneiform’s coarse pages are
Incised by suffering upon their cheeks,
How curls from ashen and black turn
In a single moment completely silver,
And a smile withers on defeated lips,
And in dry laughter shudders fear.
So that now I pray not for myself only
But for us all, who stood there with me
In the intense cold and in July’s heat
Under that red and blinded wall.


The eternal flame, a memorial for the spilled blood of the innocent that burns throughout the middle, third minute in the bottom of the trinity of images that form this film, accompanied by the spine-tingling bass hum of the choir and the mournful vatic tones of Akhmatova’s own slowed down, staggering, ponderous reading, do honor in their faithfulness to her poem as a whole. The black (& white) documentary images of the upper third corner, while tonally appropriate, may be misleading to anyone who has no context for this, perhaps Anna Akhmatova’s best known single poem, through which she has become identified with the fate of all Russia. As she says in the prologue:

I remained with my own people then,
Where my people, in their misfortune, were.

Unlike the source images here, referencing the destruction visited upon Russia by the German Wehrmacht during WWII and, more specifically, some of the worst of it wrought upon Akhmatova’s adopted hometown, St. Petersburg during the 900-day siege in which a million people perished, most starving to death, the context of the poem is the auto-cannibalistic predation by Stalin and his henchmen upon his own people during the various purges of the late 30s. The red wall is that of the Crosses Prison, referred to earlier (in part 4,) outside which the women (mothers, wives, sisters) of the mostly male political prisoners day after day awaited news of the condemned. Again from the preface: “During the terrifying years of the Yezhov repression, I spent seventeen months in Leningrad prison lines.” And from part 4:

Three hundredth in line, care package in hand,
Under The Crosses prison wall you’ll stand
And with the heated waters of your tears
Dissolve the surface of Christmas-time ice.

The images of Orthodox churches and icons quite appropriately suggest the unifying theme of the poem as a whole which, in calendaric and apostolic fashion, consists of 12 parts and in which Akhmatova and her prisoner son are transformed into the universal mother and child so that what is symbolically enacted here is the Passion Play.

The concluding images of St. Petersburg are again faithful to the crux of the poem in that they represent a particularly Russian self-identification of the Poet with her People, Akhmatova as Russia’s conscience and Muse, a Mother Russia so to speak, an ethical, nurturing balance for the Fatherland that requires sacrifice. As she wrote in one of her most famous miniatures, contemporaneous with Requiem:

In Memoriam

And you, my close friends till Judgment Day!
I have been saved as though to mourn you,
To not be stilled as a weeping willow above
your graves but to cry aloud your names
For the whole world to hear. Enter the Saints;
All fall to your knees!–the light breaks through,
In smooth rows stream the citizens of Leningrad,
Living with the dead. For God there are no dead.

August 1942



Other translations and musical settings of Akhmatova’s Requiem:

There’s an extensive literature comparing the available translations; here’s a summary by Wendy Rosslyn (via Google Books). See also the paper by George L. Kline. Lastly, I’m curious but have yet to track down Robert Lowell’s version that appeared in Atlantic Monthly 214 (1964) pp. 62-65.

Akhmatova may be heard reciting the Requiem in its entirety here [mp3] and may be seen reciting “Muse” in a YouTube snippet from a feature film. A complete collection of Akhmatova audio files in Russian are also on the web. Finally, here are five more of my own translations of Akhmatova miniatures.

Unknown Bird and Calling a Distant Animal by W. S. Merwin

Poet: | Nationality: | Filmmaker:

Another two poems from the production Men Think They Are Better Than Grass by the Deborah Slater Dance Theatre, based on poems by W. S. Merwin. “Unknown Bird” is sung and composed by Carla Kihlstedt and Matthias Bossi. “Calling a Distant Animal” is read by Brenda Wong Aoki. The two featured dancers are Travis Rowland and Wendy Rein.

A Throw of the Dice (Un Coup de Dés) by Stéphane Mallarmé

Poet: | Nationality:

Excerpts from the premiere performance of “Dice Thrown,” a new opera by American composer John King, at CalArts on April 23-24, 2010. Every performance is unique, according to an interview with King at Operagasm:

Can you explain in more detail how the configuration of the opera is determined by a computer-generated time code? From the description I read, it sounds like there are pieces that make up the opera, but that the order of those pieces is determined each night… am I way off? Does this mean that the text isn’t always delivered in the original order?

Yes, that’s exactly right. Each night the order changes, the durations of each aria changes (within set limits), the orchestral music changes so that sometimes a singer is singing with a full, complex orchestral texture, and the next night the same aria sung against a solo english horn (for example). The lighting changes, the video, the movement, the live electronics, etc. all change for each iteration of the piece, the changes being determined through chance operations and random number generators [that is “I” have nothing to do with it!]. We do the opera in two “acts”, each act being a different version of the poem, so that the audience can experience this “shift” within a single evening’s performance. And it will be a premiere every night!

I wonder if King has each performance filmed to preserve it for posterity? This video was uploaded to Vimeo (and also to YouTube) by the composer himself. Video appears to play a major role in the opera as well, and its design is credited to Pablo Molina.

The composition flowed directly from the sound of the poem in French, King said, which is one reason I wanted to feature this video here.

I was setting other Mallarmé texts, to be combined in a group of songs with texts by Verlaine, Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Artaud. At the end of this one collection was Un coup de Dés/Dice Thrown. I was immediately struck by its visual appearance, by its use of different text styles and font sizes and by the sound of the words when read in French. There is no rhyme scheme per se, but the words have what I call an “internal rhyme”, where vowel sounds within words of a phrase or line are the same, or consonant sounds are reiterated, so that I immediately heard these wonderful shifting rhythms of sound.

The full title of the poem is “Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard” (“A throw of the dice can never abolish chance”), and can be seen in all its glory at A. S. Kline’s Poetry In Translation site, including an easier-to-read “compressed” translation.

Stone by Charles Simic

Poet: | Nationality: | Filmmaker:

There’s a video of Simic reading this poem, but it’s not as interesting as the two videos included here. About the musical performance above I could gather nothing, though it appears from the one comment that it may have been uploaded by one of the performers. I love the interpretation of the poem as a Sufi teaching, though I’m not sure how Simic would feel about it.

Brian Watterson is the filmmaker here.

“Leave Your Sleep”: Natalie Merchant interview and performance of a Charles Causley poem

Poet: | Nationality: , | Filmmaker:

Natalie Merchant talks about her new album Leave Your Sleep, which uses children’s poems and nursery rhymes for lyrics, in an interview with Ellah Allfrey of Granta.

Here’s a live performance of one of the pieces included on the album, from the September 2009 Grand Opening of Poet’s House in New York. This is by British poet Charles Causley: “Nursery Rhyme of Innocence and Experience,” the opening track of the two-disc set.

Watch more live performances of songs off Leave Your Sleep at BBC Radio Scotland.

Night Flight Turbulence by Franz Wright

Poet: | Nationality: | Filmmaker:

Pete Shanel is the videographer for this track, released as a promo for the CD Readings From Wheeling Motel, a collaboration between Franz Wright and the folk-pop group Ill Lit.