Sonnets to Orpheus is a six movement song cycle for soprano voice and ten instruments. It was composed from June 3 to October 31 1991, and while it was one of a few projects that required my attention, it was my major focus during that period. The cycle was commissioned by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center for performance with Dawn Upshaw.
The six translations comprising the text are from Ranier Maria Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, a two-part set of 55 poems. Written in 1922, four years before Rilke’s death, they stand along with Duino Elegies as the crowning achievement of his life’s work.
I have chosen an English translation of the work because I feel that while I have nothing personal against German (and certainly not the German of Rilke), it is not the language I speak. I feel most honest and free setting the language which is second nature to me just as the language of music must be in some sense natural to a musician. I also want the words I set to reflect the musical language I have chosen.
What made the choice for translation of Sonnets to Orpheus relatively easy was Stephan Mitchell’s work, which for me found the balance between the letter of the text and the heart of it. Also present in his English is at once a courteous but clear authority, and at the same time a contemporary unadorned fluidity.
The important questions for me to answer before beginning the work were: what held these sonnets together? What was the underlying theme? And specifically, what do the six sonnets that I have selected share with each other?
Rilke was using in Orpheus an archetype for all those who choose to descend into a form of spiritual, emotional or psychic darkness in order to know themselves and see their lives more clearly. “Only he whose bright lyre has sounded in shadows may, looking onward, restore his infinite praise.” (from the ninth sonnet, first part). But in order to make that descent one must first be open to a letting of or surrender – and surrender in its various forms is what seems to be an underlying thread in the Sonnets. In the introduction of his translation, Stephan Mitchell states, “Orpheus is a symbol of absolute connection perceiving the world without desire he realizes that, moment by moment, the whole universe is transformed. Because he can let go, he is free. He willingly steps into the transforming flame and enters the Double Realm, a mode of being in which all ordinary human dichotomies (life/death, good/evil) are reconciled in an infinite wholeness.” Whether it is surrender to death in the Epilogue (Sonnet XXIX, Part 2) or to a celebration of sensuality and nature in Movement II (Dance and the Orange), or to the process of grief and lament in Movement V (Sonnet VII, Part 1), there is in each movement a subtle but ever present invitation to “let go” and allow for the inevitable transformation. This becomes a kind of credo for Rilke, who speaks of the acceptance and renunciation of love as one and the same as they both invoke s sense of surrender.
The general tone of these poems is not violent, unlike the Elegies; instead one senses a softness and simplicity that is woven into and throughout the entire cycle. They are more Apollonian than Dionysian, more yin than yang. It was for this reason that I felt a setting of the text to soprano voice, and specifically Ms. Upshaw’s voice, was appropriate.
There is a strong sense of the eternal feminine presence in these poems. One feels it with the ever present archetype of Eurydice and most especially Rilke’s reaction to the death of Vera Knoop, the nineteen-year-old daughter of Dutch friends. While Rilke knew little about her, he was deeply shaken by news of her death, and the idea of this young girl as an archetype became a catalyst for the creation of the Sonnets and an idea around which they revolve.
There is also something gentle about Rilke’s relationship to death. With perspectives on death ranging from an inflated grotesqueness on the one hand to a cosmeticized, denial oriented notion of death on the other, Rilke choose the path of unadorned honesty: “I reproach all modern religions for having provided their believers with consolations and glossings-over of death, instead of giving them the means of coming to an understanding with it, and with its full, unmasked cruelty: this cruelty is so immense that it is precisely with it that the circle closes; it leads back to a mildness which is greater, purer, and more perfectly clear (all consolation is muddy!) than we have ever, even on the sweetest spring day, imagined mildness to be.” [Letter from Rilke to Countess Margot Sizzo-Noris-Croug, January 6, 1923]