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Simon Bainbridge

Publisher: Novello & Co

Four Primo Levi Settings (1996)
commissioned by Cheltenham International Festival with funds partly provided by South West Arts
Text Writer
Primo Levi
Novello & Co Ltd
Solo Voice(s) and up to 6 players
Year Composed
22 Minutes
Solo Instrument(s)
mezzo soprano

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Programme Note
Simon Bainbridge Four Primo Levi Settings (1996)
It was whilst browsing around a New York bookstore some years ago, that I discovered a volume of Primo Levi's poems for the first time. I had already read quite a lot of his writing including The Periodic Table and If this is a man and The Truce but was quite unprepared for the power and intensity of expression that is contained within his poetry. Here was a voice of deep human understanding and compassion, who through words of vivid directness could dig deep into the soul and reveal the true horror of the holocaust without resorting to sentimentality or angst.

My Four Primo Levi Settings were written in 1996 for The Nash Ensemble and first performed at the Cheltenham Festival in July the same year. They are scored for mezzo-soprano, clarinet, viola and piano, an intimate ensemble of melancholic darkness and autumnal light, appropriate for these sombre texts.

It is perhaps in the last of my settings After RM Rilke, a remarkable reworking of Rilke's Herbsttag (Autumn Day) that one gets closest to Primo Levi's own deep solitude and despair. He writes:

The time has come to have a home
Or to remain for a long time without one
The time has come not to be alone
Or else we will stay alone for a long time

He couldn't live with the guilt of survival and took his life in 1987. These settings are dedicated to his memory.

Simon Bainbridge

Preview the score

  • Ensemble
    BBC Symphony Orchestra, Nash Ensemble
    Susan Bickley, mezzo soprano; Kim Walker, bassoon
    Martyn Brabbins
That dark character cropped up again with a more overtly mournful and sometimes eerie cast in Simon Bainbridge’s “Four Primo Levi Settings” (1996) for mezzo-soprano, clarinet, viola and piano. These Italian settings dance between gracefulness and ponderousness, and Mary Nessinger moved deftly between those extremes, giving her best performance in “Da RM Rilke,” the cycle’s haunting, gently chromatic finale.
Allan Kozinn, New York Times,18/04/2007
Bainbridge has definitely come of age, and the somber intensity of Levi’s texts obviously inspired him to produce what I believe to be his finest work so far. Exquisitely written, uncompromisingly intense and genuinely moving, this is one the finest song cycles British music has produced since Britten. Review in full
Paris Transatlantic Magazine,01/03/2000
One might imagine that Simon Bainbridge would have exhausted his Primo Levi vein in the overwhelmingly intense settings he made with orchestral accompaniment last year (Ad ora incerta). But something was evidently left unsaid, and this has now borne fruit in a new cycle… Some composers escape from overpowering impressions into their opposite: the lightweight or the abstract. Bainbridge has simply written four more songs of the same dark intensity as before… These are again beautiful if draining pieces, 15 minutes or so of exquisite gloom, sustained with real mastery, decorative but never straying into the picturesque.
Stephen Walsh, The Independent,01/07/1996
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