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.
Preview the score