Five Songs to Poems by Irina Ratushinskaya (1989),
I first came across Irina Ratushinskaya’s poetry when the collection ‘No, I’m Not Afraid’ was published in England in early May 1986. The poems, the various circumstances in which they were written and the poet’s integrity, commitment and appalling situation (she was still imprisoned) all had a tremendous impact upon me. I was drawn inexorably into the world she describes so vividly. The powerful imagery of resistance, the acceptance of shattering realities and the fantasies of different kinds of escape made poetry of truly universal significance and urgency, and the idea of a setting for voice and large orchestra followed immediately.
Each of the settings (in Russian) is self-contained and quite different in mood and orchestration. However, I consider the songs as one piece, and the whole cycle is performed without a break. All the basic musical material, themes and motifs for the entire work are stated in the first few pages, and the order of the poems was chosen to provide an overall musical and dramatic shape that attempts to link them together and to reflect more than the immediate meaning of the individual poems.
‘It seemed to you that it was night’ is about waiting to be arrested and was written after the poet had served her first term in prison. The song alternates between the expression of resistance, optimism, and fearful anticipation.
The second song, ‘And I undid the old shawl’ is a fantasy and I have set it as a simple ballad with tune and pizzicato accompaniment.
‘No, I’m not afraid’ is a tragic and slow lament. The poem was written in May 1981 after the poet had applied to emigrate and before her first arrest. The mezzo-soprano is accompanied by an obbligato flugel horn.
The fourth song is violent and explodes out of the third. It is divided into three sections of increasing length (each signalled by downward figuration on strings and woodwind) and a coda which returns to the music of the third song. ‘Pencil Letter’ was written while the poet was held in solitary confinement as she waited for her trial. It is, in fact, the first part of a much longer poem since published in full. It is used in this earlier version by permission of the poet. Bells toll heavily at the end of the fourth song.
‘Mermaids, and stars with rays’, a poem about childhood and the sadness of growing up – the passage of time – leaves behind the weight of the previous two songs. Time is now counted out by lighter bells and the music gradually returns to the mood and tempo of the second song.
The piece was commissioned by the BBC for their 1988/9 Winter Season and lasts for approximately 25 minutes.