Akhmatova Songs, performed by Soprano Lucy Shelton & Da Capo Chamber Players
Instrumentation: Soprano or Mezzo, Flute, Clarinet, Violin, Cello, Piano
Also available for Soprano or Mezzo and Piano
Commission: Sistrum Ensemble
Sistrum New Music Ensemble
Strathmore Hall, Rockville, MD
Russian poet Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966) lived through multiple cataclysms during what she called “the real twentieth century, including World Wars and the Stalinist years. She responded in poetry, such as her magnificent Requiem, composed in resistance to the Stalinist terror. She also wrote poems that speak to her personal artistic vision. I chose to set several of these. The composition of Akhmatova Songs was inspired by my encounter with Akhmatova’s poetry in Stanley Kunitz’s translations. However, I decided to set the poetry in the original Russian, with the help of my colleague and friend, poet Sharon Leiter, who penned a transliteration, and whose own translation of the three poems accompanies the score. The Russian has its own rhythm, timbre, and imagery, and I wanted to honor them. I set three poems: The Muse, Everything is Plundered and The Souls of All My Dears. All share themes of loss and transcendence, as does much of her poetry.
The first poem is about the gift of the muse, the tension and meaning of the creative process. The second ponders terrible extremities that she experienced, situates them in a larger context and reflects on human resilience. The last is a poignant tribute to Akhmatova’s own past, with her early years spent in Tsarskoye Selo, where Pushkin had attended the Lyceum. Here, she sees her own place as a singer of poems. I sought to embody elements of the poetry in my music, with a tone of voice that ranges from velvet to violent. The harmonic language likewise reflects a range from consonant, though not traditionally tonal, to austere and dissonant.
Akhmatova Songs was commissioned and premiered by the Sistrum Ensemble at Strathmore Hall in Rockville, MD in 1986. It was recorded by soprano Lucy Shelton and Da Capo Chamber Players on Dreamtigers, an album of Shatin’s chamber music (Innova 613). In addition to the chamber setting for Pierrot Ensemble, there is a version for mezzo (or soprano, depending on vocal character) and piano. I am grateful to Professor Laurence R. Richter, an expert on Russian phonetics and diction for singers at Indiana University, for his invaluable help in creating a new transliteration for the 2007 edition of Akhmatova Songs. —JS
Poetry Translations by Sharon Leiter
1. The Muse
When late at night I wait for her arrival,
My life seems to hang by a thread.
What are homage, youth or freedom compared to
My dear guest with the flute in her hand?
And now she’s come. She sheds her heavy wrappings
And looks attentively at me. I guess,
“Are you the one who dictated to Dante
The lines of his Inferno?” She answers, “Yes.”
2. All is Plundered
All is plundered, betrayed, torn asunder,
The wing of black death gleams in flight.
All is gnawed by sorrowing hunger–
Why then have our hearts filled with light?
By day, wondrous woods near the city
Send cherries’ sweet breath drifting by.
At night the new galaxies glitter
From deep in the clear July sky.
And miracles walk near the houses
Adrift in their dirt and their stones–
That thing we’ve forever desired,
That no one has ever known.
3. The Souls of All My Dear Ones
The souls of all my dear ones are on high stars.
How good, there’s no one left for me to lose
And I can weep. The air of Tsarskoye Selo
Was made for songs to echo through.
Touching the bright September waters
A silver willow idles by the shore.
Out of the past, in silence,
My shadow comes to me once more.
So many lyres hang on these branches,
And yet. It seems, mine has a place here, too.
And now this shower, sparse and sunstruck,
Brings consolation and good news.
*Text used by permission of the author
“Judith Shatin’s powerful “Akhmatova Songs” are luminous settings of three poems by the iconic Russian poet. While handsomely contrasting in mood, all three songs boast crystalline text settings and an ear for darkly glittering instrumental sonorities. The arresting second song, “All Is Plundered,” speaks of how the void left by an unnamed catastrophe is filled by an improbable sense of hope. Shatin sets the text with gleaming vocal lines that soar high above a roiling cauldron of strings, woodwinds, and piano. Pamela Dellal was the excellent vocal soloist. Shatin’s work was a standout…” –The Boston Globe