sonnets to orpheus


Hail to the spirit that unites us

Rilke’s visionary poetry speaks to all times and all cultures. It gives expression to some of the most subtle and fugitive feelings, yet it epitomises our noblest aspirations and gives form to those intimate prayers which we dare not utter for fear of ridicule. Rilke’s spirituality transcends categorisation. He had no time for narrow orthodoxies designed to make us good, but had reached a place where the natural impulses of the human soul towards go(o)dness find uninhibited expression in a conscious state of wonder.

Notions of ownership, of copyright, of nuclear individualism—and the mean-spirited acquisitiveness that goes with them—have no place in Rilke’s world. He is of the tribe who can no more conceive of pœtry being personal property than the sky or the sea or land. All these entities require collective stewardship if we are to live with them in harmony.

Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus honour a god, in Jungian terms an archetype, which cannot die as long as humanity needs song to celebrate, to love, to worship, muse or mourn. Think of Orpheus as the unending melos by which Music evolves from generation to generation to meet the never-changing needs of an ever-changing world.

Perhaps that’s all rather high-flown? Yes, Rilke does that to you: he persuades you that it isn’t absurd to give voice to tender feelings, to expose your softness to a hard-bitten world—because he passes on the secret known to the world’s greatest sages: that our best security lies in utter
vulnerability. Not the vulnerability of the victim, to be sure, but that of one whose contradictions are resolved because s/he no longer fears death.


The vicissitudes of composing and recording Sonnets to Orpheus has made the project a large part of my life for several years. It began accidentally. My daughter Sefa, a fine poet herself, had bought a dual language translation of the Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus in which the american-english was considerably more obscure than the german. For my own interest I took to meditating on each poem and then paraphrasing its essence in simple language —without thought of any subsequent application.

Rilke’s german is of the highest intricacy, and I found the tautness of its construction daunting at first: thus the earlier poems are quite loose, almost in the manner of sketches, but as I progressed I found myself able to attune myself more closely into the poet’s mind—or perhaps that of Orpheus—and by the time I reached last of the two sonnets which attracted me (2.27 & 2.29) I found myself able to echo something of Rilke’s technical proficiency without selfconsciousness.

A couple of years later my friend Sarah Verney Caird asked me to write her a song. After reflexion I decided to set The magic of his chorded lyre: but this posed a philosophical dilemma for me: I didn’t want to write a song whose audience would be limited to people sitting in serried rows in a concert hall, so I thought I’d ‘take the curse off it’ by using the cheap gig combo of piano, bass & drums + sax. The moment I'd composed the first song, I knew that one was not enough, and gradually a set of 12 emerged during February and March 2001—the springtime exactly mirroring the poems’ creation 79 years earlier.

The process of composition enabled me to experiment at length with ideas I had employed in earlier compositions, whose affect on listeners I cannot fully judge because they haven’t been performed. The decision to use what has been called polystylism (by Alfred Schnittke) or style modulation (by Peter Dickinson) was not an intellectual one: it seemed the best way of capturing the quicksilver subtlety of the verse, and of moving the music’s feeling-centre away from the stifling prerogatives of establishment music toward different contexts with open-eared audiences. I hope that a single unifying voice is audible beneath the shimmering blend of idioms as the music modulates between the rhythmic subtlety of contemporary art music, with its heritage of emotional depth, and the cheerful surfaces of mass market music, where accessibility is enforced by regular beating!

During its composition I felt sustained at a high level of inspiration by Sarah’s support, and the song-forms took shape rapidly in my dreams. Unfortunately it was not possible for her to perform the work, and so the score gathered dust for a couple of years. Eventually a situation arose in 2004 where a recording seemed a possibility. The plan foundered, but not before I’d heard enough of the work in rehearsal to be convinced that it could work as I’d imagined. This gave a clearer picture of the musician/s I was looking for, and how the musical balancing act could be achieved. It was then my great good fortune to meet Frances M Lynch, whose commitment to the piece has been the catalyst to this recording, and the other performers.

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