Instrumentation: Soprano or mezzo and piano
The composition of my Akhmatova Songs was inspired by Stanley Kunitz’s translations of this poetry. However, I decided to set the poetry in the original Russian, with the assistance of my friend and colleague Sharon Leiter, whose own translation of the three poems are found below. The Russian has its own particular rhythm, sonic contour and imagery, and I welcomed the opportunity to explore them. The three poems I have grouped share themes of loss and transcendence, as does much of Akhmatova’s poetry. Having lived from 1889-1966, Akhmatova’s creative years spanned many of the cataclysms that characterized what she called “the real twentieth century”. Her poems Requiem and Poem Without a Hero are two of her most eloquent responses.
The first poem, The Muse, concerns the gift of the muse, the tension and meaning of the creative process. The second, Everything is Plundered, ponders terrible extremities, puts them in a larger perspective, and reflects on human resilience. The last, The Souls of All My Dears, 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.
My musical setting, originally scored for Pierrot Ensemble, is revised here for soprano or mezzo (depending on vocal range and quality) and piano. As in the original, I sought to embody elements of the poetry, with a tone of voice that ranges from velvet to violent. The harmonic language likewise reflects a range from consonant and warm, to austere and dissonant. The original chamber version of 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, a CD of Shatin’s chamber music (Innova 613).–JS