Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Rainer Maria Rilke in Music

Music. The breathing of statues. Perhaps:  
The quiet of images. You, language where 
languages end. You, time  
standing straight from the direction  
of transpiring hearts.

"Rainer Maria Rilke (1875 –1926), was a Bohemian–Austrian poet. He is considered one of the most significant poets in the German language. His haunting images focus on the difficulty of communion with the ineffable in an age of disbelief, solitude, and profound anxiety: themes that tend to position him as a transitional figure between the traditional and the modernist poets." - Wikipedia

"By sheer dint of prayer, I knew bread."
"Rilke's conservative forms, lyrical diction, rhyme and brevity are qualities that have historically commended themselves to the masters of the German lied, but prolific ones like Richard Strauss, Hans Pfitzner and Othmar Schoeck ignored Rilke and turned readily, among contemporary writers, to Hermann Hesse, whose purely poetic gifts were of a lesser order.

The modernists dabbled: Schoenberg, Berg and Webern each set a Rilke lyric or two, but with unmemorable or sometimes jarring results. Paul Hindemith made a cycle of "The Life of Mary" that many admire. But the list is very short.

Rilke is by far the most-read German poet in English translation; there are at least 12 translations of the sonnets alone, most of them still in print, and when the poet's name comes up in Woody Allen's "Husbands and Wives," it isn't an obscure reference. Yet though there must have been some previous American or British settings of the sonnets, none has come my way." - NYT, A 'Musician' in Spite of Himself

Though the author is on record as having only contempt for musical settings of his work, many more Rilke settings were composed and recorded since the above 1992 NYT article; I collected more than 60 classical works for this playlist. Not all of them are masterpieces that are worthy of the original text; I put my favourite ones at the beginning: Morten Lauridsen's Chansons des Roses, Krenek's O Lacrymosa, and Lieberson's Rilke Songs. Other notable works include: Brad Mehldau's Love Sublime, Rautavaara's setting of the first Duino Elegies, three settings of Sonnets to Orpheus (by Rautavaara, Danielpour and Eric Moe), and four settings of Rilke's only major prose poem: The Lay of the Love and Death of Cornet Christopher Rilke (by Earl Kim, Frank Martin, Viktor Ullmann and Paul von Klenau).

Here's the Spotify playlist: Rainer Maria Rilke in Music (336 tracks, total time: 20 hours) Ctrl (CMD)+G to browse in album view. See song texts here. For further readings, I recommend any good anthology with Letters to a Young Poet, and The Complete French Poems.


  1. Terrific idea for a music playlist. I've subscribed and look forward to sitting down for a listen!

  2. Thanks for the playlist ! Also "Mélodies passagères", by Samuel Barber, after Rilke :

    1. Thanks, I already have two versions of the Barber in this playlist, sang by male and female vocalist respectively.

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