Five Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke
This cycle was Abel’s first venture into the realm of art song for voice and piano. The pieces explore the great German master’s sometimes unfathomable inner
visions: deeply personal and profound utterances that nonetheless engage readers helplessly, firing their intellects and imaginations and evoking surreal images in ways that few other poets can match. Robert Bly’s sensitive translations faithfully preserve Rilke’s stark simplicity and economy of language.
Abel acknowledges the intimidating challenge of lending musical dimensions to these enigmatic gems: “I had to live with them for quite a few years before daring to set them.” A composer’s goal in art songs is to illuminate and enhance the chosen text, and sensitive listeners will certainly agree that here,Abel has accomplished just that. His spare yet spontaneous approach goes hand-in-hand with the mystery and angularity of the language. His avoidance of needlessly florid complication in the piano writing does much to convey the hypnotic austerity of the verses.
Despite Rilke’s frequent bouts with depression, his introspective nature may well have been his salvation – as he found within himself cogent visions of his place in the world, and of the endless possibilities of life – leaving him both places to hide and to go. This basic theme resonates in several of these songs, beginning with “In this town the last house stands,” in which the last house seems no more than a solitary way station along the path of life that leads into the dark and often risky unknown. Yet follow the path we must. Abel’s melodic musings set a reflective but furtively mystic tone.
The imagery of “My life is not this steeply sloping hour” makes for one of Rilke’s more optimistic pieces, speaking perhaps of the immortality – amid the routine hubbub of life – of his poetic voice: one that he trusts will outlast that of his physical being. His corporeal place my well lie between two discordant musical notes, yet he hears his song going on, forever beautiful. Abel’s music emphatically confirms that beauty.
Contrast comes with the rather tormented “All of you undisturbed cities,” in which composer and poet alike question the concept that we can find safe refuge in life. We are reluctant to acknowledge the ever-lurking “enemy” that quietly besieges our seemingly secure havens: a subtle and silent, yet inexorable force that can capriciously breach the flimsy defenses we subconsciously construct to ward off our inner insecurities. Abel’s vaguely unsettling setting – which includes a jabbing piano solo to be played “with disquiet” — helps to convey the poetry’s sense of helpless and inconceivable vulnerability.
The cycle’s final two songs swing back into more positive philosophical territory. “You darkness, that I come from” delves into the soothing notion that we needn’t fear the possibilities the night may hold for us. Rilke seems to want us to believe here that the comfortable communal fires that illuminate our secure here-and-now should not keep us from pondering future prospects that hide behind the unlit shadows that obscure our ultimate destinies. Musically, Abel drives home the poet’s advice in the cresting section that follows the piano solo: “… and it is possible, a great energy is moving near me.”
A variant of that message comes with “I live my life in growing orbits,” which concludes the cycle with particular warmth and wonder. Rilke tells us, seemingly by example – and in eerily ecstatic tones – that we should never stop striving to progress towards our lives’ next levels, even if we can’t foresee what shapes our futures might take, what we may finally achieve, or what we will ultimately mean to the world. Abel has crafted particularly striking musical imagery in this one, evoking visions of soaring spirits and uncertain destinies joyfully fulfilled. The elastic middle section, with its melismatic vocal line and swirling piano, underscores the aspects of the journey that cannot be known.
“The singer must carry the music forward here, and Ariel Pisturino does a fine job of that,” Abel says. “She has a powerful voice and beautiful timbre, and in several spots opens up in operatic fashion to excellent effect. She’s a Rilke fan too – and it shows.”