"am I a falcon, a storm, or a great song?"
I’ve just returned from a stunning performance of György Ligeti’s 1965 Requiem. Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, introduced the Requiem via a rather thorough and moving exposition of a poem by Ranier Marie Rilke.
Experiencing Ligeti’s Requiem is akin to overhearing the harrowing of hell, with a brief and tenuous moment of peace and potential for resurrection at the end. Listen to a snippet here. I found it to be a transfixing, but deeply disturbing experience. Like reading Paul Celan.
But the conductor didn’t mention Celan in his introduction. Instead, he mentioned Rilke, describing this poem at great length:
I have many brothers in the South
who move, handsome in their vestments,
through cloister gardens.
The Madonnas they make are so human,
and I dream often of their Titians,
where God becomes an ardent flame.
But when I lean over the chasm of myself --
my God is dark
and like a web: a hundred roots
This is the ferment I grow out of.
More I don’t know, because my branches
rest in deep silence, stirred only by the wind.
Just maybe I shouldn’t spend so much time trying to figure things out. Just maybe I should just keep carving and let what flows out of my hands speak what needs to be spoken.
I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.
I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I’ve been circling for thousands of years
and I still don’t know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song?
(trans. Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy)
What a way to set an audience up! We listened to Ligeti’s Requiem with the idea of a soul struggling out from a gnarled landscape at the forefront of our minds. We listened to the music informed by knowledge of Ligeti’s own harrowing life experiences (he was a Romanian born Hungarian Jew whose father and brother died in the Holocaust and who survived such a fate himself only by the “good luck” of being in a labor camp), and we understood the piece to be, like Rilke’s own work, the product of a creative consciousness deeply informed by the history of place.
Ligeti’s Requiem speaks for itself, no doubt, as do Rilke’s poems. Still, it was exciting and instructive to be in the audience tonight and experience the resonance between these two amazing works and minds.
Poet and editor Camille T. Dungy was born in Denver but moved often as her father, an academic physician, taught at many different medical schools across the country. She earned a BA from Stanford University and an MFA from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. Dungy’s full-length poetry publications include Trophic...