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 --
it seems
my God is dark
and like a web: a hundred roots
silently drinking.
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.

Originally Published: March 8th, 2009

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...

  1. March 8, 2009

    I envy you for having heard Ligeti's Requiem live, especially with Tilson Thomas directing, and especially with such an introduction. It's must have been very moving. Ligeti is very important to me. I listen to his Musica Ricercata (piano) constantly...It's my work music. I listen to it when I'm translating. The Rilke poem is an early one which I didn't know at all. But speaking of Requiem's, Rilke's own long "Requiem for a Friend" - I have it in Stephen Mitcell's translation (I don't read German very well, or at all though I am trying to study it, off and on) - is essential later Rilke.
    Thanks for sharing this with us. The Rilke you cite opens up all sorts of questions about the difference between Northern and Southern European sensibilities, something which has always been an issue. Byron, Percy and Mary Shelley. Byron died fighting for the Greek independence movement, Keats died in Rome. And it's still a fascination today. Since I live in the south I tend to idealize the north. Berlin, where I've spent a lot of time, Russia, where I've never been at all. One of my friends, the poet Donald Berger, spent time with Ligeti in Berlin several years ago and speaks warmly of the man.
    Thanks for sharing this with us,

  2. March 9, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    An interesting practice - bringing poetry into a concert performance. Years ago, Dana Gioia encouraged arts administrators, when planning readings, to "[m]ix poetry with the other arts, especially music." Clearly, the mixing can (and should) go both ways.

  3. March 10, 2009

    I think there's some accidental carving editorial inserted into the translation...?

  4. March 10, 2009
     Camille Dungy

    Well, translations are...translations. There is always accidental editorial that must happen in the practice of translation. Alas. I found a few versions (Robert Bly's is pretty wonderful), but chose to post this one. Do you have version of this poem you prefer? If so, please share it with us!

  5. March 13, 2009

    oh no, i didn't mean to be argumentative. i love the poem, and when i googled it, i was led to the place i presume you found it: a sculptor's blog. as i understood it, this section of the above posted poem:
    "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."
    is part of the sculptor's ruminations on his art, NOT a part of the original barrows/macy translation. i have no problem with the translation itself, it's lovely.