Commissioned by the Holburne Group

In memory of Elisabeth Schumann

  • Soprano, Baritone
  • 22 min

Programme Note

John Joubert: Tristia

Tristia is a song-cycle to words by Osip Mandelstam, one of the founding members of the so-called Acmeist school of Russian poetry - a movement which has much in common with both Symbolism and Imagism. As a Jewish dissident who had survived the Russian Revolution of 1917 and fallen foul of the subsequent Soviet regime, Mandelstam found it increasingly difficult to get either recognition or employment. In 1934 he was arrested for having written a satirical poem about Stalin. He perished four years later in a labour camp. Though he died in complete obscurity - nobody seems to know for certain the exact time or place of his death - his memory was kept alive by the courage and devotion of his wife Nadezhda whose book, Hope against Hope, is a moving chronicle of their last few years together.

The five poems which make up the cycle are taken from the collection published in 1922 under the title, Tristia, a reference to the work of the same name by the exiled Latin poet, Ovid. The poems are set in English, but even in translation they convey the essence of Mandelstam's highly personal, associative style. As such they express the reactions of an alienated, sensitive and classically-educated outsider to the turbulent events he had so recently lived through.

The music attempts to reflect the free, organic nature of the poems in settings which are through-composed rather than strophic - only the fourth and fifth songs display elements of an underlying ternary structure. In handling verse such as Mandelstam's the composer's main concern is to be responsive to the imagery of the words without allowing the music to become mere background illustration. Motivic, developmental procedures help to provide the coherence necessary to compensate for the absence of more fixed forms, though tonality plays a major part in defining and articulating the structure, not only of each song, but also of the cycle as a whole.

The first song, Black Sun, juxtaposes images of birth and death which act as portents of the upheaval to come (the date of the poem - 1916 - is significant). The central image of the cradle-song gives rise to much of the music, the material for which is taken from the Russian lullaby at the end of my opera Under Western Eyes. The song is scored for the full ensemble of two singers, clarinet and piano.

The second song makes use of soprano and clarinet only - 'sisters: the same features'. The opposing images here are those of fruitfulness and decay, the 'heaviness' of one and the 'tenderness' of the other at first contrasted, but finally 'plaited in double wreaths'.

The full ensemble is used once more for the third song, an oracular prophesy (the year of writing - 1916 - is again significant) couched in terms of classical mythology. Persephone, bringer of destruction, is seen as reigning in Petropolis, the Hellenised name Mandelstam often used for his own city, St Petersburgh.

In the fourth song, for baritone and piano, a sense of bleakness and desolation is evoked. Once again the figure of Persephone, Queen of the Underworld, is suggested by 'the pale woman with the sickle', and the destruction of a culture ('time the barbarian smashes the wax songs') by the image of a moonlit, deserted city.

In the final song the full ensemble is used for the last time. Here the image of the Eucharist is used as a symbol of hope and fulfilment. In its emphasis on the universal nature of its promise one is reminded of Mandelstam's personal definition of Acmeism as 'homesickness for world culture'. The reference to the 'holy office' in the middle stanza gives rise to the quotation on the clarinet of the Eucharistic hymn, Pange Lingua. The 'inexhaustible joy' of the final stanza provides the cycle as a whole with its first and only optimistic ending
© John Joubert

I. Black Sun
Nothing can erase this night
but there's still light with you.
At Jerusalem's gate
a black sun has risen.

The yellow one frightens me more.
Lullaby, lullaby. Israelites
have buried my mother
in the bright temple.

Somewhere outside grace,
with no priests to lead them,
Israelites have sung the requiem over her
in the bright temple.

The voices of Israelites
rang out over my mother.
I woke in the cradle, dazzled
by the black sun.

Heaviness and tenderness - sisters: the same features.
Bees and wasps suck the heavy rose.
Man dies, heat leaves the sand, the sun
of yesterday is borne on a black stretcher.

Oh the heavy honeycomb, the tender webs - easier
to hoist a stone than to say your name!
Only one purpose is left me, but it is golden:
to free myself of the burden, time.

I drink the roiled air like a dark water.
Time has been plowed; the rose was earth. In a slow
whirlpool the heavy tender roses,
rose heaviness, rose tenderness, are plaited in double wreaths.

We shall die in transparent Petropolis,
before Persephone our queen.
When we sigh we swallow the air of death.
Every hour will commemorate our last moments.

Sea-goddess, stern Athena,
lift off your great stone helmet.
We shall die in transparent Petropolis,
where Persephone, not you, is the queen.

At the hour when the moon appears in its city
and the wide avenues slowly fill with its light
then the night swells with bronze and sadness,
time the barbarian smashes the wax songs,

then the cuckoo counts her griefs on the stone tower
and the pale woman with the sickle steps down
through the dead, scattering straw on the board floor,
rolling huge spokes of shadow slowly across it.

There: the Eucharist, a gold sun,
hung in the air - an instant of splendour.
Here nothing should be heard by the Greek syllables -
the whole world held in the hands like a plain apple.

The solemn height of the holy office; the light
of July in the rotunda under the cupola;
so that we may sigh from full hearts, outside time,
for that little meadow where time does not flow.

And the Eucharist spreads like an eternal noon;
all partake of it, everyone plays and sings,
and in each one's eyes the sacred vessel
brims over with inexhaustible joy.