A post-concert note #2: “Dirait-on”, Rilke’s roses, lots of rubatos, and interplay between the voices and the piano!


As some of you already know, the song “Dirait-on” is from composer Morten Lauridsen’s song cycle called Chansons des roses (“songs of the roses”) which is based on Rainer Maria Rilke’s poems on roses.  But the title of the song is “so they say” (dirait-on) … what is the connection of this piece (final song in a song cycle of 5) with roses? 

Well, this to us is the most fascinating of the 5 songs in the cycle (and as we already mentioned previously Lauridsen wrote this one first).  It is almost like young men and women chanting and dancing away about “inventing the myth of Narcissus fulfilled” (yes you would be right to think narcissism traces back to roses).  In the rest of the poem, Rilke uses the rose as a metaphor and muses on time’s ceaseless transformations, how the rose’s vitality belies its eventual death and contrasts our transitory hopes to the tender moments. 

Rilke came to write these poems in French about roses late in his life (and his late French poems represent a somewhat neglected though important contribution) and he actually chose as his own epitaph this poem (about roses!):

Rose, o pure contradiction, desire
to be no one’s sleep beneath so many lids.  

E M Butler, author of the first biography of Rilke to appear in English, wrote that “There is no doubt that roses cast a spell upon Rilke ….

As explained by the author of Reading Rilke: reflections on the problems of translation:

The poet collects the world inside himself as the rose gathers the light of the skies.

David Need, a visiting professor in religion at Duke and author of Roses: The Late French Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, tells us that the poet’s posthumously published Roses calls us into a more intimate relationship with things, asking us to consider the material world as sister of our imagination, rather than nameless patient of our ideas.  

As for the song “Dirait-on” itself, this 5th and closing song of the cycle is fashioned like a French folk song and we love how Lauridsen crafted such a beautiful melody around something very simple: you can see that the first 26 notes is made up of 3 notes (“do”, “re” and “so”).  The composer wrote clearly in the score “tempo rubato” and confirmed to us in private correspondence that tempo variations are critical to an effective interpretation of the piece.  In fact, this is a piece of music where gaining mastery over the fluidity in the tempo is key to its expressiveness and effectiveness

We must also mention the interplay both between the voices and between the piano and the voices in this piece.  Most notably, this section in the right-hand side of the photo above – the most moving part of the piece – is a sublime duet between the piano and the sopranos!   

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