COMPOSER 1945–2013

Opus 58

Three Elegiac Songs (1973)

for Voice and Piano

Texts by François Villon [French]; Gottfried Benn [German]; Hebrew liturgical

  • Les Neiges d’Anton (François Villon)
  • Ein Wort, ein Satz (Gottfried Benn)
  • Kaddish (Jewish Traditional)

Duration: 13 min.

Dedication: Lázár Évának Ajánlva

Recording: Albany TROY1353-54

Premiere: 1975; H. Williams; A. Rosner, Bronx Museum

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In the 60s and 70s the films of Ingmar Bergman were all the rage, at least among my friends. And the piece de resistance among them was The Seventh Seal, where Max van Sydow stars as Antonius Block, a knight, who, when confronted by death, challenges him to a chess game, for his life. All this is among sub-plots and other characters, and wonderful if fatalistic visual cinema. The film has music, by Erik Nordgren, but I found it severe which I suppose was intended and in agreement with Bergman’s direction but to my ears it seemed understated. I decided to obtain the printed screenplay and use it as a libretto for an opera. I was in my 20s and arrogant enough to believe that the director would be pleased with such a project. I tried to reach him—my letters were unanswered (This was years before e-mail, of course). In the summer of 1972 I went to Europe—celebrating the completion of my doctorate, and during a few days in Sweden, got as far as meeting Bergman’s attorney and speaking briefly via telephone with the great man himself. I volunteered at my own expense to make my way to his little private island and play and sing what I had already written. But I met with cold stone. He claimed he did not like ANY interaction of cinema and opera (although soon after he produced a movie version of Die Zauberflöte), and that he did not even like the Seventh Seal anymore and wanted to discourage its proliferation. It was made clear that I would be sued, and anybody performing the project would be sued—if I went ahead with this idea.

I was youthful, but not entirely irrational, so the idea had to be scrubbed. However, there was some good music already. One aria described young people eating strawberries and drinking milk; and there was a duet for male voices describing the chess/life struggle and match between the hero and death. So I did what composers generally do in reverse, and searched extensively for words that would both emotionally and spiritually fit the music I had. Of course, the usual procedure is to find the text and then write the music to fit. The first piece did indeed fit Francois Villon’s Ballade des Dames du Temps Jadis, and the second, now using just one voice, fit Gottfried Benn’s Ein Wort, Ein Satz. These became two movements of what developed into a 10 movement Requiem, consisting of vocal, choral and instrumental sections from many ethnicities and spiritual viewpoints. Only one other movement turned out to be a one-singer aria, and that is the setting of the Mourner’s Kaddish in the Jewish tradition. Anticipating a “slow-go” in ever getting the Requiem performed, I gave a separate title and opus number to the three arias—thus constituting the Three Elegiac Songs. (Notes by Arnold Rosner)