Mandelstam Settings

for mezzo-soprano and piano

Michael Zev Gordon

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for mezzo-soprano and piano

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Composer Michael Zev Gordon
Year of Composition 2009
Duration -
Categories (all composers) ,
Catalogue ID ce-mzg1ms1


This commission has been an especially personal one. Asked to write a song cycle to memorialise those whose voices were silenced in totalitarian regimes, I was bound to think of my own parents who returned to Poland after the Holocaust to build a better world, only to be met with another kind of tragedy. Mandelstam’s extraordinary poetry, at once tender and fierce, quickly conjured musical responses. The first poem that set me going was Black Sun (the fourth in the set). Written as an epitaph to the poet’s mother, its colour of shining darkness could stand for his work in general. I’ve tried to capture this in mixtures of black- and white-note harmonies. In terms of the shape of the set as a whole, it moves from early poems of hope, via a central poem – The Age – that meditates upon the tragedy of Mandelstam’s times, to a mixture of despair and clinging to life in the final group.

In all these the voice sings lyrically, if sometimes with a desperate passion. The tightly patterned nature of much of the piano writing, meanwhile, symbolises the enclosing world Mandelstam found himself in – but is also a pointer, especially in the final two songs, towards a tranquil place beyond such suffering.