Five Lyrics of Lermontov
High voice, piano
Text: Mikhail Lermontov, translated by Anatoly Liberman
In May 2018, I collaborated with soprano Maria Jette in a performance of songs by Carl Nielsen. Nielsen’s gentle lyricism and simple accompaniments charmed us both. At Maria’s urging, I had attended Anatoly Liberman’s reading of his translations of Russian lyrics on the day before Valentine’s Day three months before. Lermontov was but one of the poets heard on that occasion. Eager to write something in the Nielsen vein for Ms. Jette, I found many attractive lyrics in Mr. Liberman’s Mikhail Lermontov, Major Poetical Works (University of Minnesota Press, 1983) and chose five for a compact song cycle.
Anatoly Liberman is a professor at the University of Minnesota, where he teaches courses in linguistics, etymology, and folklore. Liberman is a native of St. Petersburg, Russia. He emigrated to the U.S. in 1975. Liberman’s primary interest has been the history of English words, and he is one of the world’s best-read individuals on the subject, frequently sharing his wit and insight on Minnesota Public Radio.
The protagonist of these Lyrics is drawn to the beloved in the first two songs, her voice, her face, her movements: “all is inimitable grace.” But like a cloud that drifts off a cliff, love floats away. Her music is remembered as the song of an angel who carries a soul “for miser destined and dole” on earth.
The cycle is dedicated to Ms. Jette.
Speak to Me
Speak with your voice to me,
Clear and melodious.
My heart then will leap
Like a bird in captivity;
Look with your eyes at me,
Lucid and azure-like,
My soul, when it meets them,
Sunders its manacles;
Life is all merriment
And tears begin flowing;
I could die happy
Were I embracing you. (1838)
She sings: each sound I hear her singing
Melts like a kiss of gentle love.
She looks: I think of her as bringing
The beauty of the sky above
She walks: her every little motion—
She speaks: her animated face—
All is expression and emotion,
All is inimitable grace. (1838)
On the bosom of a cliff deserted,
Slept a cloudlet, beautiful and pearly,
But she left him in the morning, early:
Flew away and with the azure flirted.
And a gentle trace of moisture only
Stayed till later in his furrow hidden;
In the wilderness he towers lonely,
Lost in thought and dropping tears unbidden. (1837)
We parted, but your likeness stays
Forever hidden on my breast;
A vision from my older days,
It brings my soul content and rest.
And in the passions’ later play
I always think of you as mine;
Thus to the fallen gods we pray
And kneel at a forsaken shrine. (1837)
The Angel of Heaven
The angel of Heaven was flying at night
And softly he sang in his flight.
The flickering stars and the cloud and the moon
Were wrapped in his beautiful tune.
He sang of the innocent spirits above,
Of blissful existence and love.
He sang of the Lord, of His will, and His ways,
And pure was the worshipper’s praise.
He flew, and he tenderly carried a soul
For miser destined and dole.
It did not remember his singing, and yet—
That tune it could never forget.
It languished on earth, and by sufferings burned,
For things unattainable yearned;
But nothing it heard could destroy or replace
The music of heavenly grace.
Poems by Mikhail Lermontov, trans. Anatoly Liberman
Mikhail Lermontov, Major Poetical Works, trans. Anatoly Liberman, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983