Program Notes



Respighi's string quartet with soprano from 1914 is based on a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley, “The Sunset” (“Il Tramonto” in Italian). The poem itself was written in 1816 in a time of great emotional turmoil for the young poet. Shelley was living with Mary Godwin, pregnant with their first son, when his wife Harriet committed suicide allowing him to then marry Mary. The story is about two lovers with a tragic fate; they meet outside and after a tender night of love-making the woman awakens to find her partner has died in his sleep. The woman lives out her years in sorrowful resignation.

There late was One within whose subtle being,

As light and wind within some delicate cloud

That fades amid the blue noon's burning sky,

Genius and death contended. None may know

The sweetness of the joy which made his breath

Fail, like the trances of the summer air,

When, with the lady of his love, who then

First knew the unreserve of mingled being,

He walked along the pathway of a field

Which to the east a hoar wood shadowed o'er,

But to the west was open to the sky.

There now the sun had sunk, but lines of gold

Hung on the ashen clouds, and on the points

Of the far level grass and nodding flowers

And the old dandelion's hoary beard,

And, mingled with the shades of twilight, lay

On the brown massy woods - and in the east

The broad and burning moon lingeringly rose

Between the black trunks of the crowded trees,

While the faint stars were gathering overhead.

"Is it not strange, Isabel," said the youth,

"I never saw the sun? We will walk here

To-morrow; thou shalt look on it with me."

That night the youth and lady mingled lay

In love and sleep - but when the morning came

The lady found her lover dead and cold.

Let none believe that God in mercy gave

That stroke. The lady died not, nor grew wild,

But year by year lived on - in truth I think

Her gentleness and patience and sad smiles,

And that she did not die, but lived to tend

Her agèd father, were a kind of madness,

If madness 'tis to be unlike the world.

For but to see her were to read the tale

Woven by some subtlest bard, to make hard hearts

Dissolve away in wisdom-working grief;

Her eyes were black and lustreless and wan:

Her eyelashes were worn away with tears,

Her lips and cheeks were like things dead - so pale;

Her hands were thin, and through their wandering veins

And weak articulations might be seen

Day's ruddy light. The tomb of thy dead self

Which one vexed ghost inhabits, night and day,

Is all, lost child, that now remains of thee!

"Inheritor of more than earth can give,

Passionless calm and silence unreproved,

Where the dead find, oh, not sleep! but rest,

And are the uncomplaining things they seem,

Or live, a drop in the deep sea of Love;

Oh, that like thine, mine epitaph were – Peace!"

This was the only moan she ever made.

The music closely follows the trajectory of the poem starting, after an operatic recitative, with the soft, flowing sounds of a summer’s eve. The movement builds steadily to a passionate climax resulting in, the next morning, her horror upon the grim discovery. It then slips slowly into sad resignation at the cruelty of fate. At the end one hears church-like chanting and the baroque influence of Monteverdi with the unmistakable dramatic passion of Puccini mixed with a Debussy-like texture in the lilting arpeggios of the viola throughout. The music and words are perfectly intertwined telling the story in two complete and identical arcs.

Program notes by David Yang