'IL TRAMONTO' for SOPRANO AND STRING QUARTET
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