About this work:
The five songs of The Acrobats form a meditation on questions of constraint and release: constraint by and perhaps, just perhaps, release from circumstance, history, custom, and above all the one constraint that nothing can break, the passage of time. The voices of the mezzo and baritone embody these questions by the way they divide after the first song and reunite in the last. The acrobats are all of us as we try to keep our balance amid the vicissitudes of life. The image applies directly to the wandering troupe of the fourth song, a setting of Apollinaire's "Acrobats" (Saltimbanques), but it also extends to cover the personae of the other songs as they, too, wend their way through the world. The image is of a piece with the "Saltimbanques" painted in 1904-05 by the poet's close friend Pablo Picasso. Apollinaire was involved with the process and is sometimes said to be the model for one of the acrobats in the painting, a heavy-set figure carrying a sack. Rilke drew on the painting for his Fifth Duino Elegy (1922), which, like his “The Panther,” set here, concentrates on the acrobatic motion that that Picasso leaves out: “A will, never satisfied . . . wrings them, / bends them, slings them and swings them, / flings them and snatches them back.”
Voice ranges: G3-E4 / B3-F#5 with optional A3 and A5.
The original texts are in the public domain. The translations of Rilke and Apollinaire are the composer's and may be used freely in programs for live or recorded performances.
1. Out of the Night (Ezra Pound)
You came in out of the night
And there were flowers in your hands. . . .
I who have seen you amid the primal things
Was angry when they spoke your name
In ordinary places.
I would that the cool waves might flow over my mind,
And that the world should dry as a dead leaf,
Or as a dandelion seed-pod and be swept away,
So that I might find you again,
2. The Panther (In the Jardin des Plantes, Paris) (Rainer Maria Rilke; translated by the composer)
His gaze is from the pacing past the bars
So tired now that it holds nothing more,
As if for him there were a thousand bars
And past the thousand bars no world to see.
The quiet tread of strong and agile steps
Which turn in circles growing ever smaller
Is like a dance of force around a center
In which a great will stands there paralyzed.
Only at times the curtain of his pupils
Silently parts—and then in glides an image,
Glides through the high-strung stillness of his limbs--
And in his heart gives up its being.
3. The Soldier’s Tale (Carl Sandburg)
I am an ancient reluctant conscript.
On the soup wagons of Xerxes I was a cleaner of pans.
On the march of Miltiades' phalanx I had a haft and head;
I had a bristling gleaming spear-handle.
Red-headed Cæsar picked me for a teamster.
He said, "Go to work, you Tuscan bastard,
Rome calls for a man who can drive horses."
The units of conquest led by Charles the Twelfth,
The whirling whimsical Napoleonic columns:
They saw me one of the horseshoers.
I trimmed the feet of a white horse Bonaparte swept the night stars with.
Lincoln said, "Get into the game; your nation takes you."
And I drove a wagon and team and I had my arm shot off
At Spottsylvania Court House.
I am an ancient reluctant conscript.
4. Acrobats (Guillaume Apollinaire; translated by the composer)
Across the plain the wandering troupe
Recedes along the sides of the gardens
Before the doors of gray auberges
Through villages with no churches
And the children go out in front of them
The others following in a dream
Every fruit tree yields itself up
When they give the sign from very far away
They have weights round or square
And tambourines and hoops of gold
The bear and the ape, wise animals,
Beg for pennies as they wend their way.