August 10, 2020

From Poetry to Song: A Russian Poet's Work Makes a Debut

From Poetry to Song: A Russian Poet's Work Makes a Debut
A new album by classical composer Mark Abel features four musical adaptations of Tsvetaeva's poetry— a first for the English-language genre. Mark Abel

For most in the English-speaking world, the name Marina Tsvetaeva is obscure. While often revered as one of the greatest Russian poets of the early Soviet period, Tsvetaeva's work has by-and-large failed to garner an international audience.

One American artist, however, has recently completed a project putting Tsvetaeva's work to music in English – reportedly the first time her poetry has been adapted to classical music in English.

In his new album, The Cave of Wondrous Voice, California-based journalist-turned-musician Mark Abel focuses his talents on creating a masterful chamber-music sound, including a groundbreaking song cycle of four of Tsvetaeva's poems. 

Ten years ago, Abel came across Tsvetaeva's poetry for the first time. When he decided to write a 14-minute cycle based on some of her work, Abel enlisted the help of Profesor Alyssa Gillespie of Bowdoin College, a leading scholar of Tsvetaeva. Together, Gillespie and Abel were able to put four of her these poems to music, the first time they've been presented in the medium in English.

"Alyssa's work is on a very high level, and I'm so pleased that she wanted to collaborate," Abel told Russian Life, "Obviously, we both feel that Tsvetaeva is still underrepresented – and we wanted to do something about it."

A portrait of Marina Tsvetaeva
Marina Tsvetaeva's poetic works served as the basis for four new songs.

The life of Marina Tsvetaeva was far from rosy. Born to an intelligentsia family in pre-revolution Moscow in 1892, she left Russia in 1922 after suffering through famine and civil war, which claimed the life of her daughter. She and her family lived in poverty, traveling between various cities in Europe. Upon her return in 1939, she found a Stalinist Russia shrouded in suspicion and repression. Her husband and daughter were both arrested on charges of espionage in 1941. Her husband was killed, and Tsvetaeva hanged herself shortly after.

Tsvetaeva's poetry often reflects the hopelessness and despair of her situation. Themes of homesickness, loneliness, and forlorn hope pervade her work. This manifests itself in raw verses that are difficult to translate and access for foreign listeners. According to Abel, the poetry presents "incredible diversity, emotional intensity and sheer output – truly astonishing considering the tremendous difficulties she encountered in life."

Abel's musical iteration reflects this bleakness skillfully, with the powerful and stirring voice of Grammy-winning soprano Hila Plitmann lending the poetry a haunting quality.

In Professor Gillespie's words, Abel's work "emphasizes expressivity, emotion, and turns of phrase over melody and rhythm. Every psychological nuance, every tiny shift in mood and idea is reflected in his music. I find it refreshing, exciting, and extraordinarily revealing."

The album has already received glowing critical praise.

Mark Abel's album, The Cave of Wondrous Voice, is available for preview and purchase from Delos Music here. Live premieres of the new music were scheduled for this fall, but have been postponed, hopefully only until spring 2021.

Be sure to check out Abel's personal introduction to the album here.


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