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Six Songs, Op. 38: In My Garden at Night, To Her, Daisies, Pied Piper, Dreams, A-oo

February 16, 2020: Ying Fang, soprano; Ken Noda, piano

Rachmaninoff composed all of his approximately ninety songs in the first half of his life—the first in 1890, when he was a student at the Moscow Conservatory, and his final set, op. 38, in 1916, the year before he left Russia for what turned out to be the last time. This last collection and the one before, op. 34, came about in part through a fan letter he received in 1912 from someone signed “Re.” Soon discovering that the sender was poet Marietta Shaganian, he wrote to ask for suggestions of poems to set, saying: “The authors may be living or dead—it makes no difference!—only that the things must be original, not translations, and must be no more than 8 to 12 lines long, at most 16. And one more thing: the mood should be sad rather than happy. The lighter shades don’t come easily to me!”

Of the fourteen songs in Opus 34, half, he wrote to Shaganian, were ones she had suggested and analyzed for him. Most were Romantic poets with the addition of the more modern Bal’mont. For the Opus 38 set, she again provided texts for him, trying to turn his conservative tastes toward more contemporary symbolist poets, such as Blok, Bryusov, Severyanin, Sologub, and again Bal’mont. Though the composer had noted his affinity for dark moods, which had characterized his earlier songs, these two last sets for the most part transmit more peaceful, uplifting, and even humorous aspects than gloomy ones.

Rachmaninoff had plenty of reason for gloom in the fall of 1916 because he was being treated at a sanatorium in Essentuki for tiredness and a pain in his wrist. Shaganian visited him there and described his state of total despair and self-doubt saying that he broke into tears several times as he described his inability to work and the galling idea that it was impossible to be anything more than “a well-known pianist and a mediocre composer.” She ended her lengthy description saying, “He spoke of the impossibility of living in the state he was, and all this in a terrible dead voice, almost that of an old man, with his eyes lifeless and his face grey and ill.”

It was during that visit that she gave him a notebook full of her suggestions of poems to set, just as she had done four years earlier. This helped to jolt him out of his creative slump, but he was also aided by visits from other friends, his move out of the sanatorium to nearby spa city Kislovodsk—and above all spending time with the young soprano Nina Pavlovna Koshetz, whom he had accompanied in a recital that spring and who had also visited him at Essentuki. They made plans for another concert, he composed the Opus 38 Songs in August and September, and they premiered them in Moscow in October 24.

Rachmaninoff opens the Six Songs with the haunting “In My Garden at Night,” his setting of Alexander Blok’s translation of Avetik Isaakian’s poem, in which he responds to the images of the weeping willow—metaphorically a lovelorn maiden—with simple, melancholic unmeasured phrases. The second half rises to an impassioned peak at “bitterly” as the poem promises that “tender maiden dawn” will dry weeping willow’s tears.

“To Her” continues the lovelorn theme, this time a poem by Andrey Bely in which each of three verses ends with the poet calling futilely to his beloved. Rachmaninoff allows great metric freedom in his through-composed setting but preserves the structural text refrains with recognizably similar but ingeniously varied, impassioned phrases. Other striking features include the opening five-note chromatic gesture, which permeates the setting even when the accompaniment becomes more dense, and the fluid music for the river Lethe, the mythological river in Hades that causes forgetfulness.

For “Daisies,” op. 38, no. 3, Rachmaninoff chose a 1909 unassuming nature poem by Igor Severyanin. His setting exudes charm with its treble-oriented sonorities, its graceful, independent melodies for the voice and the piano right-hand, and its memorable extended piano postlude.

“The Pied Piper,” fourth in the set, shows Rachmaninoff’s rarely seen humorous side as he responds to Valery Yakovlevich Bryusov’s 1914 poem, itself a play on the famous legend. The piper lures—not rats or children—but his beloved out of her house with the enticing sounds of his flute. Rachmaninoff delightfully depicts the flute in both the voice and piano parts.

In “A Dream,” op. 38, no. 5, Rachmaninoff responds ingeniously to poet Fyodor Sologub’s images of disembodied dreaming. His atmospheric piano part uses various bell-like sounds—a favorite device of his—to set the scene for the soaring vocal lines.

Placed last in Opus 38, “A-oo” sets a 1909 poem by Konstantin Dmitriyevich Bal’mont in which a lover remembers fondly the laughter of his beloved and a dream of them running together to a mountain slope. Rachmaninoff’s pianistic shimmer aptly conveys the poet’s eager, anticipation of finding her, his agitated chords and short vocal phrases portray the lover’s confusion at not finding her, and the music builds to an incredibly impassioned peak as the lover calls “A-oo” hoping she’ll answer back. That hope clearly dies in the piano postlude, which trails off in open-ended quiet.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

Texts and Translations

Ночью в саду у меня

Ночью в саду у меня

Плачет плакучая ива,

И безутешна она

Ивушка, Грустная ива.

Раннее утро блеснет,

Нежная девушка Зорька

Ивушке, плачущей горько,

Слёзы кудрями сотрет.

—Alexander Blok

In My Garden at Night

At night in my garden

a weeping willow weeps,

and she is inconsolable,

weeping willow, sad willow.

When early morning shines

tender maiden dawn

will dry bitterly weeping willow’s

tears with her curls.

К ней

Травы одеты перлами.

Где-то приветы

Грустные слышу,

Приветы милые . . .

Милая, где ты,


Вечера светы ясные,

Вечера светы красные

Руки воздеты:

Жду тебя,

Милая, где ты,


Руки воздеты:

Жду тебя,

В струях

Леты смытую

Бледными Леты


Милая, где ты,


—Andrey Bely

To Her

Pearls adorn the grass.

From somewhere

I hear mournful greetings,

Cherished greetings . . .

Dear one, where are you?

Dear one!

The lights of evening are clear,

The lights of evening are red,

My arms raised,

I await you,

Dear one, where are you?

Dear one?

My arms raised,

I await you;

In the streams,

Lethe washes the years away,

Pale Lethe,

In the streams,

Dear one, where are you?

Dear one!


О, посмотри! как много маргариток—

И там, и тут . . .

Они цветут; их много; их избыток;

Они цветут.

Их лепестки трёхгранные—как крылья,

Как белый шёлк . . .

В них лета мощ! В них радость изобилья!

В них слетлый полк.

Готовь, земля, цветам из рос напиток,

Дай сок стеблю . . .

О, девушки! о, звезды маргариток!

Я вас люблю . . .

—Igor Severyanin


Oh, look! how many daisies—

here and there . . .

they are blooming; so many; they are abundant.

they are blooming.

Their petals are triangluar—like wings,

like white silk . . .

they have the power of summer! the joy of abundance!

they are a radiant regiment.

Earth, prepare the flowers a drink of dew,

give the stems juice.

Oh, maidens, oh starry daisies,

I love you!


Я на дудочке играю,—


Я на дудочке играю,

Чьи-то души веселя.

Я иду вдоль тихой речки,


Дремлют тихие овечки,

Кротко зыблются поля.

Спите, овцы и барашки,


За лугами красной кашки

Стройно встали тополя.

Малый домик там таится,


Милой девушке приснится,

Что ей душу отдал я.

И на нежный зов свирели,


Выйдет словно к светлой цели

Через сад через поля.

И в лесу под дубом темным,


Будет ждать в бреду истомном,

В час, когда уснет земля.

Встречу гостью дорогую,


Вплоть до утра зацелую,

Сердце лаской утоля.

И, сменившись с ней колечком,


Отпущу ее к овечкам,

В сад, где стройны тополя.

—Valery Yakovlevich Bryusov

Pied Piper

I play upon my little pipe,—


I play upon my little pipe,

making people’s souls merry.

I walk along a quiet stream,


gentle lambs doze,

Fields wave softly.

Sleep, sheep and lambs,


beyond the meadows of red clover

slender poplars rise.

A little house is hidden there,


a sweet girl will dream

that I gave her my soul.

And at the gentle call of my flute,


she will come as if to a radiant goal,

through the garden, through the fields.

And in the forest under a dark oak,


she will wait in dazed delirium

for the hour when the earth falls asleep.

I shall meet my dear guest,


I shall kiss her until morning,

assuaging my heart with caresses.

And once we have exchanged rings,


I’ll let her go to the lambs,

to the garden with the slender poplars.

Son (Сон)

В мире нет ничего

Дожделеннее сна,

Чары есть у него,

У него тишина,

У него на устах

Ни печаль и ни смех,

И в бездонных очах

Много тайных утех.

У него широки,

Широки два крыла,

И легки, так лёгки,

Как полночная мгла.

Не понять, как несёт,

И куда и на чем

Он крылом не взмахнет

И не двинет плечом.

—Fyodor Sologub


There is nothing in the world

better than sleep,

he has an enchantment,

he silence.

He has on his lips

neither sadness nor laughter

and in bottomless eyes

many secret pleasures.

He has wide,

two wide wings,

and they are light, so light

like a midnight shadow.

How he carries you is unknown,

and where, on what,

he won’t flap his wing

And he will not move his shoulder.


Твой нежный смех был сказкою изменчивою,

Он звал как в сон зовёт свирельный звон.

И вот венком, стихом тебя увенчиваю.

Уйдём, бежим вдвоем на горный склон.

Но где же ты?

Лишь звон вершин позванивает

Цветку цветок средь дня зажег свечу.

И чей-то смех все в глубь меня заманивает.

Пою, ищу,




—Konstantin Dmitrevich Bal’mont


Your gentle laughter was a volatile fairy tale,

calling like a flute in a dream.

Now I crown you with a wreath of verse.

Let’s go, let’s run together to the mountainside.

But where are you?

Only the sound of the heights is ringing

a flower for another flower lit a candle midday.

And someone’s laughter deep inside lures me.

I sing, I search,



I shout.

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