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The Story of the Lasker-Schüler Songs - March 9, 2024

2009 was a unique time in my life. I had just moved across Canada to Vancouver with my young family and was at home most days composing, organizing concerts, and working with Jennifer to care for Alex just starting day care, and baby Nick only 1 year old!   I found social stimulation connecting with online communities and wrote for various music forums including The Composer’s Site and Bright Cecilia, which were both very active before the rise of social media.

Much of my writing was created in response to questions I received, explaining musical composition to many wonderful people worldwide who were curious about how their favourite music was created. From these exchanges I made a few long-lasting friendships. One of those was with classical music devotee Felix de Villiers, a translator and art philosopher with whom I developed a highly engaging correspondence and we have kept in contact ever since.

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Felix de Villiers

the picture he most preferred to share of himself

Felix introduced me to poet Else Lasker-Schüler for whom he had translated many poems. I distinctly remember my first reading of them on a beautiful summer day while camping in Northern Ontario. Her words roused deep feelings and emotions, reminding me of the poetry of the Bedouins and their vividly metaphoric language. They were captivating and left me anticipating the circumstance to make a suitable setting for soprano and orchestra. It's thrilling that London Symphonia has provided the opportunity to realize this project with soprano Midori Marsh who bedazzled us with her concert at Aeolian Hall last season. 

I asked Felix if he would choose a suitable collection of Lasker-Schüler’s to form an effective song cycle and was thrilled by his choices. These five poems create a tapestry of emotional mood and energy, facilitating a wide-ranging musical response, ideal for a colourful and dynamic song cycle, while at the same time providing a vivid window into the life of the poet, and the struggles she faced.

As I explored these words as a music artist interpreting their meaning, I simultaneously immersed myself in the life of this fascinating poet. I am pleased to be sharing these poems translated into English to facilitate the accessibility of this intriguing historical figure’s work. Please read more about her here:


Else Lasker-Schüler

The cycle begins on the banks of the river Styx, where a yearning to be free of desire, a paradox central to Lasker-Schüler’s voice, is explored throughout the song cycle. The music ebbs and flows like a restless river in hues of blackish indigo, waves lapping and surging, underpinning the longing cry of the soprano from the edge of the bank.

In the second song, World-Flight, we abruptly flee from these banks, and spin into a chaos of the boundless self, and are hastened into action as the “autumn crocus blooms in (her) soul”.  The music follows and interprets each line closely, highlighting the almost unhinged drama with sudden changes in textures and dynamics.

Song 3, Weltschmerz, is the dramatic climax of the cycle. When I reflect on these words, I feel most distinctly the pain and suffering that Else Lasker-Schüler endured in her life, an experience that was perhaps more than most could bear. The imagery of the sphynx and the expression of rage carved out of stone, inspired music that I feel best described as an “apocalyptic ritual”.  A quietly insistent driving Afro-Cuban rhythm underlies slow moving dissonance to begin, steadily growing till the singer enters declamatory and resolute. The music then dissipates, becomes more rhythmic, and the soprano incants a spell, leading us to the depth of her rage represented by an explosion of sonic force from the orchestra.

Song 4, Sulamith, is a richly romantic poem describing lovers both found and lost as a source of bliss and pain. This love transcends the inner-personal, and expresses her feelings about leaving Germany, the country of her birth and upbringing. The poem ends in Jerusalem, her new home where she would spend her remaining days. Laid bare after the cataclysm of the proceeding movement, it is scored for solo soprano.

The cycle concludes with The Last One. It is the longest of the five poems and plays a third of the total run time. This luscious text begins and ends with one of Lasker-Schüler’s most iconic lines “I lean upon the sealed eyelid of night and listen into silence.” This delicate gesture becomes rhapsodic, inspired by the night sky and the dance of the moonlight, yet is also “distant, and impenetrable.” And like a wave, it recedes, calming, bringing us back to the water, to the sea, to home, with heavy burden in hand as “the seasons draw across (her) shyly.”

This score is dedicated to my dear friend, translator of the poems, and curator of the cycle, Felix de Villiers. I am very grateful for the support of the Ontario Arts Council, and donors Louise Good and Mary Ellen Kirk for sponsoring this commission.



(Ad: Since the writing of this article, I have found out Felix has passed. 

I love you Felix, and feel blessed to have been your friend.)

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