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19 February 2010

Moya Henderson talks about her Anna Akhmatova's Requiem

Moya Henderson Image: Moya Henderson  

[Updated and added to 26 February]

Sydney Philharmonia Choirs celebrates its 90th anniversary year with a world premiere by Moya Henderson. I'd like to name them all by name: Anna Akhmatova's Requiem is Henderson's tribute to the women of Stalin's Russia during the years of persecution and purges. In the concert on 31 March and 3 April, Henderson's work is paired with the 4th movement of Beethoven's Symphony No 9. In this short interview, Henderson talks about the background of this work.

What initially drew you to the work of Anna Akhmatova and when did you first consider the requiem project?

Certainly by 1999 I was already thinking about setting the English translation of the Anna Akhmatova Requiem to music. The 2nd volume of the bilingual edition of Akhmatova's Complete Poems was published by Zephyr Press (USA), in 1990. In 1999, I met with the translator, Judith Hemschemeyer, to discuss Akhmatova's poetry, and the Requiem, in particular, as preparation to beginning this daunting undertaking. I knew of John Tavener's beautiful Russian settings of some of the poems, and over the years, other composers' treatments of both the Russian and English texts became known to me. I wanted to do the entire Requiem. It was my way of putting the 20th century behind me. As the new millennium approached, the 1900s seemed to have the competitive edge over earlier eras for global cruelty and hideous behaviour perpetrated over extended periods of time. This was before 9/11 and the toxic cloud of terrorism that threatens our existence today. I turned out to be a wishful thinker in anticipating better times ahead.

What interests you about the story of the women in Stalinist Russia?

The women of Leningrad (St Petersburg) stand for the suffering of humankind (men and women alike). Akhmatova intends it so. The Requiem was written during the Stalinist Terror (1935 - 1941). It recalls Mary, the mother of Jesus, John the beloved disciple, Mary Magdalene and Jesus himself as iconic, Christian symbols of suffering. Akhmatova herself identifies with Mary's all-embracing empathy (Epilogue II, 'I have woven a wide mantle for them / From their meager, overheard words...'). Stalin's purge was directed most specifically against men, the most likely challengers to the power of the dictator. However, certain women - those as significant as Akhmatova was to her people - also posed a threat to the regime. For this reason, the poems of the Requiem could never be kept as written documents. Akhmatova and her friend, Lydia Chukovskaya (a novelist) learnt the poems by heart, then burnt the scribbled drafts in the ashtray.

In the Soviet Union, under the dictators, the regime nurtured and rewarded a culture of espionage: virtually everyone spied on workmates, friends and neighbours. Even children were trained to inform on their parents. It is impossible for those of us who have never experienced such a pandemic of phobic mistrust, to understand how it impacted on people's lives at that time. Nadezhda Mandelstam, wife of the poet, Osip Mandelstam, wrote that the only people Akhmatova felt she could trust during this period were in fact, the Mandelstams. Because the Regime was accounting for all of the men (in prison, in the Gulags, or, in the latter stages, dispatched to the Front) it was left to the women in Leningrad to form those long lines of mercy that queued up every day outside the gates of the Kresty Prison, in order to leave parcels for their loved ones.

How do you feel about the Anna Akhmatova Requiem being performed for the first time at Sydney Opera House?

The Sydney Opera House is the perfect venue for the premiere performance of the work. Happily, several of my major works have been premiered there: Sacred Site for grand organ and tape; Six Urban Songs (the Patrick White song cycle); The Dreaming for string orchestra; Pellucid Days (the Bruce Beaver song cycle) for soprano, mezzo soprano, horn and strings; and lastly, my opera, Lindy.

Tell us about the music itself and your response, as a composer, to Akhmatova's words.

It is difficult for me to be analytical about the music. I have in every instance reacted as intensely as I could to the poems themselves and to their own inherent music. I am dazzled by the kaleidoscopic array of vowels in the English language, and these are the sounds we sing on. Also, in a sung work, we hear the rhymes and slant rhymes through the vowels rather than the consonants. I have strived further than in earlier works for a spontaneous, free-floating effect.

For example, in song # 6, 'Quietly flows the quiet Don', I effect something of a nursery rhyme style in the first verse, because the poem represents the yellow moon as a mischievous elf. But then, in the second verse, the mood changes dramatically and the idiom is suddenly declamatory. By the last two lines, the poet is utterly bereft: husband in the grave, son in prison, / Say a prayer for me. In song # 8, 'You should have been shown, you mocker', Akhmatova is reminding herself how carefree her life was when she was young, and how those frivolous days contrast totally with the unbearable present. I resort to a blues idiom, again for the freedom of it, and because there is something in this poem that reminds me of that other way of feeling pain that is expressed in African-American music. Maybe it's that self-deprecatory resignation to what life deals out that I'm responding to. In glimpsing briefly into just two of the 16 songs, I hope I give some idea of how I have worked with the text. It rules. It is of the utmost importance.

What do you hope audiences will take away from the Anna Akhmatova Requiem?

I hope the performance will allow us all to recognise more fully that this series of poems by Anna Akhmatova is one of the strongest and most universal documents to come from 20th-century Soviet Russia. It represents a sublime example of the poetry of witness, and it demonstrates how art can transform ugly, painful and ephemeral existence into real and voiced experience that the whole world will want to commemorate.

Event details

Sydney Philharmonia Choirs: Ode to Liberty
31 March and 3 April, 8pm
Sydney Opera House Concert Hall
More details in the AMC calendar (31 March and 3 April)
More information: Sydney Philharmonia Choirs website

Further links

Moya Henderson - AMC profile

The Australian Music Centre connects people around the world to Australian composers and sound artists. By facilitating the performance, awareness and appreciation of music by these creative artists, it aims to increase their profile and the sustainability of their art form. Established in 1974, the AMC is now the leading provider of information, resources, materials and products relating to Australian new music.


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