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for: mezzo-soprano, flute, clarinet, percussion, piano/celesta and string quintet
text by: Philip Levine
duration: 10'
commission: WDR Köln for Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik 2002 and Ensemble Cikada
first performance: 28.4.02, Witten, Tage für Neue Kammermusik, Loré Lixenberg (mezzo-soprano), Ensemble Cikada, Christian Eggen (conductor)
publisher: Edizioni Suvini Zerboni
catalogue number: S. 12037 Z.
Score extracts
Audio extracts
I met Philip Levine (Detroit, 1928) in April 2000 at the Bogliasco Foundation (Genoa), where we were both artists in residence. Philip Levine is one of the best-known contemporary American poets, the winner of a National Book Award (What Work Is, 1991) and of a Pulitzer Prize (The Simple Truth, 1994), and the author of more of a dozen books of poetry. Meeting him and his poetry immediately made me desire to set his poems to music. Last year I expressly asked him to write a few, very brief poems for me, which I might use in a musical composition. Philip was so kind as to oblige me, even though short poems are not his usual size. For this reason I feel even more grateful to him. First of all, my gratitude goes to his understanding of the needs of my inspiration and his ability to them. The five poems of Godspell, which I have come to consider a closely-knit cycle, have brought me to tune my musical thinking to Levine´s ironical, at times parodic voice.
This voice expresses a pessimistic world view. As Levine explains in a brief note he sent me along with the poems, in Old English (and, I add, in the Bible) the word Godspell means “good news”. The idea of the improvement of human conditions, though, is constantly undermined in the poems. Whenever a development, or a growth, is hinted at, it takes on the appearance of a degenerative process, or abnormal increase, like a killing tumor. Progress is purely quantitative, and it is merely man´s delusion that it can be qualitative. In the way it is conceived in our society—as a material, technological, or ideological gain—progress is unable to create an authentic, human growth, or betterment, let alone hope, or happiness.
I have tried to create an expressive equivalent of Levine´s poetical stance and structures, particularly of the thick net of their internal references. It is my hope that my music can convey my sense of the value of Philip´s poetry.
Stefano Gervasoni, 25.2.02

When the winter wind
moves through the ash trees
I hear the past calling
in the pale voices
of the air. The alder,
older, harbors a few leaves
from last fall, black, curled,
a silent chorus
for all those we’ve left
behind. Suddenly
at my back I feel
a new wind come on,
chilling, relentless,
with all the power
of loss, the meaning


Everyone sits at the big table
in the dark. The empty plates
moon, the silverware stars,
the napkins scrub their hands.

I’m home, says the front door.
The windows are deep in thought,
the roof has taken off its hat.
Nothing to do chants the toilet.



About life I can say nothing. Instead,
half blind, I wander the woods while
a west wind picks up in the trees
clustered above. The pines make
a music like no other, rising and
falling like a distant surf at night
that calms the darkness before
first light. How weightless
words are when nothing will do.


There was a season of snails, cankers, green slugs,
gophers I never saw, and then a short autumn
without a harvest, and the brown vines I tried
to burn with that year´s leaves. A lifetime passes
in the blink of an eye. You look back and think,
That was heaven, so of course it had to end.


The gray dove on my window sill
is still moaning over yesterday´s
smashed eggs. But now the first
jackhammer breaks down
the dawn with its canticle
of progress. The garbage truck,
the street sweeper take their turns.
And the birds of the air and the beasts
of the field? They take their lumps
today and everyday, saith the TV.

Philip Levine
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