In addition to his vast output of German poetry, Rilke (1875–1926) wrote nearly 400 poems in French. His poems on roses struck me as especially charming, filled with gorgeous lyricism, deftly crafted and elegant in their imagery. Contre Qui, Rose, the second movement of my choral cycle, Les Chansons des Roses, poses a series of questions, and the corresponding musical phrases all end with unresolved harmonies as the questions remain unanswered. A sense of quiet resignation begins the setting as the stark harmony and melodic line, filled with unresolved suspensions and appoggiaturas, gradually build to a multi-part chord on “au contraire” and the music then folds back on itself, ending on a cluster that fades away as does the hope of understanding the reasons for the rose’s thorny protection.
My quiet setting, which Stereophile magazine critic John Marks termed “one of the most singularly beautiful pieces of vocal music in the history of Western Civilization,” remains a personal favorite. I extend my appreciation to Mr. Marks for his fine suggestion to transcribe the original choral setting for string quartet. A superb, deeply-felt recording of the choral version is by Polyphony, conducted by Stephen Layton, on Lauridsen - Nocturnes (Hyperion).