river teach me sets to music the English version of ‘To the river’, a poem by Zbigniew Herbert (1924-1998), from the collection Report from the Besieged City, first published in Warsaw in 1983, and translated into English by John and Bogdana Carpenter in 1985. I’ve always been fascinated by the particular way in which Herbert pitches his voice, pursuing the truth with a language both simple and profound. Before writing river teach me I set to music another poem from the same collection, ‘The Divine Claudius’, for narrator and small ensemble. river teach me was selected for the SPNM [Society for the Promotion of New Music] shortlist in 2003.

Herbert concluded one of his sketches with these words: We are the ones who are poor, very poor. The great majority of contemporary art comes out in favour of chaos, gesticulating in vacuity or recounting the history of its own sterile spirit. All the Old Masters, without exception, could say with Racine: ‘We work in order to please the public’, which means that they believed in the sense of their work, and in the possibility of inter-human understanding… Praise be to such naiveté.

Live recording of the first performance by Christine Sjölander, mezzo-soprano, and the Thallein Ensemble conducted by Daniele Rosina. 11 December 2002, Birmingham Conservatoire, Recital Hall.

* * *

River__hourglass of water metaphor of eternity
I enter you more and more changed
so I could be a cloud a fish a rock
while you are the same like a clock that measures
the metamorphoses of the body and descents of the spirit
slow disintegration of tissues and love

I who am born of clay
want to be your pupil
and learn the spring the Olympian heart
o cool torch rustling column
bedrock of my faith and my despair

river teach me stubbornness and endurance
so in the last hour I become worthy
of rest in the shade of the great delta
in the holy triangle of the beginning and of the end

© Zbigniew Herbert