Bainbridge: Four Primo Levi Settings

Program Note

Simon Bainbridge (b.1952)
Four Primo Levi Settings (1996)

In 1994 Simon Bainbridge’s wrote his orchestral work, Ad Ora Incerta (at an uncertain hour) — Four Orchestral Songs from Primo Levi. Scored for solo mezzo-soprano, bassoon and orchestra, the work sets poems of Holocaust survivor Primo Levi written in late 1945 and early 1946, only a few months after Levi was released from Auschwitz.

Two years later, Bainbridge reimagined the work for the instrumentation we will hear tonight, describing it as “an intimate ensemble of melancholic darkness and autumnal light, appropriate for these somber texts.”

Of this work the composer says:

“It was whilst browsing around a New York bookstore some years ago, that I discovered a volume of Primo Levi's poems for the first time. I had already read quite a lot of his writing including The Periodic Table and If This Is a Man and The Truce but was quite unprepared for the power and intensity of expression that is contained within his poetry. Here was a voice of deep human understanding and compassion, who through words of vivid directness could dig deep into the soul and reveal the true horror of the Holocaust without resorting to sentimentality or angst. 

It is perhaps in the last of my settings After RM Rilke, a remarkable reworking of Rilke's Herbsttag (Autumn Day) that one gets closest to Primo Levi's own deep solitude and despair. He writes: 

The time has come to have a home
Or to remain for a long time without one
The time has come not to be alone
Or else we will stay alone for a long time

He couldn't live with the guilt of survival and took his life in 1987. These settings are dedicated to his memory.”