Rilke Project

“Sonnets to Orpheus” by Rainer Maria Rilke

“We are the bees of the invisible. We frantically plunder the visible of its honey, to accumulate it in the great golden hive of the invisible.”  — Rilke

The local Section group in Fair Oaks has given much attention to the poetry of Rilke. But we do this as artists rather than as scholars, primarily. Inspired by one of the musicians in our group, a saxophonist, we began to explore voice recitation and musical settings of Rilke’s “Sonnets to Orpheus.” We take much inspiration for this “Rilke Project” from the poetry and “magical idealism” of Novalis. The sonnets featured here were performed on stage in Massachusetts and at private recitals and salons in northern and southern California. We offer this ongoing project as performance videos, along with the performance videos of fairy tales, myths and legends.

A brief lecture typically precedes a performance of a Rilke poem so that audience members can learn about Rilke’s life and outlook. We also include program notes that tell how the sonnets came to be written in the 1920s.

Notes for the Sonnets to Orpheus

Rilke wrote this collection of 55 sonnets toward the end of his life. They were set down one after the other in a rapture of poetic activity in February 1922 at the Chateau de Muzot in Switzerland. The same month also saw the completion of the Duino Elegies. He dedicated the sonnets to Vera Oukama Knoop (1900 – 1919), a childhood friend of Rilke’s daughter. Vera was a talented dancer who also pursued music and the visual arts. The sonnets took Rilke by surprise; he called the process of writing them “a hurricane of the spirit,” and he felt that they were transmitted to him from the spiritual world – as a “Sendung.” They were begun in early February and finished by the end of the month: all in all, about three weeks. He said this about the work:

“. . . in 1922 the new Elegies and their completion were preceded by the Sonnets to Orpheus, which stormily imposed themselves (they were not in my plan). They are, as could not be otherwise, of the same birth as the Elegies, and their sudden coming up, without my willing it, in association with a girl who died young, moves them still closer to the wellspring of their origin; this association is one more connection towards the center of that realm, the depth and influence of which we, everywhere unbounded, share with the dead and with those to come. We of this earth and this today are not for a moment hedged by the world of time, nor are we bound within it: we are incessantly flowing over to those who preceded us and to those who apparently come after us. In that widest ‘open’ world all are, one cannot say ‘simultaneously,’ for the very falling away of time conditions their existing. Transience everywhere plunges into a deep being. And so, all forms of this earth are not only not to be used in a time-limited way only, but, so far as we are able, to be given place in those superior significances in which we are a part. Not, however, in the Christian sense (from which I more and more passionately depart), but in an earthly, deeply earthly, a blissfully earthly consciousness that we must introduce what is here seen and touched into that wider, that widest circuit. Not into a beyond, the shadow of which darkens the earth, but into a whole, into the whole. Nature, the things we move among and use, are provisional and perishable, but, so long as we are here, they are our possession and our friendship, sharing the knowledge of our grief and gladness, as they have already been the confidants of our forbearers. Hence it is important not only not to run down and degrade everything earthly, but just because of its temporariness, which it shares with us, we ought to grasp and transform these phenomena and these things in a most loving understanding. Transform? Yes, for our task is so deeply and so passionately to impress upon ourselves this provisional and perishable earth, that its essential being will arise again ‘invisibly’ in us. We are the bees of the invisible. We frantically plunder the visible of its honey, to accumulate it in the great golden hive of the invisible.” **

** Rainer Maria Rilke, in a letter to his Polish translator dated November 13, 1925. (Cited in Sonnets to Orpheus; translated by H.D. Herter Norton, W.W. Norton & Company, 1992)

“The Myth of Orpheus” by Marc Chagall

Rilke Part 1, Sonnet 15 “Tanzt die Orange”

"Tanzt die Orange" ["Dance the Orange"] Part 1, Sonnet 15. English translation by Bruce Donehower. "Hold it . . . that tastes good . . . ah! already on the wing . . . A little tune, some stamping, a hum – : girls, warm bodied, girls, heavy...

Rilke Part 1 Sonnet 21 “Fruhling ist weidergekommen”

“Wildly Dancing Children” by Emil Nolde Frühling ist wiedergekommen [Spring has returned] Part 1, Sonnet 21. English Translation by Bruce Donehower. “Spring has returned. The earth is like a child who knows some poetry; quite a bit, actually. Lots . . . Complainers,...

Rilke Part 1 Sonnet 20 “Dir aber Herr”

“Claude, two years old, and his hobby horse,” by Pablo Picasso Dir aber, Herr, o was weih ich dir, sag . . . [O what can I dedicate to you, o Lord? Speak . . . ] Part 1, Sonnet 20. English Translation by Bruce Donehower. “O what can I dedicate to you, o Lord? Speak!...

Rilke Part 2 Sonnet 1 “Atmen”

“God creates man and gives him breath” by Marc Chagall Atmen, du unsichtbares Gedicht! [Breath, you invisible poem!] Part 2 Sonnet 1. English Translation by Bruce Donehower. “Breath, you invisible poem! Back and forth, back and forth, exchanging in and out world space...