What kind of performer was Rilke?


We have audio recordings of Tolstoy and Tennyson--even one of Robert Browning. But no recordings of Rainer Maria Rilke are known to exist, although he lived until 1926. In a letter written in April of that year to Dieter Bassermann, Rilke noted that the phonograph could contribute "to a new orderly sense of responsibility toward the reading aloud of a poem (by which alone its whole existence appears)."

We do, however, have a vivid description of Rilke as a performer. Here is Marie von Thurn and Taxis' account of a reading he gave at her home in Lautschin, Bohemia in July 1911:

Rilke read in a very characteristic manner, always standing up, in a voice capable of infinite modulations, which sometimes rose to an amazingly sonorous volume, in a strange, singing tone that strongly stressed the rhythm.

It was entirely different from anything one had ever heard--startling at first, then wonderfully moving. I have never heard verse spoken more solemnly and, at the same time, with greater simplicity; one could have listened to him forever.

It was remarkable what long pauses he made. Then he would slowly bow his head, almost closing his heavy eyelids, and one could hear the silence, as one hears the pauses of a Beethoven sonata.

This letter is quoted in the 1949 book, Rilke: Man and Poet, by Nora Wydenbruck, which is well worth hunting down. Wydenbruck (1885-1962) was an Austrian-British author and painter, now best known for her German translations of Four Quartets and several of Eliot's plays.

Today recordings of Rilke's poetry and prose are available in many languages. My favorites are those by the German actor Jurgen Goslar. He may not emphasize the meters as much as Rilke himself apparently did, but he has a fine sense of the human drama in poems like "Herbsttag".  


Lautschin, now in the Czech Republic, as it is today (Photo: Radio Prague)

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