I Think We Are Angels

Excerpts from archival premiere recording: #13 (“Inward, into the light”) and #16 (“Friday Night”)

Program Note: I Think We Are Angels, a song cycle of 16 songs

words by Else Lasker-Schüler (Germany – Israel, 1869 – 1945); music by James Rolfe

Else Lasker-Schüler was a Jewish-German poet active in the early decades of the 20th century. She was associated with the Blue Rider group of expressionist artists (a group for which she coined the name), including such painters as Kandinsky, Klee, Franz Marc, and Lyonel Feininger. Lasker-Schüler created a body of poetry which dealt with romantic and sensual love, as well as with spirituality and Judaism. Only weeks after being awarded Germany’s highest literary prize in 1933, she was accosted by Nazi thugs in the streets of Berlin. She immediately fled, at first to Switzerland, and finally to Jerusalem, where she died in 1945. Her life was difficult. She had little sense of how to handle money, and often lived in dire poverty. Her beloved son became estranged from her, and then died before he was 30. Her two marriages ended in divorce, and she ended her days lonely and impoverished.

The poems in this song cycle are arranged more or less in the chronological order of their writing, beginning with “The end of the world”, about the death of God. Love follows: passionate love (2, 3, 5), clear calm love (4, 6, 7, 10), innocent playful love (8, 9), love tinged with melancholy (11). “Evensong” (12), with its frustrated longing for God, marks a turning point. Now we have broken love (13) and loneliness (“My Blue Piano”, 14). Death approaches (“I Know”, 15), and we end with a timeless Jewish Shabbat (“Friday Night”, 16). The arc of songs describes a journey: from the youthful celebration of physical, sensual love, we travel through loneliness and a yearning for God, arriving finally at an acceptance of suffering and death. The journey mirrors that of the poet’s life, but it also rings true as a life journey for many of us.

I Think We Are Angels was co-commissioned by Michael and Sonja Koerner and Stanley H. Witkin for Soundstreams Canada (Lawrence Cherney, Artistic Director). The German texts have been translated into English by the composer.


I Think We Are Angels: Selected Poems by Else Lasker-Schüler

1 The End Of The World

There is a weeping in the world
as if the Good Lord had died.
His leaden shadow swoons
and overflows His dismal grave.

Come, let’s hide close together…
Life lies in every heart
as if in a coffin.

O! Let’s kiss deeply–
a longing knocks at the world
of which we must surely die.

2 Shulamite

O, at your sweet mouth I learned
too much of bliss!
Already I feel Gabriel’s lips
burning on my heart.
Oh, how your life beckons me!
And I am undone
with blossoming sorrow,
and drift in space,
in time,
in eternity,
and my soul glows in the evening colours
of Jerusalem.

3 Sensual Passion

Your wicked mouth is my death chamber.
Its sweet narcotic fragrance
sends all my virtues to sleep.
My senses reel, I drink from its well
and sink limply into its depths,
stealing glimpses into hell.

My body glows hot beneath your breath.
It trembles like a young rose
kissed by warm May showers.
–I follow you into a wilderness of sin
and pluck fire lilies by the roadside
–even if I may never find my way home again.

4 Love

Rustling through our sleep,
a fine breeze, silk,
like blossoms trembling
over us.
And I am carried homeward
on your breath
through enchanted fairytales
and buried sagas.

And my crooked smile plays
across the depths of your features
and worlds
nestle with us.

Rustling through our sleep
a fine breeze, silk,
the age-old dream
blesses us both.

5 When You Come

Let’s hide day in the chalice of night,
we who long for the night.
Our bodies are golden stars
that long to kiss and kiss.

Do you smell the roses sleeping
on the dark grass?
So will our night be–
our golden bodies long to kiss.

I keep falling from night to night.
All heaven flowers thick with sparkling love.
Our bodies long to kiss and kiss.

6, 7 I Think We Are Angels

When we gaze at each other,
Our eyes blossom.

And we are amazed
At the miracles we create.
And all is sweetness.

We are circled by stars
And fly out of this world.

I think we are angels.

8 Oh, Your Hands

Oh, your hands
are my children.
All my toys
lay in their hollows.

I always play soldiers
with your fingers, little riders,
till they fall down.

How I do love them,
your boyish hands, the two of them.

9 Giselheer As A Boy

From my eyelash hangs a star
it’s so bright
how shall I sleep–

I’d like to play with you.
–I have no homeland–
Let’s play King and Prince.

10 Night Secret

I have chosen you
among all these stars.

And I wake—a flower listening
among the humming leaves.

Our lips long to make honey,
our shimmering nights flourish.

From the holy spark of your body
my heart sets its heavens alight.

All my dreams hang from your gold.
I have chosen you among all these stars.

11 I Love You

I love you
and find you
even though the day grows dark.

All my life long
until now
I have wandered searching.

I love you!
I love you!
I love you!

Your lips are opening…
the world is deaf,
the world is blind

even the clouds
and the leaves–
Only we—made
of golden dust–

12 Evensong

Onto a young rosebush
falls a soft rain from heaven
and the world grows ever more abundant.

O my God, my only God,
I thirst and cry out for you
among all your blessings.

Angels sing from on high:
“Today is God’s name day,
He who knows all that shall come to pass.”

And I can’t understand them,
I, who beneath their roof
keep waking in sorrow.

13 Inward, Into the Light

I always think of death.
Nobody loved me.

I wish I were a quiet picture
on an altar, and all in me were extinguished.

This dreamy coloured sunset
stains my raw eyes with tears.

And who knows where to turn
when everywhere is you.

You are my secret home,
and I want nothing more.

How I long to blossom
into your heart’s blue skies–

I lay down nothing but soft paths
around your pulsing house.

14 My Blue Piano

At home I have a blue piano
but cannot play a single note.

It stands in the dark of the cellar door,
ever since the world went rotten.

Four hands of the stars play
–the moon’s wife sang in her boat–
Now the rats dance and clatter.

Its keyboard is shattered–
I cry for the dead blue thing.

O dear angel, I eat such bitter bread—
please, for me, while I still live—
though it be forbidden—
please open Heaven’s door.

15 I Know

I know that soon I must die,
Yet all the trees are radiant
After the longed-for kiss of July–

My dreams have faded–
Never before have I drawn such gloomy endings
In my books of rhyme.

You pick a flower to greet me–
I loved it already in the bud.
Yet I know that soon I must die.

My breath hangs over God’s river–
Softly I set my foot
On the path to my eternal home.

16 Friday Night

The candles burn on Friday night,
Their flames rise up to heaven.
God sees even the smallest light.

I fold my hands in the evening hour
And hear the same thing from all Jewish lips
as we kneel on Friday evening before the flame:
Have mercy, dear Father, and soften their hearts.
My body and soul shall fast on.