Aribert Reimann: Nine Sonnets of Louise Labé

I first heard about Aribert Reimann in 1992 or ’93 from my NYU piano teacher, Fabio Gardenal, who recommended the brand new Wergo CD of Reimann vocal music. I dutifully purchased the disc at Tower Records down the block after a lesson.

I’ve kept this music in steady rotation ever since, especially the middle work, Nine Sonnets of Louise Labé, performed by mezzo-soprano Liat Himmelheber and pianist Axel Bauni.

Himmelheber’s opening soliloquy is one of my favorites passages of recorded sound. I know of no other work that is both so lyrical and so dissonant, and the intensity only increases after the piano enters in chaotic support.

The CD is still available in Europe but is not on the streaming services. The audio of the first song and the first page to the score is uploaded here in the hopes that more people will learn of this extraordinary music. (Schott publishes the score.)

The topic of Labe’s 24 sonnets is erotic desire, both requited and unrequited. The date of publication was 1555, and Labé ended with a note asking her contemporaries, “Do not reproach me, ladies, if I’ve loved.” For his 1986 song cycle, Reimann concludes with, “Kiss me, kiss me again, and then kiss.”

  1. “O beaus yeus bruns, ô regars destournez”

Translation by A. S. Kline:

O clear brown eyes, O sidelong gaze,
O burning sighs, O flowing tears,
O dark nights, so full of idle fears,
O renewed in vain, the brightening days.

O sad complaints, O obstinate desire,
O lost time, O wasted suffering,
O thousand deaths, a thousand snares bring,
O sullen ills that thwart my fate entire.

O smile, O brow, O hair, arm, hand and finger,
O plaintive lute, O viol, bow and singer,
so many flames to pierce a woman through!

Of you I complain, of all these tongues of fire,
that touch my heart so often, with desire,
without one single spark scorching you.