Sherr headshot
Laurence Sherr
Flame Language

Flame Language
for mezzo-soprano or baritone and chamber ensemble (2008)

for mezzo-soprano or baritone and chamber orchestra (2007)
Poetry of Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Nelly Sachs
in a composition commemorating the victims of the Holocaust
Duration: 10 minutes

Chamber Ensemble Version: Complete Video; Score and Audio Excerpts

Heather Witt, mezzo-soprano, John Warren, clarinet, Charae Krueger, cello,
Robert Henry, piano, John Lawless, percussion, David Kehler, conductor
Atlanta, USA

Flame Language pdf
Elliot Z. Levine
Corresponding audio and score excerpts, chamber ensemble premiere performance
Elliot Z. Levine, baritone, Laurence Sherr, conductor, Kennesaw State University chamber ensemble
Atlanta, USA

Orchestra Version: Video and Score Excerpts

Excerpt, orchestra premiere
Oral Moses, bass-baritone, Bridget Reischl, conductor, Kennesaw State University Symphony Orchestra
Atlanta, USA

KSU Orchestra

Program Notes

German poet Nelly Sachs, winner of the 1966 Nobel Prize for Literature for her poetry witnessing the Holocaust, narrowly escaped with her mother to the neutral country of Sweden in 1940. Surviving the war in poverty in their one-room Stockholm apartment, Sachs wrote about the tragedy of the Jewish people in words that were also universal, symbolic of the suffering and redemption of all humanity. She was particularly aggrieved to learn that the man she had loved for more than 30 years had died in a concentration camp in 1943, and penned a cycle of ten poems, “Gebete für den toten Bräutigam” (“Prayers for a Dead Bridegroom”). These appeared in the collection In den Wohnungen des Todes (In the Dwellings of Death), published in 1946.

The first poem in the cycle is the one I selected, and I decided that it was important to have English-speaking audiences understand the poetry as it was being sung. With the goal of creating an English translation whose meaning was as close as possible to the original, I enlisted the aid of my faculty colleague Dr. Sabine Smith. Her German-language expertise led to this new English version. The imagery of Sachs’ opening lines is what initially caught my attention: Jews customarily mark the mourning following the death of a loved one with a seven-day candle, and each anniversary of the death thereafter with a 24-hour candle (a Jahrzeitlicht). Yet the trembling, quaking flame could also represent a force both illuminating and destructive. The four elements from ancient Greek philosophy, which Sachs uses widely in her work, all appear here (dust as a metaphor for earth). Other Sachs’ influences stem from her reading of Jewish and Christian mysticism and literature, including the Kabbalah and the Zohar.

A consortium of three vocalists and two orchestras commissioned Flame Language. Consortium vocalists include baritone Daniel Gale, Cantor at Temple Beth-El in Birmingham, Alabama (who premiered my composition Fugitive Footsteps for baritone and mixed chorus, also on poetry by Nelly Sachs), bass-baritone Oral Moses, Professor of Voice at Kennesaw State University in Atlanta, Georgia, and baritone Elliot Z. Levine of The Western Wind vocal ensemble in New York City. The ensembles are The Bijou Orchestra in Bay City, Michigan, Leo Najar, Artistic Director, and the Kennesaw State University Orchestra, Michael Alexander, Director.


The candle that I have lit for you
New translation by Drs. Sabine Smith and Laurence Sherr

Die Kerze, die ich für dich entzündet habe

Die Kerze, die ich für dich entzündet habe,
Spricht mit der Luft der Flammensprache Beben,
Und Wasser tropft vom Auge; aus dem Grabe
Dein Staub vernehmlich ruft zum ewgen Leben.

O hoher Treffpunkt in der Armut Zimmer.
Wenn ich nur wüsste, was die Elemente meinen;
Sie deuten dich, denn alles deutet immer
Auf dich; ich kann nichts tun als weinen.
The candle that I have lit for you

The candle that I have lit for you
Speaks quakes with the air of flame language,
And water drops from the eye; from the grave
Your dust distinctly calls to life eternal.

Oh exalted meeting place in poverty’s room.
If I only knew, what the elements mean;
They strive to understand you, for everything points always
To you; I can do nothing but cry.

© Copyright by Suhrkamp Verlag. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Suhrkamp Verlag.
English translation by Drs. Sabine Smith and Laurence Sherr.

Nelly Sachs
Nelly Sachs (1891–1970)