Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Christoph Rilke
The Love and Death of Cornet Christoph Rilke (The Cornet) for contralto and small orchestra

Year of composition




Scored for

contralto and small orchestra: 2 1 1 1 - 2 1 1 0 - alto sax(E♭) - timp, perc(2) - harp - cel. - piano - strings

Reiten - Der kleine Marquis - Jemand erzählt von seiner Mutter - Wachtfeuer - Das Heer - Ein Tag durch den Troß - Spork - Der Schrei - Der Brief - Das Schloß - Rast - Das Fest - Und Einer steht - Bist Du die Nacht? - Hast Du vergessen? - Die Turmstube - Im Vorsaal - War ein Fenster offen? - Ist das der Morgen? - Aber die Fahne ist nicht dabei - Die Fahne - Der Tod - Im nächsten Frühjahr

Publication information

Reduced score for voice and piano available (UE11491/UE11492)


Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926)


Der Cornet
During the year 1942, while searching for a suitable text as a basis for a cycle of Lieder with piano, my wife suggested the admirable poem and prose by Rilke: Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Christoph Rilke. This work is hardly known at all to French-speakers; it is almost untranslatable and in fact the translations available in bookshops do it no justice at all. I was immediately enthusiastic about this narrative, so strong and at the same time so short and so delicate, but I put it to one side at first; it did not fit my requirements: some twenty-odd Lieder, isn’t that a bit much? Besides, Rilke’s story, although divided into small tableaux, is an epic, a chain of events following each other and not a lyrical exposition of the development of a sentiment, which seems to me to be the literary basis needed for a song cycle. In fact I had strong doubts about setting text to music in a foreign language, as I had always aimed at reaffirming the exact form and expression of language in a vocal composition.

However, the strength and charm of Rilke’s work weakened my resistance. Then meeting Elisabeth Gehri and the chance that she would be the performer, changed my mind about the cycle of Lieder and I decided to write a larger work. The encouragement I received from Paul Sacher gave the final touch to my decision and my project took its definite form, giving me the finesse and transparency of a chamber orchestra to accompany the alto voice. Nothing could suit the text better: an epic poem, but written succinctly and delicately, full of nuances even in the harshness of war scenes. The small orchestra could express all colours with no loss caused by the mass of performers. As for the form, the division into scenes that I had done in Le Vin herbé without altering Bédier’s text worked even better from Rilke’s own hand, more clearly and more defined. The problem with the German language was resolved by close collaboration with my wife whose German was like a second native language. In this way, we often discussed and decided together the importance, the length and the pitch required for the different syllables of the text, and also the subtle, often complex and elusive nuances of expression that are Rilke’s charm.

What can I say about the music, other than that I tried to find for each tableau a musical form as well suited as possible to its literary form, that I tried also to keep each fragment’s own character, whether a simple narrative, description, lyrical explosion or profound development of sentiments. In short, I attempted to remain as faithful as I could to this text, as faithful as my deep admiration prescribed. After spending a year living with this text, better still to have relived this text, word by word, slowly scrutinizing all its subtleness, and experiencing all its emotional power, I have more than the memory of pleasurable work and spiritual joy; it has somehow marked my life. My dearest wish is that others may find in my music a little of that which Rilke’s poem has given me.

Frank Martin
from Alter und neue Musik, 25 Jahre Basler Kammerorchester, Zürich, 1952


World premiere: Basle, 9 February 1945. Elsa Calveti, alto; Paul Sacher, conductor

Recordings (selective list)

  • Philippe Huttenlocher, baritone
    Collegium Academicum de Genève
    Robert Dunand, conductor
    GALLO CD-725 ℗ + © 1993 (FMS059)

  • Christianne Stotijn, contralto
    Orchester Musikkollegium Winterthur
    Jac van Steen, conductor
    MDG 901 1444-6 ℗ + © 2007

  • Marjana Lipovšek, contralto
    Lothar Zagrosek, conductor
    ORFEO C 164 881 A ℗ + © 1988 (FMS147)

  • Jard van Nes, contralto
    Nieuw Sinfonietta Amsterdam
    Reinbert de Leeuw, conductor
    Recording Vredenburg Utrecht, 5/1993
    Philips 442 535-2 ℗ 1995 (FMS176)

  • Okka von der Damerau, mezzo-soprano
    Philharmonia Zürich
    Fabio Luisi, conductor

    Philharmonia Records - Operahaus Zürich ℗ + © 2017

  • Brigitte Balleys, mezzo-soprano
    Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne
    Jesus Lopez Cobos, conductor
    CASCAVELLE VEL 1020 ℗ + © 1992 (FMS156)

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