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Note on the Text of "Only"

by Chris Villars

Morton Feldman's early song "Only" for solo voice (1947) is a setting of poem XXIII in Rainer Maria Rilke's cycle entitled "The Sonnets to Orpheus, First Part". The poem is set in a translation by J. B. Leishman. However, there is a discrepancy between the text in the score as published by Universal Edition (UE 16519) and the text of Leishman's translation (Rilke, "Selected Poems", translated with an introduction by J. B. Leishman (Penguin Books, England, 1964) p67).

In the score the last two stanzas of the poem are given as:

only when some pure Whither
outweighs boyish insistence
on the achieved machine

with who has journeyed thither
be, in that fading distance,
all that his flight has been.

However, in Leishman's translation, the 4th line above is given as:

will who has journeyed thither

i.e. Leishman's translation has "will" where the score has "with". Obviously, this is only a small difference but it significantly affects the meaning of the text. It is hard (if not impossible!) to make sense of the text as published in the score at this point, whereas Leishman's text makes good sense. Given that the words of this song are very clearly intelligible in performance, it is obviously important that, as far as possible, they make sense.

In an email to the author dated April 15th 1999, Universal Edition stated that their Copyright Department had confirmed that the Leishman text originally cleared by them definitely contained the word "will" rather than "with". However, they also confirmed that the masters for the score of this piece are in Feldman's own hand and contain the word "with" instead of "will".

It follows from the above that Feldman either made a mistake or deliberately changed Leishman's text. The latter seems unlikely since the change makes nonsense of the last stanza of the poem. It is possible that Feldman misread the original text and believed that it had "with" at this point, though, in this case, it would again be hard to understand how he could have made sense of this part of the poem. The most likely explanation for the discrepancy therefore appears to be that Feldman made a mistake at some time in transcribing the score, perhaps when making a fair copy for publication.

Should singers perform the published or the "correct" text of this song? The "official" answer must be that, until Universal Edition decide whether or not to issue a correction, the score stands as published. However, there does appear to be a good case for correcting the score: The change does not require any alteration of Feldman's music and gives a more satisfactory meaning and feel to the conclusion of the song.

September 1999

Appendix 1 (added September 2002)

The list of works given in Sebastian Claren's book on Feldman ("Neither. Die Musik Morton Feldmans" (Hofheim: Wolke Verlag, 2000) pp 547-575) reveals that Feldman planned to set the text of "Only" again in a later unpublished piece for voice and instruments (dated 1 June 1954). The sketches for this later work are in the Feldman Collection at the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basle, Switzerland. In response to an enquiry from the present author, Dr Felix Meyer, musicologist and curator of the Feldman Collection, very kindly looked up Feldman's sketches for the later setting, and wrote:

"I have checked the sketches for Feldman's second setting of "Only" and am happy to report that Feldman uses the word "will" in the first line of the last stanza. The same thing is true of the copy (or, rather, transcription for tenor) of the 1947 version that immediately precedes these sketches."

(Dr Felix Meyer, letter to Chris Villars, 20 August 2002)

Clearly, Feldman knew the correct text of Leishman's translation and was happy to use it unchanged in his sketches for the later setting. Even more significantly, Dr Meyer's search has revealed that Feldman uses the correct text in his own later transcription of the published setting itself. This transcription almost certainly dates from 1954 for, as Dr Meyer observes: "The sketches immediately preceding it are dated May 1954, and it looks as if the whole sketchbook was written that year" (letter to Chris Villars, 16 September 2002). That there is in the Feldman Collection at the Paul Sacher Foundation a transcription of "Only" in Feldman's hand with the correct text would appear to establish beyond doubt that he simply made a mistake in the manuscript presented to Universal Edition for publication and, therefore, further strengthens the case for correction of the published score.

Appendix 2 (added March 2004)

"The Universal Edition editorial team in Vienna has considered your case for correction of Feldman's "Only", and I am delighted to be able to tell you that the publication will be corrected at the next reprint."

(Universal Edition, email to Chris Villars, 10 March 2004)

Appendix 3 (added August 2011)

Universal Edition have now published a corrected score (UE 16519, 02/2011).

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