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Russian professor's poetry translations set to Mark Abel's 'The Cave of Wondrous Voice' / Bowdoin

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The latest album by California-based classical music composer Mark Abel owes a lot to Bowdoin scholar Alyssa Gillespie, chair of the Russian department. "It was a wonderful experience collaborating with Professor Gillespie," he said.

The Cave of Wondrous Voice, released this month on the Delos label, is a collection of chamber music recordings, featuring a song cycle based on four poems by the "great and tragic" twentieth-century Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva, translated into English by Gillespie. Abel said he compared Gillespie's translations of Tsvetaeva with others in circulation "and quickly realized that hers were on a very high plane. It's one thing to produce detailed analyses of a writer's work in an academic setting and quite another to render them very poetically and incisively in a language different from the original."

"Mark reached out to me first in February 2019, having read my scholarly book on Tsvetaeva," said Gillespie. "He had a few questions about her, and we pretty quickly decided to collaborate together on the piece he was hoping to compose." Gillespie has been translating Tsvetaeva's poetry for over twenty-five years, picking up several international translation prizes for her translations. For her sabbatical next year, she plans to work on a book-length collection of the poet's verse in translation, alongside several scholarly book projects related to the poetry of Alexander Pushkin. 

The four poems in this particular song cycle were chosen because they provide a good introduction to a poet who still has a "semi-obscure status in America's world of letters," said Abel. "Tsvetaeva's poetic subjects span a vast amount of terrain-from mythology to political upheaval to intense personal relationships to romantic and existential musings (and more). I'm hoping that the cycle on which Professor Gillespie and I collaborated will spur listeners and readers alike to delve further into Tsvetaeva's universe." 

When the Bowdoin campus went into lockdown, Gillespie had been planning a concert in late March with Beckwith Artist in Residence George Lopez, "to consist entirely of song cycles written on the verse of Tsvetaeva and her fellow female Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, in both English and Russian." They're hoping to reschedule the concert for sometime next year, she said.