“This poet ruined my life,” Leonard Cohen said of the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca. Cohen, a singer/songwriter and poet, himself, took great liberty with the original text of the haunting poem it is based on,”Pequeño vals vienés” (Little Viennese Waltz). The poem is from Lorca’s Poet in New York, a collection written after a difficult year in depression era New York (1929-30) studying at Columbia University. One can see how Cohen would be drawn to Lorca, with ideas like this, from “New York: Office and Denunciation”:
‘What shall I do now? Align all the landscapes?/ Muster the lovers who turn into photographs/ and later are splinters of wood, and mouthfuls of blood?’
After returning to Spain, Garcia Lorca sided with the anti-fascist Republicans when Civil War broke out there in 1936. He was by then famous, liberal, and gay, all of which made him a target. He was shot and killed in the custody of the nationalist militia. He was 38. A version of Lorca’s ideas live on in Cohen’s homage, “Take This Waltz”. Cohen, who died in 2016, lives, too, in this poem/song, this waltz with its heartbreaking entreaty to: “take its broken waste in your hand”.
Everyone involved with classical song eventually falls under the spell of Federico García Lorca (1898-1936), simply because so many composers have set his poetry to music. His writing is a fascinating combination of opposites: elusive and open, austere and emotional, somber and bursting with color. The more I read about this great Spanish artist the more astonishing I find him. His neatly bound volumes of poetry and his famous stage works (Yerma, Blood Wedding) don’t give the full picture of Lorca’s chaotic creativity, his unique mix of sophistication and naivety, his long-frustrated sensuality, and his complex heart. He came from wealth, but he was deeply drawn to gypsy culture. He possessed a brilliant mind, but was a poor student and needed years to finish his college degree. (At his oral exams, he demonstrated only the most cursory familiarity with the law, and the University of Madrid granted him a mercy degree to terminate his near-decade of scholastic indolence.) At once a fountain of vitality and a death-haunted soul, he longed for the one thing Spain was unwilling to give him: a man he could love without shame or punishment.
For many of us, Lorca’s death—early and violent—has come to overshadow Lorca’s life. It seems that the very first thing I knew about him was that he had been assassinated at the age of 38 by Franco’s fascist goons. Lorca had been open about his socialist views, a hazardous position in a country where the rule of law was rapidly crumbling. There are still many mysteries about Lorca’s death. His body has never been found. Some claim that it was the result of a clash between two warring right-wing factions. Others see it as a gay hate crime. One thing is sure: at that moment in Spanish history it was dangerous to be gay. It was dangerous to be anti-fascist. And therefore it was extremely dangerous to be Lorca.
Lorca died tragically. But he lived a life filled with passion and zest. He was a theatrical visionary and a poet of seemingly endless invention. Charismatic and exuberant, he thrived on attention. Tonight we examine many facets of this great artist: the Andalusian outsider who loved the wild cadences of flamenco, the visionary poet, the child-man who longed to be a father himself, and the high-profile, sexually hungry gay man negotiating the terrain of an increasingly homophobic Spain.
We’ll begin in Andalusia, the southernmost province of Spain where Lorca was born. When he was a young man Lorca struck up a deep friendship with Manuel de Falla who was 22 years older than the poet. Their personalities were diametric opposites—de Falla was conservative, austere, and solitary, while Lorca was generous, effusive, and gregarious. But they shared a deep love of music and a fierce commitment to Andalusian culture. They may also have recognized that they were both gay, though de Falla remained deeply closeted for his whole life. The two men cemented their friendship by going off into the countryside and collecting folksongs. In this they were following in the footsteps of composers Zoltán Kodály, Béla Bartók and Ralph Vaughan Williams who had also ventured out to record the traditional songs of their countries. De Falla had already published his own collection of folksong arrangements in 1915, and his Seven Popular Spanish Songs frequently turn up on recital programs—popular indeed.
Lorca studied piano in his early years and at first he seemed destined for a life in music. But his piano teacher, Antonio Segura, died when Lorca was 16, and that career path ended when his parents refused to allow him to travel to Paris to continue his studies. He turned his creative energies to poetry and drama, but music always remained central to his life. De Falla became a second mentor to him. One of the fruits of their comradeship was a volume of 13 Andalusian songs arranged by Lorca with simple accompaniments for piano or guitar. The melodies and poems are traditional, but it is possible that Lorca gave the lyrics a bit of his own magic touch. In the early 1930s, he recorded them with the singer known as La Argentinita, and it is the only extant recording of Lorca at the piano—a tantalizing sound portrait of the professional musician he might have become.
“Most of the art song composers set Lorca’s poems about children,” said Lorca scholar Jonathan Mayhew, with a shrug I could hear over our long-distance line. I had been referred to him by NYFOS’ co-founder Michael Barrett—in a flash of serendipity Jonathan is Michael’s first cousin. Mayhew has written several books on Lorca already, and is embarked on another about musical settings of the poems. And he was not off the mark: most of the best-known Lorca-based song cycles are some variation of Canciones para niños. But that doesn’t mean they are lightweight or trivial. Everything Lorca touched had its shadows and depths. This is not Robert Louis Stevenson’s rosy world of children, but a landscape of mystery and dark dreams.
Lorca was devoted to children and related to them with a kind of joyous intensity. Perhaps this was because he himself had a childlike nature which he learned to wield as an adult’s magnetism. He also knew that as a gay man he would never have children of his own, and the theme of sterility runs through his plays (Yerma, The House of Bernarda Alba) and poems (“The Song of the Barren Orange Tree”). His inescapable infertility caused him a great deal of sadness. Perhaps this is why he created such a trove of poems about childhood.
Two of tonight’s songs come from the Catalan master Xavier Montsalvatge, whose 1953 work, Canciones para niños, locates both the exuberance and melancholy of Lorca’s poems. Another comes from a charming cycle by the Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas, who wrote both these songs and an extended orchestral piece as a tribute to the poet in the aftermath of his death. We’ll also get to sample a dark, evocative excerpt from Lorca’s play Blood Wedding in a gorgeous setting by the Spanish composer Antón Gabriel Abril, a musician most famous for his film scores. Abril is a master of atmosphere, and he is able to evoke a sense of maternal warmth and foreboding in the three short minutes of “Nana, niño, nana.”
The Catalan master Federico Mompou never published his setting of El niño mudo (“The mute child”) during his lifetime. He wrote the piece for the ballet adaptation of a Lorca play in 1956, when Franco was at the height of his power in Spain. Lorca was still controversial twenty years after his death—revered by the left, reviled by the right. Mompou and his co-composer Xavier Montsalvatge concealed the source of their ballet by amending the original title, and they left Lorca’s name off the credits. The piece had a successful run at the Liceu in Barcelona, but it soon disappeared from the repertoire. Mompou did not have the courage to go public with this song or include it in later anthologies. It finally appeared in print in 2006, 19 years after Mompou died. Like much of this composer’s work, it is spare, lyrical, and prickly—a delicate watercolor painted with needles.
We’ll next focus on Lorca’s friendship with Manuel de Falla, which extended well beyond their early excursions in search of folk songs. They embarked on several large projects together: a 1922 festival in honor of cante jondo, the “deep song” of the Andalusian gypsies, with its Moorish and Indian cadences; a number of theatrical works, some of them completed, some not; and a year-long tricentennial celebration of the Renaissance poet Luis de Góngora, a tremendous gathering of Spain’s finest poets and musicians. De Falla’s contribution was the majestic setting of Soneto a Córdoba, an ode to the city where Góngora lived and died. De Falla’s music is a fascinating blend of pre-baroque harmony, with almost all the chords in root position—flavored with surprising touches of jazzy dissonance. It serves as a portrait of the austere and innovative de Falla himself, a bold and uncompromising man.
For modern readers, the issue of Lorca’s sexuality, like the drama of his assassination, has threatened to overwhelm other important aspects of his vast creativity. The early efforts of his family to suppress references to his gayness (as well as his homoerotic play The Public) have ultimately contributed to the spotlight on his love life. From the beginning, Lorca’s literary legacy has been a pressure cooker. For decades scholars were forced to obfuscate references to Lorca’s lovers to placate the poet’s family. Even after the Spanish Fascists lifted the ban on Lorca’s writing in 1954, it was published in redacted form. Sonnets of a Dark Love became the bland Love Sonnets. And make no mistake: homophobia was not only a problem of the Right Wing. It was a national taboo–many leftists did not want to see their slaughtered national poet come out of the closet posthumously. It wasn’t till the late 1980s that Lorca’s sexual orientation became widespread public knowledge.
After that, Lorca’s gayness began to colonize the interpretation of his poetry and plays. His most recent biographer, Ian Gibson, wrote: “I discovered an anguished, tortured – gay – love … All his poetry turns around frustrated love. His tormented characters who can’t live the life they want are precisely the metaphor for his sorrow. He was a genius who turned his suffering into art.” It is poignantly clear for, example, in Es verdad—
It is such a lot of work
to love you as I love you!
Oh, because of your love the air hurts me,
even my hat.
We’ll hear this poem tonight in a setting by Roberto Bañuelas. Born in Mexico, he had a prolific career as both a composer and an operatic baritone working on the international scene in the 1960s and 70s. New Yorkers could even have caught him during his two seasons at New York City Opera (1968-69). Bañuelas may have flown just beneath the radar but he has an impressive resumé: he worked with von Karajan and Zeffirelli, published novels and short stories, and in the early 2000s saw the premieres of his operatic trilogy based on the Oresteia.
Lorca mostly wrote obliquely about his sexuality using symbolic stories and unisex pronouns. But there are exceptions, like the explicit Canción del mariquita (“The song of the sissy”). We meet an extremely effeminate man who arranges his curls and adorns himself with a lily before sashaying into the world. The “mariquita” was the most obvious manifestation of homosexuality in Lorca’s world. He is the man Lorca feared he might be—or become. But he is also the proud, unafraid gay man Lorca wanted to be. The neighbors know him for what he is, yet they smile. They do not laugh. But while the “mariquitas” of Andalusia sing their truth from the rooftops, they were not the role model Lorca sought. He would ultimately find that when he came to New York and discovered the poetry of Walt Whitman in 1930.
I do not know why the Jewish-Moroccan-French-Spanish composer Maurice Ohana chose the fairly obscure Canción del mariquita for his “Huit chansons espagnoles.” But it cannot have been an accident. He changed the title to conform to his setting—“Tango del mariquita”—and lifted this very special poem into the spotlight, creating a drag tango, a dance both flouncy and languorous. And let us not forget that the tango was originally a dance for two men.
Lorca was deeply tied to his Andalusian roots, and they were a source of his lifelong fascination with cante jondo (“deep song”), the hypnotic, wailing music of the Gypsies. It is the unvarnished, primeval cousin of flamenco, which was festooned with more rhythmic drive and cosmopolitan appeal—“cante jondo for tourists,” in Lorca’s words. Cante jondo embraces many cultures: Jewish, Byzantine, Moorish, Indian. Some of the songs are bitter reflections on hunger and poverty. But Lorca was more fascinated by the natural imagery of cante jondo—wind, sea, earth, and moon, the locus classicus of his poetry. The groundbreaking 1922 cante jondo festival Lorca organized under Manuel de Falla’s direction was only one of his many artistic ventures based around Gypsy culture—his 1928 Gypsy Ballads attained instant popularity and launched him into the spotlight.
Recordings of cante jondo are of course in plentiful supply. But it is almost impossible to find songs in this style appropriate for the recital stage and classically trained singers. They aren’t built to replicate the sound of flamenco, which is as rough, wide-open, and unmediated as rock ’n’ roll—a scream of pain. Blessings on William Bolcom who filled the bill when he set a Lorca poem, Soneto de la dulce queja (“Sonnet of the sweet complaint”) to the cadences of cante jondo, complete with wild bravura vocal flourishes accompanied by an ostinato guitar pattern. Bolcom wrote his nine-movement Lorca cycle in 2006 at the request of tenor Plácido Domingo, who also picked out most of the poetry for the cycle. Said the composer, “I spoke nothing but subway Spanish. But I studied, steeped myself in it. And I listened to flamenco, that raw, almost terrifying outpouring of soul. I heard the rhythm of flamenco in Lorca’s poetry. And that way the tones inherent in the words began to emerge.”
The magic of this song is the three-part nature of the score: a wailing, plaintive vocal line, a hangdog guitar lick rising and falling like the sigh of a man unhappily smitten with love, and the surrealistic chords in the piano.
We’re pairing Bolcom’s song with one by Carlos Surinach: the middle movement of his Morals and Maxims of Saint Teresa. It too draws on the Arab melismas and full-throated outcry of flamenco, though the latter is light years away from Catholic doctrine. What St. Teresa and flamenco have in common is a quality of visionary transport. In this section Saint Teresa describes the power of prayer, which God returns to the supplicant as a flame in our hearts—a bonfire of mercy. Surinach’s music blazes with the voice in full cry over a strumming piano. The composer was born in Barcelona, did some early studies with Richard Strauss, and eventually emigrated to the States where he created three ballets with Martha Graham. He also seems to have understood vocal writing well. Morals and Maxims may be more flamenco—heroic and driving—than cante jondo—seething and wounded. But it captures Lorca’s love for the pageantry of Catholicism, which he described as a kind of national theater offered every week to the Spanish populace.
After his death in 1936 Lorca became a symbol of political resistance for writers throughout the Americas and beyond. His poems and plays took on heightened significance, a trend that continues to this very day. I was recently at Repertorio Español to see Lorca: Alma Presente, an evening of excerpts from the writer’s plays offered as a fundraiser for Venezuelan children in need. The end of Maria Pineda, with its cries of “¡Libertad! ¡Libertad!,” moved me—and everyone in the house—to tears.
I’ve no doubt that Paul Bowles was drawn to Lorca because of their shared political views—and who knows, perhaps their shared sexuality. But Lorca’s surrealistic imagery was certainly a large part of his appeal. Bowles first wrote a theater piece on a Lorca text, The Wind Remains, and this zarzuela (as he called it) remained his favorite of his works. He then began plans for something more ambitious: an opera based on Lorca’s masterpiece Yerma. That never came to pass, but he did toss off a short cycle of Four Lorca Songs in 1944. They remained unpublished for 40 years, and when they appeared in a 1984 Bowles anthology they showed up as handwritten scores, still not typeset. Their rough-hewn appearance on the page is appropriate to Bowles’ quirky, angular music, a perfect foil for Lorca’s poetry.
Billy Strayhorn also found a kindred spirit in Lorca when he got involved in a ground- breaking off-Broadway collective called Artists Theater. The roster of participants included giants like Tennessee Williams, John Ashbery, and Larry Rivers, all at the beginnings of their career. Strayhorn longed to make “a black-gay statement,” which was an act of tremendous courage in 1953. He signed on to write music for a production of Lorca’s The Love of Don Peremplín for Belisa in Their Garden. The play was one of the poet’s early works, a romance about an impossible love. “Of course,” said the costume designer Bernard Oshei, “everybody thought of Lorca as the great gay martyr.”
The production had a short run at the old Amato Opera Theater where it played to packed houses. Strayhorn contributed three pieces of incidental music that wove through the 50-minute duration of the show. He also wrote a song, “The Flowers Die of Love.” It takes a gifted composer to create magic with only the barest of means—an incantatory melody, a flick from major to minor, a single pedal-point in the bass for the entire song. Strayhorn was the man for the job—a brilliant tunesmith and a deep soul.
It’s not surprising that Lorca was one of Leonard Cohen’s favorite poets. While the gravel-voiced, lugubrious Canadian and the mercurial, charismatic Andalusian may have been diametric opposites as personas, their art shared a deep sensuality and a sense of longing. Very different types of men, with very similar blood in their veins. To commemorate the 50th anniversary of Lorca’s death in 1986, Cohen translated Lorca’s Pequeño vals vienés(“Little Viennese Waltz”) and set it to music. The resulting song, “Take This Waltz,” strikes me as a miraculous adaptation: a lyric of stunning, extravagant beauty, and a haunting tune that crests with leisurely grace. Its words and music work on me like a drug, or a dream—a world I need hours to leave behind.
We can’t rewrite the end of Lorca’s life. The senseless horror of it haunts me to this day. But we can end our tribute with a burst of joy: a setting of Son de los negros en Cuba (“The son of the black men in Cuba”). The poet spent a season as a student at Columbia University in 1929. His seeming inability to learn English kept him isolated for much of his time here, and he came to hate the bustle, materialism, and poverty he saw in New York. He was witness to the stock market crash and its devastating effect. At the end of his time here he landed a few lectures in Cuba and sailed off to Havana. There he encountered the warm welcome of a relaxed, Spanish-speaking culture. He also found himself in a non-homophobic environment for the first time. He’d been gay for his whole life, but there he could finally glory in it. We’d call it “coming out,” although those terms didn’t exist in those days.
There are several good settings of “Son de los negros en Cuba,” including a stunning version by William Bolcom. But we went with the one by Spanish pop diva Ana Belén, who set Lorca’s jubilant poem as a true son—an Afro-Cuban dance music based on African bantu tradition, powered by rhythm rather than by melody. It typically has a call-and-response section and is usually accompanied by a raft of percussion: claves, bongos, cowbell, and shaker. We’ll have them all on hand tonight to recall Lorca at the happiest moment of his life, bathed in admiration, with a line of handsome male suitors snaking down the hallway outside his hotel room. This will be our gift to the poet we’ve come to love: a celebration of everything he stood for.
—Thanks are due to five people who provided invaluable help with tonight’s program: Dorothy Potter Snyder, who tirelessly assisted me with translations and helped me “dance with the shadows” of Lorca’s poetry; Jonathan Mayhew, who guided me to some of the repertoire on tonight’s show including my newest favorite song, “Take This Waltz”; the kind and generous Pablo Zinger, who provided wisdom as well as the scores for the Revueltas and Surinach pieces; James Russell, who (along with Ms. Snyder) painstakingly edited the program notes; and Carlos Capacho who created the sheet music for the unpublished final number. I could not have done this project without them.
Federico Lorca struggled with his sexuality for much of his short life. No wonder. It was the inevitable fate of a passionate, uninhibited, demonstrative gay man living in a repressive, homophobic culture. While he had deep emotional attachments to a number of women, his heart was susceptible only to other men. One of his earliest affairs was with Salvador Dalí, whom he met when he was in his early 20s. It is hard to be sure how far their romance went, but it seems to have been consummated at a certain point. Afterwards Dalí distanced himself from Lorca and formed a bond with their mutual friend Luis Buñuel, the film director. Like many Spanish men, Buñuel prized machismo and looked down on gayness. Lorca could never shake the suspicion that the title Buñuel and Dali’s iconic film, “An Andalusian Dog,” was intended as a slur on him. Lorca was proud of his Andalusian roots, but northern Spaniards liked to feel superior to those from the southern coast.
Lorca flaunted his Andalusian background, but he was more sanguine about being openly gay. He developed crushes on man after man and formed deep emotional attachments, only to be rebuffed when his friend caught on to Lorca’s sexual attraction. But when the poet turned 30, he made a trip to Cuba. There he found a far more relaxed and accepting culture where gay sex was easy to come by. By then he had also spent some time in New York City where he thrilled to the poems of Walt Whitman—in translation, no doubt, since he spoke almost no English. When he returned to Spain, he displayed a new kind of liberation and a more open sense of his own desires. He still had to be careful. But he was able to let a trusted friend give him the nickname “Fedaricón,” a portmanteau of “Federico” and “maricón,” the Spanish word for “faggot.” Offered as a gentle joke, Lorca took it as a celebration of his newly accepted sexuality.
I see so much of Lorca’s poetry as an expression of his frustrations and joys at being gay. It’s in his plays too: his sadness at knowing he would never be a father is at the root of Yerma, whose leading character is a barren woman. But there is only one poem in which he directly addresses the idea of homosexuality, “Canción del mariquita”—“Song of the sissy.” He paints the picture of an effeminate man wearing a silk dressing gown, piling up his curls and adorning himself with a flower. The neighbors smirk, but he is unashamed. The poem has many layers of meaning—everything in Lorca is a complex web of things revealed and things hidden. The mariquita is the man Lorca feared he might be, or the man he might become. But he is also the proud, unafraid gay man Lorca wanted to be. The neighbors know him for what he is, yet they smile. They do not laugh. And the “mariquitas” of Andalusia sing their truth from the rooftops.
I do not know why the Moroccan-French-Spanish composer Maurice Ohana chose this poem for his “Huit chansons espagnoles.” But it cannot have been an accident. He changed the title to conform to his setting—“Tango del mariquita”—and lifted this very special poem into the spotlight. For that, I am in his debt.
Françoise Atlan; Nathalie Négro
The sissy combs his hair
In his silken dressing gown.
The neighbors smile
In their rear windows.
The sissy arranged
The curls on his head.
Through the patios shout,
Parrots, deliverymen, and planets.
The sissy adorns himself
With a jasmine flower, shameless.
The afternoon turns strange
With combs and climbing plants.
The scandal was shivering
Striped like a zebra.
The southern sissies,
They sing on the rooftop terraces!
In 1956, two great Catalan composers, Federico Mompou and Xavier Montsalvatge, collaborated on a project for Barcelona’s Liceu Theater. They wanted to make a ballet adaptation of a Lorca play, The Love of Don Peremplín and Belisa in the Garden. Though not considered one of Lorca’s theatrical masterpieces, it enjoyed some success in its day. Don Peremplín went on to inspire fourteen operas (none of them in the current canon), as well as two musical adaptations, including the one by Billy Strayhorn featured here this past Tuesday.
Lorca’s play told the story of an older man who takes a young woman to wife. The marriage seems doomed. She cuckolds him with no fewer than five lovers on their wedding night. But in true Lorca fashion, the young wife ultimately comes to love her elderly husband, who woos her with anonymous letters and ultimately dies in her arms after a duel. A commedia dell’arte sex farce morphs into a meditation on desire and the deepening of the soul through love.
In 1956, a Lorca-based project was still a hazardous proposition in Barcelona. The poet had been brutally murdered just twenty years earlier by the Fascist regime, and Lorca remained controversial in Franco’s Spain. Revered by some but reviled by others, he was known as a free-spirited gay man with left-wing politics. For the political establishment of the day, that was a dangerous cocktail. Montsalvatge and Mompou hid the overt references to Lorca by changing the title simply to Don Peremplín and leaving the original source material off the publicity. After its premiere, though, the ballet went into hiding. Perhaps its “Lorquismo” was still too obvious and too explosive for its era. The next production of Don Perimplín was not till 35 years later, in 1991.
The score included a fine song by Mompou, “El niño mudo” (“The mute boy”). But the composer didn’t dare go public with his setting of Lorca’s words—it still felt too risky. The song was published posthumously in 2003.
Mompou’s music is a beautiful embodiment of a uniquely Catalan color: diaphanous textures, gently spiky harmonies, simple melodies—a perfect blend of sweet and salty. While his colleague Montsalvatge painted in oils, using rich chords and an sensual palette. Mompou was the watercolorist, a composer of delicate detail and sensitivity. He creates a magical, evanescent world in “El niño mudo”—a silent child lost in a misty world of crickets and mysterious desires.
The little boy seeks his voice.
(The king of the crickets had it.)
In a drop of water
The little boy was seeking his voice.
I don’t want it in order to speak;
I shall make a ring from it
Which my silence will wear
On its little finger.
In a drop of water
The little boy was seeking his voice.
(The captive voice, far in the distance,
Put on a cricket suit.)
I faced a quandary when I was programming the April 24 Lorca concert. Though I try to avoid presenting songs I’ve done in recent concerts, I couldn’t find many suitable examples of cante jondo—the “deep song” of Andalusia that Lorca venerated. He disdained the word “flamenco,” which he called the “tourist version” of cante jondo. But for an American listener the two terms are roughly equivalent, especially in this day and age. Recordings of cante jondo are of course in plentiful supply. What’s almost impossible is finding songs in this style appropriate for the recital stage and classically trained singers. They aren’t built to replicate the sound of flamenco, which is as rough, wide-open, and unmediated as rock ’n’ roll—a scream of pain.
William Bolcom filled the bill when he set a Lorca poem, “Soneto de la dulce queja,” to the cadences of flamenco, complete with wild bravura vocal flourishes accompanied by an ostinato guitar pattern. Bolcom had written his nine-movement Lorca cycle at the request of tenor Plácido Domingo, who even picked out most of the poetry for the cycle. Said the composer, ““I spoke nothing but subway Spanish. But I studied, steeped myself in it. And I listened to flamenco, that raw, almost terrifying outpouring of soul. I heard the rhythm of flamenco in Lorca’s poetry. And that way the tunes inherent in the words began to emerge.” Bolcom had to jump through a few hoops with the Lorca family, who were aware that the poems were just about to move into public domain and wanted their final piece of the action. At the eleventh hour a wealthy donor stepped in and they were able to seal the deal.
Bolcom is rightfully proud of the way he was able to capture the essence of cante jondo. The magic of this song is the three-part nature of the score: a wailing, plaintive vocal line, a hangdog guitar lick rising and falling like the sigh of a man unhappily smitten with love, and the surrealistic chords in the orchestra—or, in our version, the duo-piano. Bolcom’s harmonies are so widely spaced that it takes two players to sound all the notes, and you don’t want to miss a single one of those opulent, sexy chords.
We’ve offered the “Soneto” twice before in recent years: with Theo Lebow in Letters from Spain, and with Matt Pearce and guitarist Jack Gulielmetti in our Bolcom/Corigliano tribute at Juilliard. Both sang it superbly. But this will be our first time with a Spanish-speaking singer, Efraín Solís, and I am very excited to see what he and guitarist Oren Fader bring to this magical piece of music.
René Barbera, with Carl St. Clair conducting the Pacific Symphony
Soneto de la dulce queja (“Sonnet of the sweet complaint”)
Music by William Bolcom (b. 1938); poem by Lorca
No me dejes perder la maravilla
de tus ojos de estatua, ni el acento
que de noche me pone en la mejilla
la solitaria rosa de tu aliento.
Tengo miedo de ser en esta orilla
tronco sin ramas; y lo que más siento
es no tener la flor, pulpa o arcilla,
para el gusano de mi sufrimiento.
Si tú eres el tesoro oculto mío,
si eres mi cruz y mi dolor mojado,
si soy el perro de tu señorío,
no me dejes perder lo que he ganado
y decora las ramas de tu río
con hojas de mi otoño enajenado.
Do not let me lose the marvel
Of your sculpted eyes, nor the light touch
That it places on my cheek at night,
The solitary rose of your breathing.
I have a fear of finding myself on this shore
A branchless tree-trunk; and what I fear more
Is not having the flower, pith, or clay
To feed the worm of my suffering.
If you are my hidden treasure,
If you are my cross and my tear-stained sadness,
If I am the dog and you the master,
Do not let me lose what I have won,
And embellish the branches of your river
With leaves of my maddened autumn.
In every NYFOS program I like to have a specialty number, something completely on-topic but completely unexpected. I despaired of having such a song for the April 24th Lorca concert until Michael Barrett said, “Oh, you should contact my cousin Jonathan Mayhew. He’s a big Lorca guy—he’s already written one book about him and is now working on another about songs written to Lorca’s poems.” A flurry of emails followed, along with a slew of suggestions for our concert. At this point in his research Jonathan is more involved with popular music than with art song, though he did have a few excellent ideas for the classical part of the evening. And he struck gold when he directed me to a song by Billy Strayhorn, one of America’s jazz icons. Strayhorn and Lorca? My heart skipped a beat.
In 1953 Strayhorn was trying to disengage from his powerful tie to Duke Ellington, for whom he had become muse, amanuensis, and uncredited co-composer. Ellington had launched Strayhorn’s career when he was a very young man, and the great bandleader come to depend on the assistant he’d nicknamed “Swee’pea.” But Strayhorn longed to get out from under Duke’s sovereignty and be seen as an artist in his own right. Seeking new projects, he got involved with the Artists Theater, a groundbreaking off-Broadway collective for new work. It had attracted the likes of Tennessee Williams, Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, and James Merrill, with scenic design by Larry Rivers, Elaine de Kooning, and other distinguished artists at the beginning of their careers. Strayhorn longed to make what he called “a black-gay statement,” which was an act of tremendous courage in the early 1950s. “Of course,” said the costume designer Bernard Oshei, “everybody thought of Lorca as the great gay martyr.” The play, The Love of Don Peremplín for Belisa in Their Garden, was one of the poet’s early works, a romance about an impossible love. The play opened at the old Amato Opera Theater, and its short run of four performances played to sold-out houses.
Strayhorn contributed four pieces for the short play, mostly incidental music that wove through the 50-minute duration of the show. But he also wrote a song, “The Flowers Die of Love,” a tune that weaves a spell using the simplest of means. Does it sound Andalusian? Hmm, not exactly. But the incantatory nature of the melody reminds me of Lorca’s “Tres morillas” (featured yesterday), filled with repeated motifs like a prayer. It takes a gifted composer to create beauty with only the barest of means. And Strayhorn was the man for the job—a brilliant tunesmith and a deep soul.
Upon the river shores
The passing night is moistened
And in Belisa’s breasts
The flowers die of love.
The night is naked, singing,
Upon the bridge of March,
Belisa bathes her body
With briny water and oils.
The night of anise and silver
Shining on the rooftops
Silver of streams and mirrors
And anise of warm, warm thighs
The flowers die of love.
As I prepare for the April 24 concert, I have become increasingly immersed in the life and poetry of Federico García Lorca. The more I know about this great Spanish writer the more astonishing I find him. His neatly bound volumes of poetry and his famous stage works don’t give a true picture of his chaotic creativity, his unique mix of sophistication and naivety, his long-frustrated sensuality, and his complex heart. At once a fountain of vitality and a death-haunted soul, he longed for the one thing Spain was unwilling to give him: a man he could love without shame or punishment. The songs I’ve chosen for the concert examine some of the many facets of Lorca: the Andalusian outsider who loved the wild cadences of flamenco, the visionary poet, the child-man who longed to be a father himself.
Lorca’s early ambition was to be a pianist, and he always maintained a close connection to music. At parties he’d sit down at the piano and belt out Andalusian songs till the wee hours. But there is only one recording of Lorca-the-pianist: a 6-record album (78s, of course) in which he accompanies a folksinger named La Argentina in his “Colección de Canciones Populares Españolas.” In his early twenties Lorca formed a close friendship with composer Manuel de Falla, and the two of them would roam the countryside gathering folksongs. Each of them published a volume of arrangements. De Falla’s “Siete canciones populares españolas” have become the most often-sung Spanish pieces in the canon, but Lorca’s get performed with some frequency too, either with piano or guitar. Here’s a beauty, “Tres morillas de Jaén.”
The poem, written in the repetitive style of villancico, is not so easy to translate, and there are some hilariously incorrect English versions floating around the internet. (Certain words have a very different meaning in Latin America than they do in Spain, it seems.) Here is what the song really is about: three Moorish women have caught the fancy of the narrator. They go out to gather olives and apples, but they find that the trees are bare. They have nothing to eat. Why? Because their land has been stolen by the Christians. They have also been forced to convert, to leave their religion behind. There are beautiful linguistic subtleties—the way the word “mora” (Moor) is embedded in the word “enamoran” (stole my heart), and the ambiguity of “thieves of my life,” either because the singer has lost his heart to the Moorish women, or because he feels they have come to steal their property back from him. Either way, the song creates a magical atmosphere.
How moving to work on “Tres morillas” at this moment in history. The writer Dorothy Potter Snyder put it best: “At a time when Muslim people are being massacred in their places of worship and threatened by our President, I cannot think of a better moment to present this melancholy song of loss, its cadences so reminiscent of those of Northern Africa that weave through all traditional music from Southern Spain.”
Lorca and La Argentina
Teresa Berganza, with guitarist Narciso Yepes
Three Moorish women stole my heart in Jaén:
Axa and Fátima and Marién.
Three strong Moorish ladies
Went off to pick olives,
And found them all picked in Jaén:
Axa and Fátima and Marién.
And they found they all were picked
And the they all came back dismayed
And drained of color in Jaén:
Axa and Fátima and Marién.
Three Moorish ladies all aglow
Went to pick apples
And found they all were picked in Jaén:
Axa and Fátima and Marién.
I said to them: Who are you, ladies,
Thieves of my life?
“Christian women, we were once Moors in Jaén,”
Axa and Fátima and Marién.
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