No Song is Safe From Us

No Song Is Safe From Us - The NYFOS Blog
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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,
my heart,
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.

Steven Blier

Called “the coolest dude in town” by Opera News, master collaborative pianist and coach Steven Blier is the co-founder and artistic director of New York Festival of Song. Here on No Song is Safe From Us, Steven blogs about the NYFOS Emerging Artist residencies, writes the engaging and erudite program notes for our Mainstage concerts, and contributes frequently to Song of the Day.

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