When I tell people I am working on Lorca in New York, they often assume I am talking about Lorca’s 1929-1930 sojourn in the city, when he wrote Poet in New York. In my talk today, however, I would like to address the presence of Federico García Lorca in the New York school of painting and poetry, and in American arts in general. I will address three representative figures, the poet Frank O’Hara, the composer Billy Strayhorn, and the painter Robert Motherwell. The common thread in these three figures is that all of them approach Lorca in a way that undermines cultural hierarchies or confuses habitual boundaries. Lorca’s modernist poetics, transposed to the American landscape, is repurposed in unpredictable ways.
I will begin with a kind of “New Historicist” anecdote, of the kind that Stephen Greenblatt might employ. Billy Strayhorn (1915-1967) was a collaborator of Duke Ellington, writing compositions identified with the Ellington Orchestra, most famously his theme song “Take the A-Train,” as well as impressionist-sounding instrumental numbers like “Chelsea Bridge” and “Rain Check.” If Ellington is esteemed as one of the most prominent American composers of the twentieth century, then Strayhorn deserves no less, since many compositions associated with Duke were actually collaborations between the two men.
After I turned in the final version of my book Apocryphal Lorca to the publishers, I began to prepare to teach a course on jazz for the Honors Program at the University of Kansas. Reading two biographies of Billy Strayhorn, I came across (to my delight and horror) a story that should have been included in my book: Strayhorn had set to music texts for a production of Lorca’s Los amores de don Perlimplín y Belisa en su jardín, at the Artist’s Theatre in New York. I was horrified at my discovery, of course, for the simple reason that it was too late to include this information in my book. I was delighted because this anecdote confirmed many of its central themes: Strayhorn was an openly gay black man during the exact period at issue in my examination of Lorca’s impact on American culture, the 1950s. I had included sections on gay and African American responses to Lorca, along with two chapters on poets of the New York school of poetry, poets who were also involved in the Artist’s Theatre in which Don Perlimplín was produced.
This production of Don Perlimplín, in 1953, featured an all-black cast. Press reports were few and negative. I quote from Lawrence Jasper’s University of Kansas dissertation on the Artists’ Theatre: “Machiz’s serious miscalculation with the production [...] was his attempt to mount this delicate period-piece with an all-black cast of musical comedy / vaudeville performers--from the company of his summer production of Cabin in the Sky—who who were completely unfamiliar with 18th century period costume, movement, or manner, or with Lorca’s fragile theatre poetry” (Jasper 134). “Strayhorn’s Lorca” is typical in numerous ways of the American reception of Lorca. The problem, though, is that Strayhorn’s music had very little resonance for the later—or even the contemporaneous—reception of Lorca’s work in the US. The music was all but forgotten until a portion of it was rescued by the Dutch musicologist and biographer Walter van de Leur, from whom I learned of it.
Despite the obscurity of the anecdote, it does bolster my contention that Lorca is an early multi-cultural hero for the United States, before multi-culturalism itself came into being in its current form. In its very obscurity, the anecdote also indirectly supports my sense that Lorca’s poetry was more resonant for Americans than was his theater. Paul Julian Smith notes that an earlier production of Lorca’s Bitter Oleander was greeted with incomprehension by the New York Press. Whoever thought of producing Bodas de sangre with that title was not very well attuned to the expectations of the theater-going audience of that place and time.
The first thing that you will notice when you listen to the music Strayhorn wrote for Lorca’s plays is that it is not jazz. Let’s hear “The Flowers Dream of Love,” and "Love, Love" [play selections]. In other words, it is not written in the jazz idiom we associate with his Ellington collaborations. [play “Take the A-Train.”] Van de Leur, a Dutch musicologist reproduces the score of this music, noting that Lorca’s texts were of higher literary quality than the typical song lyric to which his music would ordinarily have been sung: “Even in translation, the quality of García Lorca’s poems for don Perlimplín surpasses in breadth and depth virtually every other lyric Strayhorn had set to music before” (125).