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Wednesday, March 20, 2019

The Musical Imagination [wrote most of this while proctoring MA exam]

The topic of Lorca and Music comes up with some frequency, but usually in a way that, for me at least, fails to address—or even to identify—the questions of greatest intellectual interest. In Madrid in February, 2019, as part of a Lorca congress where I was an invited speaker, I sat through three presentations by musicologists. Although informative, their approach was almost entirely factual and anecdotal. One, for example, talked about the concerts Lorca might have attended in Madrid in the 1920s. Another listed orchestras, concert venues, guests artists, and repertory in Madrid during this same period, but without even relating it directly to Lorca. A third musicologist introduced a pianist, who went on to play some music that Lorca himself might have played, some Beethoven, Chopin, and Debussy, along with Lorca’s arrangement of the folk song “Tres morillas de Jaén.” None of this was not inherently useless or uninteresting information, of course: the problem was that there was no effort to interpret it, or to explain its significance in relation to the reasons we are interested in Lorca in the first place.   

This conception of scholarship as the sheer accumulation of information, without a very minimal presence of critical argument, pervaded the conference as a whole, with only a few notable exceptions. Still, the study of Lorca and music, in my experience, is particularly prone to merely anecdotal approaches. Most musicologists nor literary scholars, it turns out, are not very adept at studying the relation between music and literature in a meaningful way, perhaps because they lack a depth of knowledge in both fields, or a methodology for bridging the gap. It is not intuitively clear why it might be interesting to look at the question of “Lorca and Music” beyond its biographical interest, or to examine musical settings of his work in greater depth. Many scholars have been content with merely mentioning the existence of compositions based on Lorca, without thinking about what the existence of this material might reveal.        

My subject of this lecture is what I would like to call “the musical imagination.” The questions that interest me fall into two categories: (1) Lorca’s deep engagement of music as in integral part of his own poetics. What was it about music inspired him, and why did he privilege musical metaphors in defining concepts key to his understanding of poetry? (2) The engagement of musicians (composers and performers) with Lorca’s musical and literary legacy from the time of his death up to the present day. Why has Lorca been a favorite among musicians, and how have they used him to create new creative works? I am less interested in chronicling Lorca’s own musical activities, or his friendships with musicians, since those have been the focus of much previous research into the question of “Lorca and Music.” It is true that at least two of the most prominent Lorca scholars, Christopher Maurer and Andrés Soria Olmedo, have devoted considerable attention to Lorca and music in non-trivial ways. Still, I feel the need to explore these questions myself, on my own terms.      

The obvious question is whether there is a connection between the first and the second set of questions. In other words, are composers drawn to Lorca because of his own musicality? It would be difficult to argue for the lack of connection here. Even if not every composer has been fully aware of Lorca’s musical knowledge, the extent and frequency to which his work evokes music is obvious from even a superficial knowledge of his work. A brief look at his work reveals book titles like Poema del cante jondoCanciones,Suites, Romancero gitano; poems with titles like “Canción,” “Balada de los tres ríos,” “Madrigal,” “Vals en la ramas,” “Son de los negros en Cuba”; and lectures on the Spanish lullabiesthe cante jondo, and the duende. Lorca arises out of a culture in which music and poetry are deeply intertwined, in both the folkloric and learned tradition. This historic connection, very strong in the medieval period, was renewed in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, through the efforts of folklorists like Manuel Machado y Álvarez (1848-1893) scholars like Ramón Menéndez Pidal (1869-1968), and composers like Manuel de Falla (1876-1946). Lorca himself formed a part of a revival of popular Spanish balladry and song, and other poets of his time, like Rafael Alberti and Miguel Hernández, worked in a neo-popular style. Even some of Lorca’s more avant-garde poetry—seemingly distant from popular forms—has found its way into musical settings. Although preferring Lorca’s songsto less ostensibly musical poems, musicians have taken a wide view in looking for material.   

The poetry of Lorca (and Hernández as well) is eminently singable. It almost demands musical setting, since it arises out of a culture in which lyric poetry is meant to be sung to stringed instruments. Such is the case with the lyric poetry of Ancient Greece (the word lyric derives from the lyrice) and, indeed, with many other cultures around the world from the historical and anthropological perspective. Seen in this light, poetry meant to be read silently is the creation of literate societies in which music and poetry have undergone a separation. Familiar arguments about whether or not song lyrics are really “poetry” can only occur in a culture in which the connection between music and poetry has been reduced to the status of a conventional metaphor. Of course, what is really at stake in this debate is a question of cultural hierarchy: are lyrics to popular songs good enough to aspire to the condition of elite art?       

It is clear that, for Lorca, music is a master metaphor for poetry itself, if we look at his statements of poetics like the duende lecture, or his use of musical structures in Poema del cante jondoand Suites. What makes music morethan a metaphor, though, is Lorca’s deep understanding of a musicopoetic tradition in which music is usually vocal music, and poetry always has the potential to be sung.

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