Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Lemon Grove in Blossom (settings of poetry by Antonio Machado)

My setting of Antonio Machado's poetry, titled El Limonar Florido (The Lemon Grove in Blossom), was performed twice this year. In the fall John Rommereim led the Grinnell College Singers in a wonderful performance I was able to attend, and just a few weeks ago Diana Saez' great group Cantigas performed it in Washington, D.C. I hope more people will discover this seventeen minute, four movement piece as I feel the poetry is truly beautiful and eloquent, and I am very pleased with my setting which is scored for SATB/solo violin and cello. All the choirs who have sung this piece, plus the audiences, have loved it. The choral parts are average difficulty and here and there present reasonable challenges in various areas of choral singing.

Click this link to go to my webpage for the piece- which includes sound files from a very lovely lyrical performance by Calvin College a few years ago, led by Dr. Joel Navarro.

This was a commission from John Delorey for the WPI Glee Club’s 135th anniversary. After the wonderful premiere performance in Worcester, MA the group sang it on tour in Spain in the cities of Madrid, Barcelona, and Toledo. I am told by John that the piece received immediate standing ovations in Spain, something which I was very pleased to hear, as I was concerned if Spanish audiences would like what I had done with the dreamscape texts of their most beloved poet of the early twentieth century.

One of the most fun parts of the piece occurs in the third movement where I try to create the feeling of Machado's interrupted dream. To do so, I wrote in little percussion parts and oddly intrusive things like whistles and the clicks of toy cricket clickers. When I arrived in Worcester close to the premiere I could see that this was great fun to rehearse, but the overall sound was not what I expected -- it was better! It's not too hard to hear straight choral sound in your head, but this big jumble of singing and odd noises was something I couldn't really imagine. Hearing it in real time with the enthusiastic, willing-to-try-new-things young performers was great fun.

Program Notes from the premiere:

The texts for this composition are all early works of the Spanish poet Antonio Machado (1875-1939), and most of them reflect his interest in dreamscapes. They also are quite representative of his style of observation: an object, or especially a series of objects, is simply announced, and then Machado makes or implies an interpretation of their meaning after the fact. Many of these objects are things of simple natural beauty -- a rainbow, a tree, a flock of birds -- yet they seem to also represent some deeper resonance for Machado, often colored by his lifelong melancholy over the death of his wife at an early age. I have used one of his simple observed dreamscape objects, “el limonar florido…” as the title for the whole piece simply because I think it is a wonderful image and because the words have such a beautiful liquid sound.

Insights into Machado by translator Willis Barnstone:

“ Machado sings in all his poems…often in his landscapes, as in a Chinese Taoist painting, the author seems to disappear because scene is all... behind the vision the poet is still there… walking with open eyes filled with memories of poplars by the river, a dry elm waiting for resurrection, and the Espino hill on which he wheels his dying wife. “

Movement I
The music opens with a joyous dance, “the hand in dreaming of being a star sower.” From the point where the poem speaks of “an enormous lyre” the music contracts, by way of polytonal lines in contrary motion leading to unisons, to signify the “few true words.”

Movement II
The “tranquil afternoon” is signified by the repetitive cello line, over which the violin plays a very plaintive, meandering melody. The voices speak wistfully of having “had some joys,” and the cello brings the movement to an end by taking the melody first heard in the violin.

Movement III
The dream world, “the torn cloud, the rainbow,” is introduced by the tambourine and then taken up by the violin and cello, who play at never agreeing on which measures the music’s hemiolas should occupy. But then the dreamer is woken -- noise and distraction (cricket clickers, drums, and mysterious whistles) confound “the magic crystal glass“ of the dream. The poet recaptures some of his beautiful dreamscape, “the lemon grove in blossom, … the sun, water, rainbow,” but the fragments of dream then drift away with the tambourine “like a soap bubble in the wind.”

Movement IV
A “soul light, holy light, beacon” overhead, a man below stumbling on a pilgrimage -- represented in the music by a dirge-like melody in the voices alternating with two string chords with an unsettling dissonance. Who is the man and where is he going? Machado leaves that to the reader to decide. Perhaps it is Machado himself, and he then once again dreams, turning away from the serious dirge to a rather drolly playful conversation with God, initiated musically by the cello.

translations by Willis Barnstone, used by permission

I. Tal vez la mano, en sueño
del sembrador de estrellas,
hizo sonar la música olvidada
como una nota de la lira immense,
y la ola humilde a nuestros labios vino
de unas pocas palabras verdaderas.

Perhaps the hand in dreaming
of being a star sower
made forgotten music echo
like a note from an enormous lyre,
and to our lips a tiny wave
came with a few true words.

II. Tarde tranguila, casi
con placidez de alma,
para ser joven, para haberlo sido
cuando Dios quiso, para
tener algunas alegrías…lejos,
y poder dulcemente recordarlas.

Tranquil afternoon, almost
with placidity of soul,
to be young, to have been so
when God willed it, to
have had some joys…far away,
and be able tenderly to recall them.

III. Desgarrada la nube; el arco iris
brillando ya en el cielo,
y en un fanal de lluvia
y sol el campo envuelto.
Desperte. ¿Quien enturbia
los magicos cristales de mi súeno?
Mi corazón latía
atónito y disperse.
…¡El limonar florido,
el cipresal del huerto,
el prado, verde, el sol, el agua, el iris!...
¡el agua en tus cabellos!...
Y todo en las memoria se perdia
como una pompa de jabón al viento.

The torn cloud, the rainbow
now gleaming in the sky,
and the fields enveloped
in a beacon of rain and sun.
I woke. Who is confounding
the magic crystal glass of my dream?
My heart was beating
aghast and bewildered.
The lemon grove in blossom,
cypresses in the orchard,
the green meadow, the sun, water, rainbow,
the water in your hair!
And all in my memory was lost
like a soap bubble in the wind.

IV. Luz de alma, luz divina,
Faro, antorcha, estrella, sol…
un hombre a tientas camina;
lleva a la espalda un farol.
Amoche soñé que oía
a Dios, gritándome: ¡Alerta!
Luego era Dios quien dormia,
y yo gritaba: ¡Despierta!

Soul light, holy light,
beacon, torch, sun, star.
A man stumbles on a road,
a lantern on his shoulder.
Last night I dreamt I heard
God shouting at me: Take care!
Later, God was sleeping
and I shouted: Awake!

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