Thursday, 9 May 2013

Lorca, folk song and poetry - another post on writing and music

Cante jondo: primitive and universal, like the sea

 On the eve of a trip to Spain, it seems a good moment to write about Frederico Garcia Lorca and his literary engagement with folk music.

I had been thinking about analogies between the way musical composers use folk music and the way writers use folk tales in their new works respectively, mostly researching Bartok, which I wrote about in an earlier post. Quite separately I picked up Lorca’s book of poems, Romancero Gitano (Gypsy Ballads), only to learn later that he spent time with Manuel de Falla collecting Spanish folk songs just as Bartok did in Eastern Europe and beyond. De Falla used these in his own musical works, as did Debussy, but Lorca turned them into poetry. His Poema del Cante Jondo (Poem of the Deep Song) is a direct homage to the profound folk music – cante jondo that prefigured flamenco and was itself influenced by Arabic and Indian music, brought to Andalusia by gypsies.

It is fascinating to uncover what Lorca perceived in this music, and how he transfigured it into poetry that has only its own internal music, no accompanying melody. There is a wonderful lecture by Lorca in translation here that expresses, with its own poetic phrasing, what he found in cante jondo (and from which I have taken the following quotes). He says “Cante jondo is like the trilling of birds, the cry of the cockerel, and the natural music of woods and streams,” describing it as “bearing in its notes the naked shiver of emotion of the first oriental races” and as “the only genre on our continent that preserves in all its purity, as much structurally as stylistically, the primary qualities of the primitive songs.”
It is the primal qualities of cante jondo, its unabashed wails in the grips of failed love, suffering and death, that seduce Lorca. These are, of course, universals of life, and much of his description of this music would make sense if turned to folk tales, another bed of universal themes, primitive desires and fears. There are some cante jondo recordings here on Youtube; I found it a bit like Portuguese fado but more accessible, perhaps because of the close connection to familiar flamenco. It can sound overwrought to the English ear, and certainly that is the impression you would get of Lorca’s Poema del Cante Jondo if you only read the translation into English.

Here are a few sample lines: ‘The cry leaves a shadow/of cypress upon the wind./ (Leave me here in this field,/weeping)’. So far, so gothic romance. But in Spanish the sounds of the lines have an internal sympathy and symmetry that work as effectively as rhyme to hold the image together and, somehow, make a kind of sense that allows the melodrama to exist more comfortably: ‘El grito deja en el viento/una sombra de cipres./ (Dejadme en este campo/llorando).’ Maybe that is the nature of the Spanish language, rather than of Lorca’s use of it in poetry; I have not read enough Spanish poetry to know! But having carried around a negative preconception that Spanish poetry would be severely limited by the smaller vocabulary and lack of multiple synonyms compared with English, I was amazed by the effects of the sounds on the way in which I absorbed the content. Much of Lorca’s poetry does not rhyme exactly, but holds together in sounds a little like a song.

The cante jondo songs do have lyrics, but I am curious about how Lorca has tried to incorporate the feel of the songs, melody and delivery and all, into these poems, rather than simply transcribing words. I hope to figure some of this out by reading them more and listening. I’m sure that, just as with Bartok, there is an analogy to be found here between Lorca absorbing an essence, or idea, of these folk songs, which he is able to transmit in poetry, and the similar osmotic magic by which writers absorb folktales and then find their essences colouring their new work.

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