Music Mondays: Montserrat Figueras

Montserrat Figueras, the great Catalan soprano, died in Cerdanyola del Vallès on 23 November, after a long struggle with cancer. Here are two wonderful songs, via Entdinglichung. The first is Hespèrion XX, her ensemble, singing a gorgeous Sephardic Jewish song.

The second, recorded in 1988, is “El Cant de la Sibil·la“, the song of the Sybil, “a liturgical drama and a Gregorian chant, the lyrics of which compose a prophecy describing the Apocalypse, which has been performed at some churches of Mallorca (Balearic Islands, Spain) and L’Alguer or Alghero (Sardinia, Italy) in Catalan language on Christmas Eve nearly uninterrruptedly since medieval times… The Song of the Sibyl was almost totally abandoned throughout Europe after the Council of Trent (held in 25 sessions from 1545 to 1563) declared its performance was forbidden. Nevertheless, it was restored on Mallorca as soon as in 1575.” Interestingly, the great leftist musicologist Alan Lomax recorded a fragment of a version during his Balearic fieldtrip of 1952, in the Franco years. Franco of course suppressed Catalan language, and Figueras and her husband Jordi Savall lived in exile in Switzerland until after Spain democratisation in the 1980s. The decision of Hesperion XX, formed in 1974, to record Catalan songs (and to recover the repressed memory of Jewish Iberia) was thus an act of defiance against the Francoist regime.

These songs are part of an on-going series on Catalan music. Previously, I have featured Jordi Barre, Pau Casals, Isaac Albinez, Enrique Granados, and Enrique Morente.

Monday music: 11 September

…not even the dead will be safe from the enemy, if he is victorious. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious. (Walter Benjamin, died Catulunya, September 1940)

So we set out, with cameras at the ready, for New York, another city of my dreams assaulted on another September 11, again a Tuesday morning when fire fell from the sky. Though by 2001 very few people in the world recalled the existence of that remote Chilean date, I was besieged by the need to extract some hidden meaning behind the juxtaposition and coincidence of those twinned episodes bequeathed to me by the malignant gods of random history. There was something horribly familiar in that experience of disaster, confirmed during my visit to the ruins where the twin towers had once reached for the sky… every citizen of the United States forced to look into the chasm of what it means to be desaparecido, with no certainty or funeral possible for those who are missing. The photographs were still there in 2006, pinned on the wires separating the ogling spectators from the abyss… (Ariel Dorfman, 2 September, 2011)

Yesterday was the tenth anniversary of the horrific attacks on New York and Washington, carried out by far right Islamists. Below, Bruce Springsteen’s “My city of ruins fanfare for the common men and women killed that day, and his hope for a new, better tomorrow. 9/11 is of course also the anniversary of the 1973 military coup in Chile, which replaced Allende’s elected government with one of the most brutal dictatorships of our time, a dictatorship supported by the American and British governments.

In the first months after the coup d’état, the military killed thousands of Chilean Leftists, both real and suspected, or forced their “disappearance“. The military imprisoned 40,000 political enemies in the National Stadium of Chile… In October 1973, the Chilean song-writerVíctor Jara, and 70 other political killings were perpetrated by the death squad, Caravan of Death (Caravana de la Muerte). The government arrested some 130,000 people in a three-year period; the dead and disappeared numbered thousands in the first months of the military government.

Below, for all the victims of Pinochet’s regime, Victor Jara‘s “Preguntitas sobre Dios” (Little Questions About God), written by Atahualpa Yupanqui.

One day I asked grandfather ¿where is God? My grandfather was sad and gave me no answer. My grandfather died in the field without prayers or confessions, and was buried with the Indian bamboo flute and drum. When I asked ¿father where is God?  my father got serious and gave me no answer. My father died in the mine without doctor or confession, sweating the miner’s blood for the boss’s gold, and was buried with the Indian bamboo flute and drum… I sing when I am free and when I’m in prison I feel the voices of the people who sing better than me… God watches over the poor, maybe yes or maybe not but he surely lunches at the table of the boss.

September 11 is also the Catalan national day. Being an anti-nationalist, I will not play the turgid Catalan national anthem, “Els Segadors“, but rather “El Cant dels Ocell” (The Song of the Birds), a Catalan folk song which Pau Casals always played at the end of his concerts, looking forward to the moment when Catalonia would be free of fascism, and when humanity as a whole would be free.

From Ariel Dorfman’s Open Letter to America:

How could I not wish you well? You gave me, an americano from the Latino South, this language of love that I return to you. You gave me the hot summer afternoons of my childhood in Queens when my starkest choice was whether to buy a Popsicle from the Good Humor Man or the fat driver of the Bungalow Bar truck. And then back to calculating Jackie Robinson’s batting average. How could I not wish you well? You gave me refuge when I was barely a toddler, my family fleeing the fascist thugs in Argentina in the mid-Forties. One of you then. Still one of you now. How could I not wish you well? Years later, again it was to America I came with my own family, an exile from the Chile of Pinochet you helped to spawn into existence on precisely an 11 September, another Tuesday of doom. And yet, still wishing you well, America: you offered me the freedom to speak out that I did not have in Santiago, you gave me the opportunity to write and teach, you gave me a gringa grand-daughter, how could I not love the house she lives in?

Where is that America of mine? Where is that other America? Where is the America of ‘as I would not be a slave so would I not be a master’, the America of this ‘land is our land this land was meant for you and me’, the America of all men, and all women, everyone of us on this ravaged, glorious earth of ours, all of us, created equal? Created equal: one baby in Afghanistan or Iraq as sacred as one baby in Minneapolis. Where is my America? The America that taught me tolerance of every race and every religion, that filled me with pioneer energy, that is generous to a fault when catastrophes strike?

Monday music: Jordi Barre

Rcan featuring Jordi Barre: Décloisonnement intergénérationnel

It’s a long while since I did a Monday music post. This one follows on from my earlier series on Catalan music, but also kicks off a new (non-musical) series I’m going to start soon about the Catalan lands that are now part of France. Barre died earlier this year. He is very little known in the English-speaking world and consequently has no English wikipedia page. Below is my loose translation of the French page.

Jordi Barre (born Georges Bar on 7 April 1920 in Argeles-sur-Mer and died on 16 February 2011 in Ponteilla) was a Catalan-speaking singer-songwriter. Taking to the stage very young, he sang in the village dances of the plain of Roussillon and then turned sailor, typographer, foreman. In the mid-1960s he met the poet Albert Esteve, who encouraged him to devote himself exclusively to the song.

In 1974 he moved to Barcelona where he met the great figures of Nova Cançó, moving close to the autonomous musical community of the end of the Franco era. Still standing away from political movements, Jordi Barre advocated through song for a recognition of culture and especially of the Catalan language and quickly became an institution for the people of Northern Catalonia.

His voice was gravelly and profound, its deep timbre through “which run cool water streams, the rocky hills, the blue of the sea and the madness of the north wind” (Jean-Michel Collet); his impressive concerts are great moments of emotion and intensity on a par with a Paco Ibanez or a Silvio Rodriguez.

Music Mondays: Pablo Casals

So it was that in the spring of 1939 I came to Prades. I could not have imagined at the time that I would spend the next seventeen years of my life in this little town in the Pyrenees. And in spite of the sorrow in me, I found respite in my surroundings. With its winding cobbled strees and whitewashed houses with red tiled roofs – and the acacia trees that were then in bloom – Prades might have been one of the Catalan villages I had known since childhood. The countryside seemed no less familiar to me. The lovely patterns of orchards an vineyards, the wild and craggy mountains with ancient Roman fortresses and monasteries clinging to their sides – these too were a replica of parts of my homeland. Indeed, centuries before, this very region had been part of the nation of Catalonia – from Joys and Sorrows by Pablo Casals, via On An Overgrown Path

Granados: Spanish Dance (played by Pablo Casals, c.1916-20)
For Granados, a Catalan composer of the late 19th century, see here.

Max Bruch: Kol Nidrei (played by Pablo Casals, 1923)

Pablo Casals: El Cant dels Ocell
This version of his classic Catalan melody was recorded in Puerto Rico in 1956.

Pablo Casals: El Cant dels Ocell
This version is from 1958’s Windjammer.

Victoria de los Ángeles: El Cant dels Ocell
A singer from Barcelona, who died in 2005.

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Music Mondays: Isaac Albéniz

Isaac Albeniz: Iberia No 6 “Triana”

Albeniz was a Catalan composer and this Triana is from his late years, written in exile in Paris. A Triana is actually an Andalucian flamenco songform, from the mainly Gitano (Gypsy/Roma) Triana neighbourhood of Seville.

This version is played in 1931 by Harvey Sachs Rubinstein, “the Latino from Lodz”.


Albeniz’s grave in Montjuic, Barcelona.

It’s the third in my series on Catalan music, the previous being Granados. See also this post on Enrique Morente.

Music Mondays: Granados’ Goyescas

Enrique Granados: Goyescas – 4. Quejas, ó la maja y el ruiseñor

Wikipedia:

Goyescas, subtitled Los majos enamorados (The Gallants in Love), is a piano suite written in 1911 by Spanish composer Enrique Granados. This piano suite is usually considered Granados’s crowning creation and was inspired by the paintings of Francisco Goya, although the piano pieces have not been authoritatively associated with any particular paintings.

[...]The fourth piece in the series (Quejas, ó la maja y el ruiseñorThe Maiden and the Nightingale) is the best known piece from the suite. It resembles a nocturne, but is filled with intricate figuration, inner voices and, near the end, glittering bird-like trills and quicksilver arpeggios. Mexican songwriter Consuelo Velázquez based her 1940 song Bésame Mucho on this melody.

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Music Mondays: Enrique Morente

In Orihuela, his town and mine, Ramon Sije, whom I loved so much, has been taken from me like a flash of lightening.

I want to be the crying gardener of the earth
you occupy and nourish,
comrade of my soul, all too soon.

Feeding the rains, the snail-shells
and organs, my grief without purpose
gives your heart to feed

to the desolate poppies.

The great Enrique Morente is dead. He was one of the giants of Spanish flamenco, born in the slums of the Albacin, Granada’s old gitano quarter in the shadow the Alhambra. His second album, Homenaje flamenco a Miguel Hernández, was inspired by the working class Valencian anti-fascist poet Miguel Hernández, who died of consumption in Franco’s prisons while in his early thirties. Just making this record, was an act of defiance against the aging dictator and an auger of the re-birth of democracy later in the decade.

Morente was deeply rooted in the ancient vernacular culture of flamenco, the underground soul music which had been suppressed under the dictatorship  in favour of a plastic tourist kitsch version, and, with Cameron de la Isla and others, brought this rebel music out of the shadows in the dying years of the fascist regime. Later, however, he earned the disapproval of the increasingly conservative flamenco purists by his increasingly innovative work, such as collaborations with Maghrebi artists and thrash punk bands.

Here is one of his Miguel Hernández songs, “Elegía a Ramón Sijé”. Ramón Sijé was a Catholic poet and very close friend of Hernández, who died very young. The opening words in English are at the start of this post; the whole text can be found here.

Here is Morente in 1981, singing a granaína, one of the song forms of his Albacin ghetto youth.

Here he is with Lagartija Nick performing Lorca’s “Ciudad sin sueño” from the 1995 Lorca/Leonard Cohen tribute Omega.

The pairing of Garcia Lorca and Cohen is sort of obvious, given Leonard Cohen’s debt to the poet, but the musical setting is highly original. Here is “First We Take Manhattan”:

Finally, here is a more schmaltzy but still lovely version of the elegy to Ramón Sijé, by JM Serrat. Serrat is a Catalan singer and songwriter of Morente’s generation. His defiance of Franco came in 1968 when he was selected to represent Spain in the Eurovision song contest, but insisted on singing in Spanish and was replaced and his records banned.

In 1969, Serrat released Com ho fa el vent, a tribute to Antonio Machado, the Republican poet who died in 1938 fleeing Franco’s Spain. (His death is one of the stories told in Soldiers of Salamis by Javier Cercas, which I may write about some time.) Serrat was soon exiled from Spain, but because he chose to sing in Spanish, he was condemned by the Catalan nationalists. “I sing better in the language they forbid me”, he said.

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