top of page


Canciones españolas antiguas

transcr. Sharon Isbin
November 2, 2014 – Isabel Leonard, mezzo-soprano, Sharon Isbin, guitar

García Lorca may be best known for his literary achievements, yet few great poets and playwrights have been involved in music to the extent that he was. Reported to have hummed tunes before he could talk, he received early musical training; by the age of eleven he was studying piano in Granada with Antonio Segura and Francisco Benítez. Pedro Revuelta, in his article “Lorca and Music” somehow assigned the precise figure of 87% to his life activities revolving around music.

Lorca’s poems frequently bear musical titles—Songs, Gypsy Ballads, Suites; and many of his essays are devoted to musical topics—Ancient Spanish Lullabies, How a City Sings and Sleeps, and El cante jondo (often translated as “deep song,” referring to the whole body of flamenco or Gypsy music). Lorca’s inspiration came not only from his native Spanish music, but from composers of Western art music—he apparently listened obsessively to Bach’s Cantata 104: Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme while writing the second act of his famous tragedy Blood Wedding (1933). Lorca loved the music of Debussy, particularly his Spanish-inspired works—he is said to have given exquisite performances on the piano of La soirée dans Grenade from Estampes and La puerta del vino from the second book of Préludes.

Lorca formed one of the greatest friendships of his life with composer Manuel de Falla, to whom he was introduced as a prodigy poet when Falla visited Granada in 1919. Falla settled there permanently the following year and the two collaborated on many projects, including the celebrated cante jondo festival in 1922 for which Lorca wrote his lecture/essay El cante jondo. This discussion of the history and techniques of flamenco singing is notable for its consideration of the guitarist as the equal of the singer, since the latter had always been considered the main attraction.

In his lecture/essay Ancient Spanish Lullabies, first given at Vassar College in 1930, Lorca dealt with a subject that had been part of him since birth. He particularly stressed that Spanish lullabies, unlike other European lullabies, are not sweet, soft, and monotonous, but they “awaken” the child to the dangers outside the mother’s protective arms; aware of the dangers, the child will realize the security of those arms and fall asleep. Eventually, however, the child must realize that he or she is alone.

Lorca collected and arranged many Spanish folk songs, particularly from his native Andalusian region in the south—perhaps tinkering with their words himself. His moving performances of them, sometimes singing and accompanying himself on piano or guitar, became well known to millions of Spaniards before he was shot in the early days of the Spanish Civil War, apparently by supporters of Franco. His refusal to write down his arrangements is in keeping with the history of the oral tradition that so fascinated him. He also disliked the inability of the musical notation to reflect the characteristic microtonal and rhythmic complexities of this music. Fortunately in 1931 he made five records of his arrangements, sung by La Argentinita and accompanied by himself on the piano; these have been transcribed and performed countless times since.

This evening’s selections of Canciones españolas antiguas, all arranged by Sharon Isbin, are interspersed throughout the program, beginning with “El café de Chinitas,” a song taught to Lorca by his great uncle, who earned his living playing in this flamenco nightclub in Málaga. The song’s protagonist brags that he is a better bullfighter and Gypsy than his brother and will kill the bull before four-thirty. The open-ended harmony (dominant) that ends all the song’s phrases and verses seems fitting in that we never find out what happens in the bullfight, but it is actually a typical practice in Spanish folk song, as in “Romance de Don Boyso.”Here, with distinctive melodic leaps of a fourth, we hear the story of a Spanish nobleman who finds a Christian girl held captive by the Moors, who turns out to be Rosalinda, his long-lost sister. “Nana de Sevilla” falls into the category of unsettling lullabies that Lorca mentioned in his famous lecture, since it tells of a baby, abandoned by its Gypsy mother, whose father may or may not build it a cradle.

Lorca often performed his best-remembered song “Anda, jaleo” (Come, clap hands—or “have a good time,” or “make a commotion”) in his lectures and in his play La zapatera prodigiosa. La Argentinita made “Ande, jaleo” a dramatic popular dance when she toured in the 1930s and ’40s—she once called it a “romance of the smugglers of the nineteenth century” and a dance about “the cavaliers of the Sierra in their, fights, loves, and adieus.” Fit with explosive lyrics, it became a powerful resistance song during the Spanish Civil War, then resurfaced after Franco’s time as a flamenco number. With its repeating bass line and jaunty rhythms—together with Lorca’s occasionally piquant harmonic inflections—the folk version tells of a hunter tracking down his beloved who’s been taken away, and of the conflict between shooting to kill a dove (symbolic of her if she’s been unfaithful) and the pain it will cause him.

Following pieces by Tárrega and Albéniz (see below), the evening’s second Lorca set begins with the Salamancan folk song “Los mozos de Monleón” (The Boys of Monleón). The music’s outward simplicity—with some sung and some recited text—belies the dramatic ending to its tale of boys going to a bullfight. For “Zorongo” Lorca took sensual Andalusian dance music—said to date back to the Moors—and fitted it with his own verses for La Argentinita to sing; he also imbued his guitar introduction with a plethora of parallel chords. The music’s quickly repeating patterns mingled with slowing phrases have made it a popular addition to flamenco tradition. The fifteenth-century “La morillas de Jaén” (The Three Moorish Girls of Jaén) unfolds with a simple chordal accompaniment and characteristic melodic ornaments. Its patterned introduction and interludes in 3/8 meter contrast with the tune itself, which mixes 6/8, 4/4, and 2/4 to reflect the declamatory style of the text. The vivacious “Sevillanas del Siglo XVIII”(Sevillanas of the Eighteenth Century) takes its name from the fast, triple meter, major-mode couples dance from Seville, which originated as an Andalusian variant of the Castilian seguidilla. The dance is typically performed to a traditional type of verses of four or seven lines with footwork reflecting the animated rhythms of the guitar, castanet, or tambourine. Triana and La Macarena in the poem refer to neighborhoods in Seville, Triana being associated in particular with flamenco.

In the concert’s second half, the jaunty style of Lorca’s “La Tarrera” provides a marked contrast to the pensive style of the opening “Aranjuez, ma pensée” by Rodrigo. One might be tempted to ascribe it to the difference between the southern Andalusian style and that of the area in central Spain where Aranjuez lies (to which Rodrigo pays tribute), except that “La Tarara” has often been traced back to Castilian roots. It is such an old children’s song (there’s a Spanish saying that something is “as old as Tarara”) that it has many regional variants, and Lorca may have picked up one in Analusia. The protagonist, “La Tarara,” is a free-spirited, dancing, flirting girl (some say alma gitano or Gypsy soul) who likes to wear all manner of crazy clothing—some versions have her wearing pants completely covered in buttons or a white dress on Maundy Thursday in addition to the verses with frills and bells. More recently she has been seen as a cross-dresser. In any case, this remains one of Lorca’s most lively and popular songs, here arranged by Emilio de Torre and transcribed by Sharon Isbin.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

bottom of page