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Selections from Cinco canciónes negras

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

With Montsalvatge we move to the Catalonian region in the north of Spain—he was born in Girona, studied at the Barcelona Conservatory, became a critic for the weekly Destino, and also taught at the San Jorge Academy, the Conservatory, and the Destino Academy in Barcelona. His Catalan teachers had been drawn to the Germanic composers, but Montsalvatge leaned toward the French style of Stravinsky and Milhaud, one of Les Six. One of the most significant events in his life was his traveling around the Costa Brava during the 1940s collecting West Indian and specifically Cuban folk songs, which particularly attracted him because of the close ties between Cuba and Catalonia. Montsalvatge’s music of the 1840s and ’50s reflects not only the influence of Milhaud, who had also fallen under the spell of Afro-American music, but the rhythms of Cuban music.

The West Indian influence that surfaces in Montsalvatge’s Tres divertimenti of 1941 becomes particularly pronounced in his Cinco canciones negras of 1945–46, which became his most frequently performed songs. Though Montsalvatge was more interested in modern “art music” trends than Lorca—coming close to abandoning tonality in his later works—he, too, recognized the importance of his Spanish heritage and sought ways to incorporate it even during the censorship of Franco. His Canciones negras began with “Canción de cuña para dormer a un negrito” on a text by Uruguayan poet Ildefonso Pereda Valdés, which he intended as a single song for a recital by soprano Mercédes Plantada in mid-May 1945. After the rave response, he decided to make it into a collection, flanking the lullaby with two songs on texts by Nicolás Guillén, “Chévere” and Cante negro,” then added settings of poems by Spanish friends Néstor Luján and Rafael Alberti to form a group of five. Plantada premiered the set to an enthusiastic reception on June 14. The success of the orchestrated version, presented to an audience of 6,000 just after Falla’s death in 1946, represented a passing of the nationalistic torch.

The popularity of “Canción de cuña para dormer a un negrito” (Lullaby for a Little Black Boy) rests on its gently lulling habanera rhythm, coupled with the jazz touches in its harmonies and syncopations. By contrast, “Canto negro” (Black Song) energizes with its vigorous setting of Guillén’s Congolese nonsense words and fast rumba rhythms. Montsalvatge employs some zesty harmonic inflections and clusters to add further spice.


© Jane Vial Jaffe

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