Tragic vision expressed in flamenco and poetry

September 22, 1996|By Glenn McNatt

FEDERICO Garcia Lorca (1898-1936), one of the 20th century's greatest poets, was a lover of all things Spanish, and particularly the fiery, bittersweet music of his native Andalusia known as flamenco.

Like Lorca's poems, flamenco embodies what the Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset once called the "tragic vision of life."

It is the music of bullfighters and Gypsies, of outcasts and the poor. Like American jazz it is an improvisatorial art of the oppressed; its astonishing rhythmic complexity and exotic, Oriental melodies are shot through with the plangent harmonies of generations of suffering and a weary resignation to humanity's mortal destiny.

Now Lorca and flamenco have been reunited in "Arrows From the Soul," a program of music and verse in Spanish based on the poet's work by Baltimore artists Nancy Hirsche and Marija Temo, who will perform at the Walters Art Gallery at 1 p.m. Sept. 29.

The unique collaboration between Hirsche, who recites Lorca's poetry, and Temo, who accompanies her on guitar, is made possible through grants from the Hispanic Cultural Association of Maryland, the Maryland Humanities Council and the National Endowment for the Humanities. It is sure to be one of the highlights of the Baltimore Book Festival in Mount Vernon next weekend.

As a young man, Lorca was a gifted artist and musician as well as a poet. He collected Spanish folk songs and organized an important festival in Granada dedicated to reclaiming the ancient flamenco tradition of "deep song" from the disrepute into which it had fallen.

Ancient roots

Long before the Christian era and predating the Moorish conquest of Spain in the eighth century, Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans and Carthaginians all had left their imprint on the culture of Andalusia, Spain's southernmost province.

Flamenco evolved from the blending of Arabic, Indian, Jewish and Byzantine roots, as well as those of the Gypsies, who began arriving in Andalusia in the 15th century, and the "Catholic Kings," Ferdinand and Isabella, who consolidated the northern kingdom of Castile's rule over the province after the final defeat of the Moors in 1492.

Guitarist Pepe Romero, one of the foremost modern exponents of authentic flamenco, surmised that Jews, Arabs and Gypsies all were common enemies of the ruling Christian Spaniards in the 16th century, and that the intermingling of these groups produced flamenco as an art form as well as a philosophy of life.

Romero speculated that the word flamenco comes from two Arabic words, felag, meaning "fugitive," and mengu, which means "peasant."

Whatever the derivation of the term, by the 18th century the characteristic forms of flamenco singing, playing and dancing -- arabesque melodies ornamented with micro-tonal trills, turns and slides, polyrhythmic guitar figures in which syncopated strumming alternates with lightning-fast scale passages and stylized dance movements incorporating vigorous foot-stamping and finger-snapping -- had been established in Spain.

During the 19th century, the music entered a golden era in which it was played in all-night cafes in cities throughout Andalusia, from whence it spread to every corner of the Spanish-speaking world.

Lorca, whose creative genius alternated between bursts of unbridled high spirits and episodes of morbid depression, was temperamentally suited to the role of flamenco's literary champion.

Of the great 19th-century flamenco performer Silverio Franconetti, for example, Lorca offered this poetic evocation: "A mixture of Italian and flamenco, how did Silverio sing? The honey of Italy with our lemon. His cry was terrible. Old-timers say that one's hair stood on end."

By the end of the 19th century, however, the music's characteristic dignity had become corrupted by loud, raucous singing and what many viewed as excessively suggestive dancing verging on licentiousness.

The music did not begin to regain an honored place in Spanish cultural life until Lorca, with the aid and encouragement of the young Spanish composer Manuel de Falla (1876-1946), organized the folk music Festival of Deep Song at Granada in 1922.

Poetic inspiration

Lorca seemed to find in the traditions of authentic flamenco a resolution of his musical, poetical and spiritual impulses, a discovery that inspired him to write two of his most important works, "Poema del Cante Jondo" (1921) and "Romancero Gitano" (1924-1927).

In these evocative vignettes, several of which are included in Hirsche and Temo's program, Lorca conjures up the mysterious, fatalistic land that is Spain with all its consciousness of life's ambiguity and irony.

Lorca was also a master miniaturist. Some of his miniatures, like "Half Moon," from the volume "Primeras Canciones" (1922), are also included in "Arrows from the Soul":

The moon goes over the water

How tranquil the sky is!

She goes scything slowly

the old shimmer from the river;

meanwhile a young frog

takes her for a little mirror.

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