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Russell M Cluff: Blog

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: Short Overview

Posted on May 8, 2011 with 0 comments
Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: From Sonnet to Song
Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was born in 1651 in the village of Nepantla, some 37 miles southeast of Mexico City in what was then known as New Spain. Being a child prodigy, she learned to read at the age of three and—thanks to the library of her maternal grandfather—had perused many books by the time she moved to the capital city at the age of eight. Three years later, she was invited to attend the court of the Viceroy’s wife, the Marquise of Mancera, where she gained renown as a poet and erudite young woman. Upon leaving the court at the age of 18, she entered the convent of Saint Jerome where she lived, studied, wrote, taught many subjects to primary aged girls, and carried out her religious responsibilities until her death in 1695.
At that time, certain figures in the political world of New Spain made a tremendous effort to erase Sor Juana’s memory from the minds of the populace. As a result, for two hundred years of the 314 she has been gone, most Mexicans were unaware of her existence and her great achievements. However, since her books had been published in Spain, her memory sprang to life anew in the nineteenth century when many European poets and scholars once again became interested in Baroque literature. Today, Sor Juana is recognized as Hispanic America’s foremost literary figure of the Colonial period, and becomes more important by the day. Her life and works are portrayed in theater, film, music, and novels. Thanks to several surviving portraits painted during and shortly after her life, Sor Juana’s image has become ubiquitous and is now immortalized on Mexico’s currency.
Having inherited the baroque tradition of Spain, she was enjoined to match her wits, knowledge, and art with some of the best wordsmiths of the Iberian Peninsula. In her poems one readily notices the inverted syntax and references to classical culture of a Luis de Góngora, combined with the witty conceits of a Francisco de Quevedo, thus signaling her firm grasp of the two styles unique to the Spanish Baroque: culteranismo (a display of erudition) and conceptismo (cleverness of thought). However, I contend that, of the three writers, Sor Juana’s poetic expression has the clearest conveyance of meaning and the greatest amount of musicality. It was these two ingredients, along with Sor Juana’s enormous significance to Mexican culture, that prompted me to adapt some of her poems to melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic schemes.
It’s clear from the record that Sor Juana was a musician, in many senses of the word. For eight years, she held the position of song director (or cantora) of her convent, and taught both dance and song to the girls interned in the convent school. She studied music on her own—as an intellectual pursuit—and once wrote an essay on the topic entitled “El caracol”, or “The Conch,” a text that no longer exists. Purportedly, this is a musical method original with her that espouses a spiral rather than circular structure. When the Marquise of Mancera wanted to know more about the method, Sor Juana spoofed it in what is known as poem number 21. She also hinted at her reluctance to become a composer, which was practically obviated by the fact that in New Spain the right to compose religious music was only in the purview of the cathedral music directors (or maestros de capilla). These were, in fact, the individuals who composed the scores for Sor Juana’s many Christmas musicals (known as villancicos), which were presented in the cathedrals of Mexico City, Puebla, and Oaxaca. There are many references to these productions, but none of the musical compositions survived.
When contemplating the possibility of setting her words to music, I was intent on keeping two basic things in mind: First, that I was working with Baroque poetry, and second, that I wanted to create something between Baroque music and modern song. In order to do this, I needed to follow some of the tenets of this movement as close as possible, while maintaining a certain affinity with the Latin musical traditions of my own day. I thought I might achieve this by employing instruments that were feasible for the 1600s in New Spain and by using more recent Latin rhythms. Above all, however, I promised myself to show respect for Sor Juana’s poetry by not fracturing the poems. I believe this is especially important when working with the sonnet since, with its stubbornly unchangeable form, it must always be apprehended as a whole, as a unique and self-sufficient microcosm. It always conveys a sense of wholeness, whether the poem leans toward the lyrical, by delving into personal sentiments and dilemmas, or is a bit more narrative by telling a brief story. Placing this degree of importance on language was a musical value espoused by the pioneers of Baroque music, especially Giulio Caccini who could easily be considered the father of modern song. In 1602 he published a collection of strophic songs, accompanied by a preface, which laid down several of the parameters of what he called The New Music. Two elements he mentions are of particular interest here: monody (a single melody) and giving a greater importance to the text, thus encouraging singers to avoid [quote] “laceration of the poetry,” [end of quote] as stated in Nicholas Anderson’s book Baroque Music From Monteverdi to Handel (p. 14). Obviously, ever since that time, monody is the rule rather than a novelty needing to be defended. Neither has the spoken word in music lost the importance it gained at that time. Thus, in all cases I composed the music for the entire poem before entertaining any musical interludes or repetition of parts and, beyond that, my goal was to assure that each syllable of the poetry be understood.
The selection of instruments is an interesting topic where Sor Juana is concerned, since, along with amassing one of the largest libraries of Colonial America, she also collected European and native musical instruments. I centered my choices on woodwinds and stringed instruments that I thought most likely to have been imported from Europe in the 17th century. In the pieces to be played hereafter, one will hear flute, recorder, clarinet, guitar, and cello—as solo instruments—accompanied by rhythm guitar, piano, the four strings, hand drums and other small percussive instruments. Through the combination of these musical voices, I sought to create what I imagine to be the “feel” of the music of Sor Juana’s time, inasmuch as emotions and passions are central to the Baroque movement. Caccini stated [and I quote] “that this style was intended to engage the passions…., [that this was] one of the principal unifying artistic aims of the Baroque period” [end of quote] (as quoted from Anderson, p. 14).
In his book Spanish Poetry of the Golden Age (1971), Bruce Wardropper points to the relationship between lyric poetry and song when he states the following: [quote] “Lyric poetry is essentially song. Songs are rhythmic outpourings of feelings about a human situation. Sophisticated lyric poetry is not, as a rule, intended to be sung, but its distant origin in music is what characterizes it” [end of quote] (p. 1). Sor Juana’s sonnets are clearly sophisticated poetry but, from my point of view, they have not forgotten their roots. As material for songs they have both advantages and drawbacks. On the one hand, being Italianate sonnets, they have regular, eleven-syllable verses that always rhyme in a conventional pattern. A pattern can be translated into other patterns, and rhymed verses will always have more of a song feel to them than lines with less or no rhyme. However, eleven syllables will usually demand a slower pace than poems with shorter lines, such as the Spanish romance, or ballad, which has eight syllables per verse, and was the standard for popular song. For example, the pieces being performed today range in tempo between 72 (adagio) and 96 (andante), which makes them quite close neighbors. This means that songs created from these sonnets will tend to have a more pensive rather than dramatic air to them, although the possibility of the dramatic is not entirely proscribed. Fortunately, the content of these poems support a wide range of attitudes since, rather than being mere Baroque word games, they always have something to say—another advantage to Sor Juana’s poems. Thus, a slower song can still be forceful. For example, the slowest song of all contains the basic elements of the Pyramus and Thisbe story, a Babylonian tale recorded by the Latin poet Ovid and later transformed into the Romeo and Juliet motif. At a plodding tempo of 72, the flute is doleful and the words are pronounced in a grave but strong manner, in order to match the tragedy played out by the two secret and ultimately suicidal lovers.
Traditionally, there have been two major approaches to composing music to sophisticated lyric poetry. One is associated with the art song and employs the “through-composed” method where each strophe of the song supports a different melody. Songs of this nature are intended to be performed by a trained singer. The other approach is to take the more popular path of creating a single melody with repetitions that might entice the listener to sing along. It’s up to the composer to examine the poem and determine which of these two directions he or she will take. In my songs, as noted earlier, I choose the latter route by insisting on repetitions of at least three possible types: First, the instrumental introduction usually contains at least a short motif that foreshadows the melody; second, when the tempo and the overall length of the song allow, I add a musical interlude that either repeats or is reminiscent of one of the short melodies already sung; and third, whenever the song contains a musical interlude, I have the singer repeat the last two strophes of the sonnet. On several occasions, during a performance, I have looked up and found several members of the audience singing along with me. I believe this is possible due both to their Latin American educational background—where memorization of good poetry is customary—and the song’s repetitions that allow them to readily apprehend the melody even though they are hearing it for the first time. Their participation is also a testament to the esteem in which Sor Juana is held in the Spanish-speaking world.
I don’t consider my method of composition to be unique or extraordinary. However, when looking back over this project, I do recognize that the process is very complex, involving many simultaneous considerations. If I were to compare it to any other type of activity, the closest I could come would be to translation or interpretation between two languages. In these two activities, thinking double, triple, quadruple, and so on, is the name of the game. Composing is, in fact, a form of translation of one reality to another—moving poetry into the realm of music. Both have rhythm and sound, but each presupposes a different way to be appreciated. And the first responsibility of the composer is analysis: a careful study of the poem along with a critical consideration of different musical tastes and traditions. Through this type of scrutiny, I determined that the best way to see all of these parameters was to remain focused on Sor Juana’s sonnets. They would “talk” to me and help me decide on such things as tone, tempo, rhythm, harmony, and color. I believe the best way to discuss these aspects will be to look at a particular sonnet and try to explain what elements made me make the ultimate musical choices I made.
To achieve this, I’d like to return to the poem about Pyramus and Thisbe. Sor Juana never gave titles to her poems, therefore I fall back on the time-tested practice of using a portion of the first line. The title I have given to this song in Spanish is “De un funesto moral”, which in English roughly means “from a dismal mulberry tree.” Some Baroque aspects of this poem are the use of paradox, antithesis, and allegorical characters such as Death and Love—both with capital letters—as well as a light literary self-consciousness common to the movement. The focal point of the tale is the scene where the two mistaken suicides take place. The mulberry tree and its shadow are all but personified characters—along with Death and Love. The tragedy occurred long ago, but narrative, with its ability to immortalize, kept the lovers’ plight alive up to the time Sor Juana wrote the poem, some 1700 years later. It’s because of writing that we all know the story, but it’s due to the universal nature of empathy and other human themes that the story persists and is told and retold. In the poet’s telling, Death is horrified by Love’s apparent lack of sympathy, but the poetic voice still finds it painful that the situation has no resolution.
This poem as song, then, required strategies that might also mirror the pain, regret and empathy displayed in the text. I’ve already mentioned the obstinate 72 tempo that lends gravity to the singing. I also decided that the music should be in a minor key (or keys), in order to enhance the sense of doom. I settled on the key of A-minor, which is held throughout the first two stanzas. In the story line, it is at this point that Death, paradoxically, is nonplused by Love’s apparent lack of concern and empathy; therefore, the song modulates upward to the key of F-minor to add energy to match the character’s emotions. Through this third stanza, the chord pattern describes a circle and then modulates back down to the key of A-minor since, alas, Death’s little fit of anguish does not have the power to reverse the situation. The drop in musical energy signals the loss of hope that ultimately will take Thisbe’s life, and the song ends on the same chord with which it began. By design, melodically, there are only two parts to the song and no interludes or repetitions of stanzas, since the strophic system, along with the dynamics of the tale, does not warrant belaboring. Instrumentally, the song receives its undergirding from the double bass, hand drums, and rhythm guitar, while the color is provided by a recorder and a decorative guitar. Both of these instruments serve to help introduce and end the song, as well as fill in the spaces where the melody breathes. Both also employ a plaintive tone that seems to mimic the crying human voice. The goal, of course, was to create a sad but satisfying song from a sonnet that tells a sad story. It stands to reason, however, that I hope to have achieved the opposite from other sonnets with brighter tones and more hopeful messages.
In conclusion, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was a multifaceted writer with an extremely broad knowledge of philosophy, history, science, and most of the arts practiced during her day. Among these was the art of music, and while it’s certain that she never composed, performed, directed, or even witnessed any performances of music derived from her poetry outside of her cloister, others did mold her language to the temporal art of music and it was enjoyed by many. And while she likely never intended for her sonnets to be set to music, I hope the short recital that follows will display the intelligence and spiritual warmth that still reside in her written word.