Posts in Category: Musical settings

Spleen by Charles Baudelaire

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Baudelaire’s famous poem from Flowers of Evil turned into a chanson by Léo Ferré, from a recital given in 1969. The Fench text and multiple English translations may be found here; I’ve appended the translation by Edna St. Vincent Millay, which may or may not be the best (I don’t know French), but is certainly the most song-like.

When the low, heavy sky weighs like the giant lid
Of a great pot upon the spirit crushed by care,
And from the whole horizon encircling us is shed
A day blacker than night, and thicker with despair;

When Earth becomes a dungeon, where the timid bat
Called Confidence, against the damp and slippery walls
Goes beating his blind wings, goes feebly bumping at
The rotted, moldy ceiling, and the plaster falls;

When, dark and dropping straight, the long lines of the rain
Like prison-bars outside the window cage us in;
And silently, about the caught and helpless brain,
We feel the spider walk, and test the web, and spin;

Then all the bells at once ring out in furious clang,
Bombarding heaven with howling, horrible to hear,
Like lost and wandering souls, that whine in shrill harangue
Their obstinate complaints to an unlistening ear.

— And a long line of hearses, with neither dirge nor drums,
Begins to cross my soul. Weeping, with steps that lag,
Hope walks in chains; and Anguish, after long wars, becomes
Tyrant at last, and plants on me his inky flag.

A Julia de Burgos (To Julia de Burgos)

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Julia de Burgos‘ poem to her public self (Spanish text here). Leonard Bernstein conducts the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival Orchestra in a television performance of a work he composed, Songfest, which borrows texts from various American poets. Daisy Newman is the soprano. In a 1986 review of a Deutsche Grammophon recording, Music critic Edward Greenfield wrote,

If I had to choose one work of Bernstein’s for my Desert Island, it would certainly be Songfest, a cycle of 12 American poems which in its sharpness of imagination brings out Bernstein’s finest qualities. Rather like Britten in the Nocturne and the Serenade, he combines musical ingenuity with illuminatingly poetic response to each poem. The result is not just witty and brilliant, as you would expect, but often intensely beautiful and deeply moving, as in the haunting Whitman love poem and the radiant setting for women’s trio of Anne Bradstreet’s poem ”To my dear and loving husband”.

To watch the entire song cycle on YouTube, start here.

I’m not sure which translation they used for the subtitles (perhaps Bernstein’s own?) but a better one, by Jack Agüeros, may be read here.

Metempsícosis by Juan Ramón Molina

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A poem by the great prophetic poet of modernismo, Juan Ramón Molina, turned into a heavy metal song (minus a few verses) by the Honduran band Delirium, in homage to the poet on the centenary of his death. The song is also currently available on the band’s MySpace page.

METEMPSÍCOSIS

Del ancho mar sonoro fui pez en los cristales,
que tuve los reflejos de gemas y metales.
Por eso amo la espuma, los agrios peñascales,
las brisas salitrosas, los vívidos corales.

Después, aleve víbora de tintes caprichosos,
magnéticas pupilas, colmillos venenosos.
Por eso amo las ciénagas, los parajes umbrosos,
los húmedos crepúsculos, los bosques calurosos.

Pájaro fui en seguida en un vergel salvaje,
que tuve todo el iris pintado en el plumaje.
Amo flores y nidos, el frescor del ramaje,
los extraños insectos, lo verde del paisaje.

Tornéme luego en águila de porte audaz y fiero,
tuve alas poderosas, garras de fino acero.
Por eso amo la nube, el alto pico austero,
el espacio sin límites, el aire vocinglero.

Después, león bravío de profusa melena,
de tronco ágil y fuerte y mirada serena.
Por eso amo los montes donde su pecho truena,
las estepas asiáticas, los desiertos de arena.

Hoy (convertido en hombre por órdenes obscuras),
siento en mi ser los gérmenes de existencias futuras.
Vidas que han de encumbrarse a mayores alturas
o que han de convertirse en génesis impuras.

¿A qué lejana estrella voy a tender el vuelo,
cuando se llegue la hora de buscar otro cielo?
¿A qué astro de ventura o planeta de duelo,
irá a posarse mi alma cuando deje este suelo?

¿O descendiendo en breve (por secretas razones),
de la terrestre vida todos los escalones,
aguardaré, en el limbo de largas gestaciones,
el sagrado momento de nuevas ascensiones?

Say what you will about heavy metal or Juan Ramón Molina; I think they’re a good fit for each other!

(UPDATE) Thanks to commenter Enrique (see below), here’s an English translation:

METEMPSYCHOSIS

I was a fish in the mirrors of the sonorous ocean wide,
where I beheld the glimmer of gems and metals;
that is the reason why I love the foam, the sourly
rocky shores, the briny gales, and the vivid choral reefs.

Then I was a treacherous viper of shifty tints,
magnetic pupils, and poisonous fangs; that is
the reason why I love the swamps, the shadowy trails,
the crepuscular wetlands, and the steamy forests.

Thereafter, I became a bird in a wild garden.
I had my entire iris painted on my plumage.
Yes, I love flowers, nests, the cool branches,
rare insects, and the green colors of landscapes.

Soon I turned into an eagle of bold and feral sight.
I had mighty wings and fine iron-wrought talons;
reason why I love the clouds, the stark mountain tops,
the boisterous winds, and the limitless skies.

I once became a brave lion of profuse mane,
of rapid yet strong backlash and a serene gaze;
that is why I love the plains where he roars
like thunder, the desert sands, and the Asian steppes.

Now (turned into a Man under obscure measures),
I feel within me the germs of future existences,
lives that shall rise and soar to find higher reaches,
or else should turn into entities of impure genesis.

Towards which distant star shall I direct my flight
when the time comes to look for another heaven?
On what venturous celestial body or grieving planet
shall my soul rest when I depart from this land?

Or is it that (by undisclosed reasons) descending
all the stairways of my brief terrestrial life,
in a limbo of long gestations, I shall lie in wait
for the sacred moment of renewed ascensions?

Los Pobres by Roberto Sosa

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Roberto Sosa is Honduras’ most famous living poet. This is one of several musical adaptations of his poems by the Honduran classic rock band Rajamadrex on YouTube. It’s a little unclear, but I’m guessing that the video itself was made by the band, or someone under their direction, and the captions were added much more recently by the YouTube poster, who goes by the handle Sanjeringas. Here’s the Spanish text along with my own translation.

Los Pobres

Los pobres son muchos
y por eso
es imposible olvidarlos.

Seguramente
ven
en los amaneceres
múltiples edificios
donde ellos
quisieran habitar con sus hijos.

Pueden
llevar en hombros
el féretro de una estrella.
Pueden
destruir el aire como aves furiosas,
nublar el sol.

Pero desconociendo sus tesoros
entran y salen por espejos de sangre;
caminan y mueren despacio.

Por eso
es imposible olvidarlos.

The Poor

The poor are many:
that’s why it’s impossible
to forget them.

Doubtless
they glimpse
in each new dawn
building upon building
where they’d like to make
a home for their children.

They’re able
to bear on their shoulders
the coffin of a star.
They can shatter the air
like maddened birds,
blotting out the sun.

But unaware of their gifts, they enter
and exit through mirrors of blood,
they walk slowly and are slow to die.

That’s why it’s impossible
to forget them.

I did this translation 14 years ago as part of a chapbook I put together after a six-week visit to the country. I was in Honduras not just as a tourist but to attend my brother Mark’s wedding to a Honduran, my sister-in-law Luz, who is from the same small city as the just-deposed president, Mel Zelaya. The Honduran coup is therefore somewhat personal for me. Since Zelaya was deposed for siding with the poor and alienating large segments of the ruling elite, Sosa’s poem seems — sadly — as relevant as ever.

Aaj Bazar Mein by Faiz Ahmed Faiz

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Poem and recitation by Faiz Ahmed Faiz

Video by umer05, whose description is worth quoting in full:

Faiz Ahmed Faiz is amongst the most famous poets of last century. Faiz, who was hounoured by Lenin Peace Prize in 1963, was seldom subjected to arrests by the right-wing pro-imperialist military regimes of Pakistan. Once, during the dictatorship of General Zia-ul-Haq, he was arrested and taken to the police station in front of the public. In this context, he wrote ‘Aaj Bazar mein’.

The video starts with a ‘mushairah’ (public recitation), where Faiz presents the poem, and describes its context. Then the video, with the melodious voice of Nayyara Noor in the background singing the verses of Faiz, shows the sufi culture of Pakistan, which was suppressed by the religious fundamentalist government of Zia-ul-Haq. Then, there are some clips of public floggings and public hangings of political dissidents, which were employed to ingrain terror in the people of Pakistan. Public floggings were a norm during Zia’s time. The video, then, takes us on a trip to a well-known red-light area of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. This red-light area is in the neighbourhood of a very famous mosque, a contradiction unresolved.

Umeed-e-Sahar (Hope of the Dawn) by Faiz Ahmed Faiz

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Poem by the great Faiz Ahmed Faiz.

Music and video by Laal.

Love the interplay between the text of the poem and the drama in the video. The Wikipedia article linked above says that Laal are

known for singing socialist political songs, especially those written by leftist Urdu poets such as Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Habib Jalib and Ahmed Faraz. The band received mainstream attention during the Lawyers’ Movement, in which it led support to the reinstatement of the then deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad. […] Laal has not only managed to reconnect the people of Pakistan to the forgotten revolutionary socialist poets, but also introduced them to the youth

—which should serve as a reminder that, in some cultures, poetry still retains considerable power.

Arte Poética by Vicente Huidobro

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Poem by Vicente Huidobro

Music by Iván Lizama, performed by Ensamble Transiente – Música Experimental Latinoamericana (see YouTube for personnel)

Arte poética

Que el verso sea como una llave
Que abra mil puertas.
Una hoja cae; algo pasa volando;
Cuanto miren los ojos creado sea,
Y el alma del oyente quede temblando.

Inventa mundos nuevos y cuida tu palabra;
El adjetivo, cuando no da vida, mata.

Estamos en el ciclo de los nervios.
El músculo cuelga,
Como recuerdo, en los museos;
Mas no por eso tenemos menos fuerza:
El vigor verdadero
Reside en la cabeza.

Por qué cantáis la rosa, ¡oh Poetas!
Hacedla florecer en el poema;

Sólo para nosotros
Viven todas las cosas bajo el Sol.

El Poeta es un pequeño Dios.

Let poetry become a key
That opens a thousand doors.
A leaf falls; something flies past;
Let everything the eyes see be created,
And the listener’s soul keep trembling.

Invent new worlds and guard your word;
Unless it gives new life, the adjective kills.

We dwell in a circle of nerves.
Muscle hangs,
Like a memory, in museums,
But that doesn’t mean we have less strength.
True vigor
Comes from the head.

Poets! Why eulogize the rose?
Through the poem you can make it bloom.

Everything under the sun
Lives only for us.

The Poet is a little God.

My attempt at a translation. The last line became the slogan of the literary movement Huidobro founded, Creacionismo (“Creationism”).

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