Translated from the original Spanish by Evan Daus.
“Music produces a kind of pleasure which human nature cannot do without."
"Without music, life would be a mistake."
“One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.”
In the Hispano-American music of the twentieth century resonates a unique tone that began in Provence in the eleventh century and made Petrarch sing in the 14th century: a way to see love, to sing to one’s beloved, and to offer us a "sentimental education" that has been forgotten in the twenty-first century.
It is well known that music is not only nourished by harmony, but also from literature. The Spanish-American song is the current version of courtly love, the civilizing principle where the virtues of the gentleman begin, expand and mature.
In the midst of the troubadour demonstrations and the Songbook of Petrarch (completed around 1374, the year of the poet's death), we find the Dolce Stil Novo, a literary and musical movement embodied by, among others, Dante Alighieri (1265–1321) in the thirteenth century.
Stunned by courtly love, Dolce Stil Novo transformed the beloved into an angelic figure –la donna angelicata– that the poet-musician, the lover, portrays and crystallizes through the authenticity of his feeling and the sweetness of the poetic tone. Through his singing, sonnets, songs and ballads prevail, usually composed of heptasyllables and hendecasyllables.
Thus, since the eleventh century, these have been the guidelines of how, until recently, we saw love: a force capable of producing changes in the consciousness of the lover and inspiring in him the desire to pursue good through admiration and service to his beloved.
If in courtly love the gentleman idealizes women by uniting eroticism with spirituality, in Dolce Stil Novo the poet intensifies, with deep drama, the feelings of fleetingness, the passage of time, the moment and brevity. It also accentuates the encounters and mismatches, the chains that hinder and stop the soft gait of love.
In these terms, and with greater intellectual and troubadour capacity, Petrarch will sing to Madonna Laura. He will do so through a greater number of rhetorical figures and a pronounced introspection that contrasts, for example, with the aubades or farewell chants that are typically found in the troubadour repertoire.
Granada, Spain, 1526. Juan Boscán and Garcilaso de la Vega meet in the palace that Carlos V had built in on the grounds of the Alhambra, to dictate the fate of the nascent Spanish Empire. In the gardens of the Generalife, guidelines for Renaissance poetry and music in Spain were established.
Boscán and Garcilaso hispanicized Italian poetry and added to it the themes of romancero—the compilation of romantic compositions in eight syllable metrics—an heirloom of our language and the most natural form of expression of the Spanish language. The octosyllabe is our congenital prosody.
To the rigidity of medieval romances, Garcilaso added looseness, flexibility, and much more nostalgia, in turn, giving Spanish, the lingua franca of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, an agility that would only find parallel in another similar revolution initiated in Hispano-America at the end of the nineteenth century: Modernism, a literary current preceded by the poetry of Bécquer in which the poetic tone appears as a conversation, a discussion meant to let us know the intimacy of his pain caused by the rejection of his beloved.
From that 1526 meeting in the Alhambra, our language developed poems in which love, with its totalizing force, twisted roads and caused great detours in the state of the lover.
However, unrequited love did not debase the gentleman or darken his persona. Although love from that moment began to be perceived as the underside of a force vast enough to cause great pain, the lover would always warn the nobility of this feeling—the supreme energy that makes it possible to overcome natural laws—including that which Quevedo called "the harsh law" or the "fatal-eyed goddess."
The inevitable principle that everything leads to death, collapses with the flame of love and its fiery potency. Although this flame, once extinguished, ends in dust and ash, it is and will forever be "dust in love", as Quevedo tells us in the sonnet "Love Constant Beyond Death". In this poem, the poet offers a passionate affirmation of everlasting love, which transcends the ephemeral order of things.
Lope de Vega says something similar, although not in a triumphalist way, unlike Quevedo, but in a tone where the absence of death hurts the life and hopes of the lover:
Dust now, but ever lovely
that light that takes my life lives on serene.
And what was once my pleasure and my pain wages war on me,
but rests in peace.
The jasmine, the pure rose,
softly glowing in lily-white skin is so alive to me that
it sears my memory-laden soul:
ash of a phoenix.
Oh cruel memory of angry passion!
What possible honor is there for you when the very remains of feeling
have turned to dust?
Let me be silent for just a moment:
my eyes have no more tears,
nor my mind conceits of love.
As in Europe, the Hispano-American 20th century is one of overflowing waters. Singing about love in times of hatred, wars, dictatorships, massacres and clashes, seemed crazy. However, despite the deep wounds, alongside the furore of citizens eager for progress, Hispano-American musicians bet on love themes.
Today it is known that Modernism did not end with the death of Rubén Darío and Amado Nervo. Much less with the loss of Leopoldo Lugones. The elusive or forgotten words, the difficult sounds, the touches, the flashes of light, the shadows and twilight left their mark on the compositions of, for example, Carlos Gardel and Agustín Lara.
Just listen to tangos such as "Por una cabeza" or "The Day You Shall Love Me" (verse taken from Amado Nervo) to feel the plethora of images and metaphors used by the Argentine composer, which evoke the themes and forms used by modernists, heirs of Renaissance and the Baroque. Both songs govern the joy of love, its effulgence, and even its fatal outcomes.
Amado Nervo confessed to us in his refined language:
The day you shall love me will bear more light than June,
The night you shall love me– full-mooned,
A tale left untold within each ray,
The day you shall love me will bear more roses than May.
Carlos Gardel and Alfredo LePerez echoed him in the following lyrics:
The day when you will love me,
The rose that decorates
Will dress itself up
In the brightest of colors.
And the bells will say
To the wind that you are mine,
And the fountains will go crazy
In telling each other about your love.
Like Gardel and Le Pera, in Mexico Agustín Lara, the quintessential Hispano-American troubadour, worked his craft. Owner of a deep lyricism and connoisseur of love, Lara managed to express it in all its dimensions, composing the song "María bonita", one of the most emblematic of the Hispano-American repertoire, to his wife, the film actress María Félix.
"María bonita" is a chime of bells, a call, a loving flutter reminiscent of the tone with which Rubén Dario used to address his first wife, Rafaela Contreras, "Stella", sometimes called the "mouth of snow", for the tenderness and the way in which the troubadour uses the elements surrounding the actress during their honeymoon in Acapulco: the stars, the sea, the beach, et cetera. And so he portrays her delicate and ethereal movements:
lovely María, María of the soul,
remember that on the beach
with your hands
you would rinse the stars.
Your body, of the toy sea, I swam adrift,
the waves would come, would swing,
and while I watched you,
I say it with feeling,
my thoughts betrayed me.
From that moment on the list expands and composers of popular music become legions both in America and Spain: Rafael «El Jibarito Hernández», Enrique Santos Discépolo, César Portillo de la Luz, Mario de Jesús, Miguel Matamoros, Julio Jaramillo, Mario Cavagnaro, Benito de Jesús, Julito Rodríguez, Tomás Méndez, María Teresa Vera, Consuelito Velázquez, Chabuca Granda, Pedro Flores, Enrique Cadícamo, Jesús Guerra, Carlos José Pérez, Rafael Otero López, Roberto Cantoral, José Alfredo Jiménez, Cuco Sánchez, Demetrio Ortiz, Felipe Pinglo Alva, Rafael Gastón Pérez, Simón Díaz, Rafael Escalona, Camilo Zapata, Carlos Mejía Godoy, Luis Enrique Mejía Godoy, Pablo Ara Lucena, Carlos Eleta Almarán, Facundo Cabral, Alberto Cortez, Rafael Pérez Botija, Paco Pérez, Antonio Quintero, Rafael de León, Manuel Quiroga, Marco Antonio Muñiz, Augusto Algueró, Manuel Alejandro, Virgilio Expósito, Julio Iglesias, Juan Gabriel, Camilo Sesto, Adán Torres, Roberto Livi, Roberto Carlos, Marco Antonio Solís, Joan Sebastian, Joaquín Sabina, José Luis Perales, José Luis Armenteros, Danny Rivera, Alejandro Jaén, Oscar Germaín de la Fuente, King Clave, Leo Dan, Helio Roca, Sandro, Heleno, Leonardo Favio, Palito Ortega, José Feliciano, Memo Neira, Chago Díaz, Orlando Salinas, Luis Enrique, Ricardo Montaner, Ricardo Arjona, Luis Egurrola, Noel Schajris, Leonel García, and an immense et cetera.
As a result of the invention of movable type printing in the Renaissance, lyrics and music were separated from poetry. However, even in the electronic age we hear with amazement a poem by Neruda, heir to Modernism, made song: "I can write the saddest verses tonight. I loved her, and sometimes she loved me too."
However, in the face of the gale of misogynistic, violent and pornographic lyrics presented and normalized through rap, trap and reggaeton, considered to be consumer products and not music for the record companies that propagate them, craving a shelter from barbarism is not an alternative since cruelty is accepted without any cavilation by the masses, passive consumers of what should be condemned as a threat to public health.
For their part, the "composers" of these "musical" genres are, in turn, part of the game and the ignominy, because they do not think about the horrendous legacy that they are leaving to our children. They are machines unable to transmit emotions or erect a shelter that saves us from the desecration of the only force capable of redeeming man: love.
Art, in this case music, is the greatest manifestation of the human heart and mind, and the high invention to counteract the tragedy of existence, since it is inseparably associated with eternal values.
The Austrian neurologist and thinker Sigmund Freud tells us that, when the baby comes out of the womb, the ego, the apparatus of the mind that protects us from aggression and the elements, appears in our lives to motivate us to act in the face of hostility. The ego forces us to breathe at birth, incites us to cry in order to obtain milk from our mother’s breasts, and defends us from the struggles of life— no longer having the protection of the umbilical cord.
In addition to creating defense mechanisms to protect us and maintain our balance, the ego incites art: music, poetry, dance—our greatest refuges. Artistic activity, like all intellectual activity, functions as a protective barrier and a sublimated extension of the uterus.
A man’s greatest challenge is precisely that of knowing his soul and his inner world. There is none of this and there is nothing beautiful about the lyrics of rap, trap or reggaeton because, apart from carrying a painfully limited language, and harrowingly basic rhythms, with which they brutalize female sexuality. Nor do they offer the possibility of ennobling the "gentleman," as with the troubadours and poets of Dolce Stil Novo.
You can't be optimistic in the middle of the desert if there's no oasis to quench your thirst. And like Agar, in these circumstances, it is preferable to die. As I speak of "Dura," by Daddy Yankee, the "Cuatro babies," by Maluma ("I am in love with four babies./ They always give me what I want./ They fuck when I tell them./ None of them tell me ‘but’".) or "Me rolié (Mami I don't know)"—so, without separating the subject from the predicate—Bunny Bad (anti-gentleman par excellence), contrasts with these beautiful boleros by Alberto Domínguez and Roberto Cantoral respectively:
Nobody understands what I suffer,
So much that I cannot cry.
I'm alone, I'm shivering from anxiety.
Everyone looks at me and leaves
if you can talk to God
ask him if I one time
if I ever stopped worshiping you
And to the sea
mirror of my heart
all the times that I have seen you cry
the perfidy of your love
I have looked for you wherever I go
and I cannot find you.
Why do I want other kisses
if your lips don't want to kiss me anymore
who knows where you are,
who knows what adventure you'll have
so far from me
They say absence makes the heart forget,
but I don’t understand this reasoning
because I will forever be
captive to the whims of your heart.
You were able to shed light on my thoughts
showing me the truth I always dreamed of
when you drove away my sorrows
on that very first night we made love.
But today my shores are pounded with bitterness
because my ship must sail away
to cross other seas of madness
careful I don’t become the shipwreck in your life.
When the light of the sun begins to dim
and you become tired of drifting
remember that I will forever wait
until you decide to return.
To conclude, I present you with a curious and important detail. When Francisco Rico (1929), philosopher and studious of poetry, was asked about the best verses in the Spanish language, he surprised many by not naming those of Santa Teresa, Sor Violante del Cielo, Lope de Vega, Quevedo, Góngora, Calderón, Sor Juana, Darío or Vallejo, but rather the following:
This afternoon I saw it raining
I saw people running
and you weren't there
These verses belong to an unforgettable song by Armando Manzanero. It goes like this:
Roberto Carlos Pérez (Granada, Nicaragua). Músico, narrador y ensayista. Estudió Música en Duke Ellington School of the Arts y se licenció en Música Clásica por Howard University, en Washington D. C. Además es máster en Literatura Medieval y en los Siglos de Oro por Maryland University. Producto de sus investigaciones son los numerosos ensayos aparecidos en revistas nacionales e internacionales. Es autor del libro de cuentos Alrededor de la medianoche y otros relatos de vértigo en la historia (2012), de la novela corta Un mundo maravilloso (2017), y del libro de ensayos Rubén Darío: una modernidad confrontada (2018). Ha sido incluido en las antologías Flores de la trinchera. Muestra de la nueva narrativa nicaragüense (2012), Un espejo roto (2014), Nicaragua cuenta (2018) y SOS Nicaragua (2019). Su cuento «Francisco el guerrillero» fue traducido al alemán y apareció en la antología Zwischen Süd und Nord: Neue Erzähler aus Mittelamerika (2014). Es también editor del libro en homenaje al poeta mexicano José Emilio Pacheco: José Emilio Pacheco en Maryland (1985-2007), de la edición crítica de la novela El vampiro (1910), de Froylán Turcios y de Breve suma (1947), antología original de Joaquín Pasos. Sus áreas de investigación incluyen los Siglos de Oro y el teatro áureo español, el Modernismo y los efectos de la guerra civil nicaragüense en la literatura contemporánea. Roberto Carlos Pérez es miembro colaborador de la Academia Norteamericana de la Lengua Española y Secretario de la Delegación de Washington, D.C. de dicha entidad. Es también cofundador y editor de la revista Ágrafos.