Sor Juana Remixes: A Musical Interlude

Dear Common Readers,

Madre, la de los primores is the only known remaining musical composition by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. You can listen to parts of it here. Since then a lot of artists have set Sor Juana’s poetry to music.

Now you have to hear this amazing version of Sor Juana’s Redondilla 92 (Hombres Necios) set to reggaeton music by Nelly and DJ Andrés Rosado!

If you prefer something more traditional, the early music classical ensemble Favola in Musica set Sor Juana’s poems to music by Spanish American Baroque composers of her own historical era. Escuchad Dos Sacrisantes pairs Sor Juana’s poetry with music by composer Manuel de Mesa y Roque Ceruti.

Mexican classical tenor Arturo Escorza Pedraza performs a traditional version of Ah de las mazmorras which features lyrics by Sor Juana set to music by an anonymous Spanish American Baroque composer.

For something more experimental, try these versions of Sor Juana’s poems Détente, sombra de mi bien esquivo and Afuera, afuera ansias miasby the Canadian ensemble Constantinople. They set Sor Juana’s poetry to music that fuses the bass lines of works by Spanish American Baroque composers with their own original melodies and instrumentation. The results are beautiful.

Happy listening!

Your sister reader,
Ms. Arachne

Barber’s Mythologies: A Musical Interlude

Dear Common Readers,

Imagine sitting on a secluded beach. A fresh sea breeze wafts in. Pour a glass of wine and gaze at the moon and stars in a clear night sky as music drifts out and settles around you.

Listening to Mythologies by composer, pianist, and vocalist Patricia Barber seems like the perfect way to cap off my unit on Ancient Greek and Roman women poets. Like them, Ms. Barber explores mythology and uses it as a metaphor for themes such as yearning, unrequited love, vanity, obsession, hunger, and more. Ms. Barber’s compositions range from torch songs and traditional jazz ballads to fusion jazz with rock electric guitar to progressive jazz songs. “Phaeton” includes a hip hop section and “The Hours” adds a choir to the mix on this thoroughly enjoyable album. I own the CD but for those of you who wish to sample it, Universal Music Group has thoughtfully posted the album on YouTube (see links for individual tracks).

“The Moon” starts off quietly, even a bit discordantly, before shifting into a busy tune full of horns. To me, this mimics the phases of the moon. Some lines compare the moon to a stage actress “… and Illumination / is in fact / Performance.” My favorite lines are:

But tonight
there won’t be light
‘cause I can’t shine
without you

“Pygmalion” is a torch song about infatuation and unrequited love. Ms. Barber cleverly reverses the happy ending of the Pygmalion myth by exposing the way we sometimes prefer the fantasies we project onto the beloved over the actual person.

…if the mask
Should crumble and fall
Warm blooded after all
The longer you stall
So shall I last

In another interesting twist, Ms. Barber uses the Oedipus myth as a metaphor for imperialism, re-imagining Oedipus in these lines as “a gangster in a Hummer / & this culture will yield to me” in “Whiteworld.”

Meanwhile “Hunger” touches on both the punishment of Tantalus and on the myth of Eros and Psyche to explore different permutations of hunger: gluttony, greed, lust, obsession, and addiction. “And there’s never ever enough to eat.”

One of my favorite songs on this album is “Icarus (for Nina Simone).” Nina Simone was a brilliant composer, pianist, and vocalist who paid a heavy price both personally and professionally for her commitment to civil rights activism. (Check out the documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? It’s currently available on Netflix.)  Ms. Barber compares Ms. Simone to Icarus but, in a twist on the myth, she condemns those like Daedalus

… who didn’t blow the whistle
took calculated risks
who didn’t push the river
who didn’t go to great lengths
or to great heights

and reserves her praise for Ms. Simone who, like Icarus, made “a boldfaced attempt to fly.”

Get this album in whatever format you prefer and enjoy!


Your sister reader,
Ms. Arachne

Edited on July 28, 2017 to remove links to videos that are no longer available on YouTube.

Sappho’s Lyrics, Modern Melodies: A Musical Interlude

While there is no record of Sappho’s melodies, many others have since set her lyrics to music. A simple internet search will turn up many selections. Some have set Sappho’s lyrics to attempted recreations of Ancient Greek music. Others have used more contemporary musical styles. Mark Jickling and Chris Mason have even set their own translations of Sappho’s fragments to tunes inspired by Appalachian folk music.

I found two selections that I particularly enjoyed.

First is a video of Fragment #31 set to music by Eve Beglarian and performed by Andrea Goodman. Ms. Goodman plays the melody on a 7-string lyre and sings the lyrics in Ancient Greek. (There are English subtitles on the screen of the video.) It is simple yet moving. You can see the video here.

Second is Sappho: Nine Fragments for Contralto, which was composed in 1906. The music was written by Sir Granville Bantock with lyrics by Helen Bantock. Brown University posted this video on YouTube of a performance there of this piece on October 30, 2015. The performance features pianist Irina Nuzova and mezzo-soprano Kirsten Kane with narration by Jeffrey M. Duban.

Mr. Duban’s narration gives an excellent background to Sappho’s poetry and Bantock’s composition. He also recites several fragments both in English and in Ancient Greek.

Sir Granville Bantock’s music is dramatic, sweeping, moody, and intense as befits his subject.

Helen Bantock often combines several of Sappho’s fragments into each of the nine musical “fragments.” Ms. Bantock grouped Sappho’s fragments by theme in several instances. In one instance, though, Ms. Bantock combined several unrelated fragments to create a story of a failed love affair between “Sappho” and “Atthis.” Nevertheless, the story is very much in Sappho’s spirit. Overall the groupings are wisely chosen and very effective.

The piece is beautifully played and sung by Ms. Nuzova and Ms. Kane respectively. I would really like to hear a live performance of this someday.