Federico García Lorca
(Las nanas infantiles)
A. S. Kline © 2008 All Rights Reserved
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(A lecture, given in Madrid in 1928)
Ladies and Gentlemen,
In this lecture I will not, as in former ones, try to define things, but merely emphasize; I wish only to suggest, not delineate. To animate, in the exact sense. To disturb somnolent birds. Wherever there is a dark corner, to direct towards it light reflected from a distant cloud, and present the ladies here with pocket mirrors.
I want to go down to the reed-filled shore. Beneath the yellow tiles. To the outskirts of villages, where tigers eat little children. At this moment I am a long way from being the poet who gazes at his watch, the poet who struggles with statues, dreams and anatomy; I am fleeing from all my friends and running off with the boy who scoffs green fruit and studies how ants devour a bird crushed by the automobile.
You will meet me on the purest village streets; in the wandering breeze and outspread light of the melodies that Rodrigo Caro called ‘the sacred mothers of all song.’ You will find me wherever a boy’s ear opens, rosy and tender, or a girl’s ear, white and fearfully awaiting the pin that pierces a hole for an earring.
On all my walks through
All travelers are disorientated. To understand the Alhambra of Granada, for example, before touring its rooms and courtyards, it is extremely useful, extremely pedagogical, to eat the delicious alfajor of Zafra, or the nuns’ tortas alajú, which yield, through their taste and fragrance, the authentic climate of the palace when it was truly alive, as well as the ancient light, the cardinal points of temperament, of its court.
In melody, as in sweet things, history’s emotion finds refuge, its permanent light free of dates and facts. Love and the breeze of our country awake in songs or in the rich paste of nougat, bringing the living breath of dead epochs, in a way which they do not in stones, bells, local characters or even language.
Melody, more vividly than words, defines a region’s geographic traits and the arc of its history, sharply defining the moments of a profile time has erased. A ballad, after all, is not perfect until it has acquired its own melody, to give it blood and a heartbeat and a sober or erotic atmosphere for its characters to inhabit.
The latent melody, with its structure of nerve-centres and blood vessels, infuses living historic warmth into texts which can sometimes seem vacuous, sometimes valueless except as mere evocations.
Before continuing I should say that I am not attempting to resolve these matters. I am on that poetic plane where the yes and no of things are equally true. If you were to ask me: ‘Is a moonlit night of a hundred years ago identical to one of ten years ago?’ I could demonstrate (as could any poet, competent in his craft) that they are identical and yet, in the same manner and with the same ring of indisputable truth, distinct. I am trying to avoid that erudite data, of no great beauty, which wearies an audience, and instead try to stress emotional data, since you are surely more interested in knowing whether a melody can give birth to a gently filtered sleep-inducing breeze, or whether a song can reveal a simple landscape to a child’s new-formed eyes, than in knowing whether it is of the seventeenth century or written in 3/4 time, something the poet must know, but not repeat, and which is in fact within reach of anyone who dedicates himself to these matters.
Some years ago, strolling through the
There is a tranquil monotonous type of
European cradle song to which the child can contentedly surrender, exercising
all his aptitude for slumber.
The European cradle song’s only object is to lull the child to sleep, unlike the Spanish which at the same time pierces its sensibility.
The rhythm and monotony of the lullabies
I term European can make them appear melancholy, but they are not intrinsically
so; they are melancholy in an unintentional way, as a jet of water or a tremor
of leaves may be at a given moment. We should not confuse monotony with this
melancholy. The heart of
The Russian cradle songs I know,
though they have the sad slanting Slavic sound, all cheekbones and distance, of
that country’s music, lack the cloudless clarity of the Spanish, the profound
obliquity, that moving simplicity that characterizes us. The Russian child bears
the sadness of lullaby as one bears a foggy day beyond the windows; but in
Don’t think I am here to speak about
In the Spanish countryside we come upon surprising rhythms and melodic constructions full of a mystery and antiquity which transcends this domain; but we will never encounter a single elegant rhythm, that is to say one conscious of itself, developing with affectionate serenity though sprung from the tip of the flame.
Yet within its sober sadness and
We should not forget that (as its words show) the cradle song was invented by poor women burdened with children, a cross often too heavy for them to bear. Each child, instead of being a joy is a sorrow, and, naturally, they cannot help singing, despite their love, of their weariness with life.
There are good examples of this
attitude, this resentment of a child who, even though his mother wanted him, has
arrived at the worst moment possible. In
This little boy clinging so
is from a lover, Vitorio,
May God, who gave, end my woe
take this Vitorio clinging so.
And the melody to which it is sung is in keeping with the wretched misery of these words.
Not only do poor women feed this melancholy bread to their own children, they also carry it to the houses of the rich. The child of the wealthy listens to the poor woman’s lullaby, while she gives him in her pure sylvan milk the marrow of the land.
These wet-nurses, with the maids and other domestic servants, have, for a long time now, carried out the important task of bringing ballad, song and story into the homes of the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy. The children of the wealthy know of characters such as Gerineldo, Don Bernardo, Tamar, and the Lovers of Teruel, thanks to the admirable wet nurses and domestics who descend from the mountains or far up-river to give us our first lessons in Spanish history and brand our flesh with the bitter Iberian motto: ‘Alone you are, alone you shall be.’
Various crucial elements are involved in lulling the child to sleep, including, of course, the consent of the fairies. The fairies bring the windflowers and the right climate. The mother and the song supply the rest.
Those who feel the child to be the chief spectacle of Nature, those who believe no flower, number or silence to be comparable have often observed how on falling asleep and without anyone or anything demanding its attention, the infant turns its head from the wet-nurse’s starchy breast (that little quivering volcano of milk and blue veins) and turns its gaze on the room hushed for sleep.
‘She’s here!’ I always say, and indeed, she is.
In 1917, I chanced to see a fairy in the room of a little boy, a cousin of mine. She fled in a hundredth of a second, yet I saw her. That is I saw her…as we see pure things, out of the corner of one’s eye, as the great poet Juan Ramón Jiménez saw the sirens, on his voyage from America: as they were on the point of submerging. This fairy was clinging to a curtain, glittering as if she was dressed in passementerie, but I cannot remember her size or expression. Nothing would be easier for me to invent her to my own taste, but that would be poetic deceit of a high order, not poetic creation, and I do not wish to deceive anyone. I speak neither ironically nor in jest, but with the deep-rooted faith of the poet, the child and the pure idiot. In mentioning fairies I have discharged my duty as a propagandist of that poetic feeling which today is almost lost thanks to the literati and the intellectuals who have attacked it with those powerful human weapons of irony and analysis.
As soon as the fairies have created the correct atmosphere, two rhythms are needed, the physical rhythm of the chair or cradle, and the intellectual rhythm of melody. The mother combines these two rhythms, for the body and for the ear, utilizing differing measures and rests, combining them till she finds the exact tone to enchant the child.
It matters not whether the song has words. Sleep arrives through rhythm alone and the vibration of the voice with that rhythm. The perfect lullaby would be a repetition of two different notes, extended in duration and effect. But no mother wants to be a snake-charmer, though at root she employs the same technique.
She needs the words to keep the child hanging on her lips, and she does not merely enjoy singing agreeable things as sleep approaches, but also plunges the child fully into raw reality, imbuing it with the drama of the world.
So then, the letter of the song runs counter to sleep and its gentle flow. The text evokes emotion in the child, states of uncertainty and fear, with which the blurred hand of melody, that soothes and grooms the little prancing horses in the infant’s eyes, must contend.
Let us not forget that the fundamental object of the lullaby is to put the child that is not sleepy, to sleep. They are songs for the hours and moments when the child feels like playing. In Tamames they sing:
Sleep, sleep, my child,
I have things to do,
wash your clothes
sit me down to sew.
And at times the mother engages in a real battle, that ends in struggles; crying, and eventually sleep. Note that lullabies are seldom sung to a newborn child. A newborn child may be entertained with a fragment of melody hummed under the breath, the physical rocking rhythm of the cradle being more important. The lullaby requires a listener who can follow its events intelligently and delight in the anecdote, character or evocation of landscape the song expresses. The child that is sung to can already talk, is beginning to walk, knows the meaning of words, and often sings alone.
There is a sensitive relationship between mother and child in the silent moment of song. The child remains alert, to protest at the words or liven up too monotonous a rhythm. The mother adopts the attitude of one leaning over water, feeling herself spied upon by a severe critic of voice.
We know that all over
The magical power of the coco lies precisely in its
shapelessness. It wanders the room but never appears clearly. And its charm is
that it is just as shapeless to everyone. We are dealing with a poetic
abstraction, and for that reason the fear it produces is a cosmic fear, a fear
to which the senses cannot set firm limits, walls of objectivity defending us
amongst danger from other dangers, greater because they are inexplicable. But I
have no doubt that the child tries to picture that abstraction, and frequently attaches
the name coco to the extravagant
forms sometimes found in Nature. The child is free to imagine its shape from
head to toe. The fear with which it strikes him depends on his powers of
fantasy, and he can even find it seductive. I know a little Catalan girl who
could not be dragged away from a recent exhibition of Cubist paintings by my great
friend from the Residencia de Estudiantes
In her song the mother often constructs an abstract landscape, almost always a nocturnal one, and places in it, as if in some profoundly simple and ancient play, one or two characters who execute the most straightforward actions almost always with a sorrowful effect of the greatest beauty. Across this little stage pass actors whom the child must necessarily imagine and who loom large in the hot fogs of sleeplessness.
To this class belong the sweetest and
most tranquil lyrics which the child can traverse with relative confidence.
Lulla, lulla, lullaby
a song of the rider
who led his horse to water
but would not let him drink.
In Tamames (
Those cows of Juana’s,
they don’t want to eat;
take them to the water
drink is what they need.
Down along that street’s
a hawk who is lost
they say he’d steal
the white dove from her nest.
And in Pedrosa
del Principe (
My horse, I gave him
leaves of green lemon,
still he would not eat.
These four texts, though of different character and distinct sentiments, have the same ambience. That is to say: the mother evokes a landscape in the simplest manner and has a character traverse it that she rarely names. I know of only two named characters in the world of lullabies: Pedro Neleira of Villa del Grado, who carries his bagpipes on a pole, and the delightful schoolmaster Galindo of Castile, who could not teach class because he would kick the boys without removing his spurs.
The mother transports the child beyond
himself, into the remote distance, and returns him weary to her lap, to rest.
It is a little initiation into poetic adventure. These are the child’s first steps
into the world of intellectual representation. In this lullaby (the most
popular of those from the
Lulla, lulla, lullaby
a song of the rider
who led his horse to water
but would not let him drink
the child enjoys the lyrical play of pure beauty before yielding to sleep. That man and his horse go down the road of dark branches to the river, in order to return again and again to the point where the song begins, in a manner silent and ever renewed. The child will never see them face to face. He will only ever imagine in the shadows the man’s dark suit, the horse’s shiny rump. None of the characters in these songs ever show their face. It is essential that they move on, opening the way to places where the water is deeper and the bird has forever renounced its wings. But in this case, the melody grants an intensely dramatic quality to the man and his mount; and to the strangeness of his denying the horse water, a rare and mysterious anguish.
In this style of song the child recognizes the protagonist and sketches his profile according to his own visual experience, which is always greater than we suppose. He is obliged to be both a creator and a spectator, and what a marvellous creator! A creator possessing poetic feeling of the highest order. We need do no more than study the child’s first games, before his intellect troubles him, to see that they are animated by planetary beauty, and perfect simplicity, and that they reveal the mysterious relationships between objects and things that Minerva will never have power to decipher. With a button, a spool of thread, a feather and the five fingers of one hand the child constructs a complex world full of unknown resonances that sing and collide in a turbulent manner, with a happiness that needs no analysis. The child comprehends much more than we think. He is in an inaccessible poetic world, that neither rhetoric, nor imagination the procuress, nor fantasy can penetrate; a flat plain, its nerve centres exposed, of horror and keen beauty, where a snow-white horse, half nickel, half smoke, falls, suddenly injured, with a swarm of bees furiously nailed to its eyes.
Unlike us, the child possesses his creative faith intact and is still free as yet of the destructive seed of reason. He is innocent and, so wise. He understands, more deeply than us, the ineffable key to poetic substance. At other times the mother also adventures with her child in song. In the Guadix region they sing:
Lullaby, my child,
lullay, we shall build
a hut in the countryside,
rest there inside.
The two of them set off. Danger is near. We must shrink, be small, so the walls of the little hut brush against our bodies. Outside they lie in ambush. We must creep into a very tiny space. If we can, we must creep into an orange. You and I! Or even better, a grape!
And sleep comes, achieved by the opposite process to ‘distancing’. To lull the child to sleep, by putting a road in front of him, is a little like marking out the line of white chalk that hypnotizes a rooster. The alternative of gathering the child up within himself is sweeter. He clutches his happiness like someone clinging to a branch during a violent flood.
There are examples in
I’m sleepy, I’m sleepy,
how I’d love to slumber.
One eye is droopy,
half-closed the other.
She usurps the child’s place in so forceful a manner, that, lacking any defence, he is simply obliged to go to sleep.
But the largest, and most widespread, group of cradle songs is composed of those where the child is obliged to be the sole actor in his own lullaby. He is thrust into the song, suitably disguised, and presented with tasks and events which are usually disagreeable.
These are the most widely sung examples with the richest Spanish content, just as the melodies are the most original and most markedly indigenous.
The child is scolded and scorned, with the greatest tenderness: ‘Off you go; you’re no child of mine; your mother’s a Gipsy’ or ‘Your mother’s not here; you have no cradle; you’re poor as Our Lord.’ And so on, always in that tone.
There is no longer any attempt to threaten, frighten or construct a scene, only to thrust the child into the song, alone and unarmed, a little knight defenseless against his mother’s reality.
The child’s reaction to this sort of lullaby is almost always to protest, strongly or weakly according to his sensibility.
I have witnessed innumerable instances in my own extended family where the child emphatically opposed the singing. He cried, he kicked, until the wet nurse changed the record, much to her disgust and broke into another song, in which the child’s sleep is compared to the bovine blush of the rose.
In Trubia, this añada is sung to infants, a lesson in disenchantment:
My mother raised me
contented and happy,
she used to say
whenever she rocked me:
‘Lullay, lullay, lullay!
You’ll be a marquis
a count or a knight-ling’
but to my disgrace
I studied weaving.
I wove my baskets
and in the summer
gathered the money.
That’s the weaver’s life
nothing but misery.
Lullay, lullay, lullay! etc, etc.
Now listen to this lullaby sung in Cáceres, of rare melodic purity, which seems made to be sung to children with no mother, its lyrics so severe, so over-ripe it seems more like a song for dying to than a song of infant sleep:
Sleep now, my child, go to sleep,
your mother’s no longer here,
the Virgin came, she has gone
far away to live with her.
There are variants of this kind from the north and west of
Now, now, now, my child;
who will give you suck?
Your daddy’s on the mountain
your mammy’s gathering wood.
The women of
Sleep, baby, sleep so,
your daddy’s digging coal,
your mammy churns away,
she can’t suckle you today.
The two lullabies are greatly alike. The venerable antiquity of the pair is obvious. Both are written to utilize a tetrachord, within which their melodic scheme is expounded. For their simplicity and purity of design they are lullabies without peer in any songbook.
The cradle song that the Gypsies of Seville sing to their children
is particularly sad. But I do not think it originated in that city. It is the
one type I have mentioned, influenced by the songs of the northern mountains,
which lacks the incorruptible melodic autonomy of a region, when it is fully
formed. We constantly find this northern influence in Gipsy song which comes by
Through the meadow
the shepherd-girl’s dead,
the flower of the valley,
the flower of the valley,
There is a sad song of the kind where the child is left alone, though a song of great tenderness, that runs:
This little turtle-dove
hasn’t got a mother,
a Gipsy woman bore him
and left him in the gutter.
There is no doubt of its northern, or rather Granadan tone, a style
I know because I have collected examples, where, as in the landscape the snow
is reconciled to the fountain, the fern to the orange-tree. But one must be
careful about stating such things categorically. Years ago, Manuel de Falla was wont to say that a certain playground song sung
in the lower villages of the
In all studies of Spanish folk music, with a few glorious exceptions, there is endless confusion regarding transcription. Much of what is in circulation should not be considered as valid. There is nothing more delicate than rhythm, the basis of all melody, and nothing more difficult to capture than the popular voice that divides each tone into thirds or fourths, and cannot be marked on the staves of classical music. The time has come to replace our current imperfect songbooks with collections of recordings, indispensable to the scholar and musician.
Of the same ambience as the lullaby of the little turtledove, though leaner and with a more sober and pathos-filled melody, are those collected by the great Felipe Pedrell, one type from Morón de la Frontera, another from Usana.
In Béjar they sing the most ardent of lullabies, and the most representative of Castille. A song which would ring like a gold coin if it fell on stony ground:
Sleep, little boy of mine,
sleep, I’ll watch over you;
May God give you good luck
in this world so untrue.
Darkest among dark women,
Virgin of Castañar;
on the day of our passing
she’ll aid us, at that hour.
All the work is done
by the wretched women,
waiting in the dark
for their men to come.
Some arrive noisy,
some arrive drunken:
others call out: ‘Boys,
let’s kill all the women’.
They cry to be fed,
their wives have naught to give them.
‘Where’s the money gone?
What a house you keep, woman!’
Its mysterious and ironic double entendre always startles the ears. The mother frightens the child with the idea of a man, standing at the door, who must not enter. The father is at home and would prevent it. The Asturian variant runs:
The one at the door
cannot come in,
the baby who cries
his daddy’s within.
Lullay, my child, no, no, my dear,
lullay, my child, his daddy’s here.
The one at the door
tomorrow must come,
the little one’s dad
to the mountain gone.
Lullay, my child, not now, my dear,
lullay, my child, his daddy’s here.
The adultress’ song that they sing in Alba de Tormes is more lyrical than the Asturian and its sentiments more guarded…
Little white dove
come too early,
the child that cries
here’s his daddy.
Little black dove
with snow-white wings,
his daddy’s here
the child that sings.
The variant from
How handsome you are,
can you not see,
his daddy’s at home,
and baby can’t sleep.
lullay, my soul,
The woman who sings such songs is beautiful. The Goddess Flora, with sleepless breast, formed for the serpent’s head. Greedy for fruit, and free of melancholy. These are the only lullabies where the child is of no importance in any way. He is no more than a pretext. I do not mean that all women who sing them are adulterous; yet, without giving of themselves at all, they enter into the ambit of adultery. After all, that mysterious man at the door, who cannot enter, is the man whose face is hidden under a large hat, of whom every true, unfettered woman dreams.
I have tried to present various
classes of song which, with the exception of those from
There is a group of Asturian and Galician songs, moist and tinged with green, that flow down to Castile, where they gain rhythmic structure and travel on as far as Andalucia, where they acquire the Andalusian manner and become the unusual songs of the Granadan Mountains.
The Gipsy siguiriya of cante jondo,
the purest expression of Andalusian lyricism, never escapes
Galician alalás pound day and night at the
By sea, Andalucia
influenced these very lullabies of which I speak, but her influence never
traveled north, as it did with other classes of song. The Andalusian style of
lullaby colours the lower
One could draw a map of Spanish
melody, and mark on it the meeting of regions, an exchange of blood and juice
alternating with the systoles and diastoles of the seasons. One would clearly
see the unbreakable carapace of air that unites all the regions of the