« Three Poems after César Vallejo »
(Dawn, Our Planet, The Elements)

for dramatic Soprano or Mezzo-Soprano and piano
(possibly baritone and piano)

Total duration : 13 minutes
Composed in 2022
Commissioned by the Presence Compositrices Center
Creation on November 21, 2022 in Toulon, by Julie Nemer, Mezzo-Soprano, and Marie-France Giret, piano.

Choice of three poems in Spanish from Trilce, by César Vallejo :

Written in Peru just a century ago, in prison for political reasons, these texts by César Vallejo deal with existential subjects with surprisingly current questions. They have the advantage of belonging to the public domain.

I was very motivated in my approach as a composer by these three poems of Trilce, n° 43, 59 and 77, in particular because of their underlying dramaturgy, and their ability to support a musical construction.

They present themselves in a manipulated language that twists the grammar, creates illogical punctuations and uses non-existent words (neologisms). Their precise meaning in these circumstances becomes ambiguous, vague. Rather enigmatic, they offer a vast field of possible interpretations, which makes any translation delicate and open to criticism. Although it is a challenge, I nevertheless took the liberty of proposing my own adaptation in French.

In my opinion, to prosody a text well, the composer must know perfectly all the subtleties of the written and spoken language that is used. This is why I do not wish to put to music a text that is not in French. But the French language, because of its silent e’s and its liaisons, poses real problems. Many songwriters build their lyrics with these pitfalls in mind. By taking care of the translation myself, I was able to be vigilant and choose the most favorable words for as correct an understanding as possible.

For example, Poem 1, AUBE, begins with “Quien sabe” with a slightly special treatment of the interrogative form wanted by the author. In French, “Qui sait?” (“who knows?”) runs the risk of being perceived as “Qui c’est?” (“who is it?”). Hence my choice of “Qui peut savoir?” (“Who can know?”).

In Poem 2, OUR PLANET: the second stanza says: “Pacifico inmovil, vidrio, preñado de todos los posibles”. Instead of the most literal translation, which would be: "Immobile Pacific, glass, big with all possibilities", I preferred: “Océan Pacifique immobile, surface de verre, capable de tous les possibles” ("Immobile Pacific Ocean, surface of glass, capable of all possibilities"), because of the word "verre” which creates ambiguity with the color green, “vert”.

Poem 3, THE ELEMENTS, ends with “Canta, lluvia, en la costa aun sin mar!”, that’s to say “Chante, pluie, sur la côte encore sans mer” (“Sing, rain, on the coast still without sea! "). But this literal translation will give rise to a wrong understanding, “without mother” (sans mère) instead of “without sea” (sans mer). Hence my choice: “Sing, rain, on the coast still without ocean!". This mysterious sentence closes the collection of poems “Trilce”, undoubtedly evoking the fear of drought, perhaps the worst of scourges.

My comments on each of the poems :

Dawn :

This text is not rational. Vallejo blurs the tracks and prevents access to any obvious understanding. The poet addresses dawn, with a lowercase “a” (aube in French), and personifies it. But what is dawn if not the brief moment when the first light of day appears on the horizon, in an atmosphere of strangeness, initiating a new day? Can such a notion be personified? Undoubtedly yes, since it was in the ancient Greek tradition (the goddess Eos) which Vallejo was not unaware of. The poet asks her to have compassion and to be clement towards this being, whether human or animal (himself?), who has no other choice but to live the just starting new day. There is a lesson in philanthropy at the heart of this poem. But, also very strong, a feeling of claustrophobia, anxiety and unease: the creature is ready to flee at the slightest sign, and counts its possibilities of escaping.

I notice circular movements in the poetic conception: it is not only the animal that "turns and turns on itself". There are also the words or expressions that come and go while punctuating the poem with their insistence.

Our planet :

We find themes already present in the previous text: life and death, love, or even the suffering to which we are condemned, if only by the inescapable and incessant rotation of the terrestrial sphere and by the resulting erosion. The imprisonment in "the little familiar enclosure" is also mentioned, before the Earth, due to the centrifugal force caused by its gyratory movement, pushes us out of its orbit, causing our end.

Here even more, the words participate by their repetition in the dizziness that characterizes this poem whose theme focuses on the inexorable flight of time.

The elements :

This rather mysterious text, which is not easy to decipher, deals with the four elements. Water is at the center of the poem, but it is talked about air ["the abundance of pearls (hailstones) collected at the very mouth of each storm"], about fire (the water "would spring from all the fires”), or about earth, necessary to bury the dead.

The scene takes place in an atmosphere of violence. It is not excluded indeed to succumb to this hailstorm, which causes great chaos.

But ending on a positive note, Vallejo insists on the fact that the human song, as well as that of the rain, create harmony.

Musically :

These three musical pieces are intended to be a direct and faithful emanation from Vallejo's poems which motivated their composition. Everything has been done to make the words as perceptible as possible within a temporal progress capable of revealing the emotional charge inherent in these three poems.

Each piece is characterized by a sound decor of its own:

Piece n° 1 : a piano fragment evokes the step of the human or animal being who, suspicious, fearful, “comes to you” in this still dark early morning, charged with mystery.

Piece no. 2 : to represent the terrestrial sphere which "turns and turns without stopping for a second", two sound signals, one low, the other high, are heard throughout the piece at regular intervals, out of phase, each according to its own periodicity. The vocal part is often syllabic, especially during well-pulsed passages which are articulated in irregular alternation in a binary or ternary way depending on the prosody; but we also find, in contrast, a more supple melody of an ornamental type: indeed with the second stanza with its suddenly meditative tone, a melismatic chant arises from a short formula borrowed from Gregorian music.

Piece 3: In "The Elements", the basic material, all in prickly notes, evokes rain, even hail. The vocal part is sometimes recitativo, sometimes declaimed like a cantillation.

Edith Lejet