Commissioned by the French Ministry of Culture

  • fl.ob/hn/hp.syn/
  • mezzo soprano
  • 20 min

Programme Note

A few words about the author of the poem
Cuacuauhtzin, lord of Tepechpan, was enthroned in 1431. He intended to get married and was granted to welcome the princess he had chosen as a wife in his palace in 1440. She was so young that he decided to wait before consummating marriage. He had placed all his hopes in that marriage. But the young princess, instead of bringing him happiness, was to be the source of his misfortune and his death.
Nezahualcoyotl, King of Tezcoco, was his sovereign. One day, as he was walking alone by the lake near Tepechpan, tormented by sadness and melancholy, Cuacuauhtzin saw him and invited him to dinner at his palace.
To do honor to his guest, he asked Azcalxochitzin, his young fianc‚e, to serve the meals. On seeing the princess, Nezahualcoyotl was captivated by her grace and charm, and his depression disappeared.
Shortly thereafter, Cuacuauhtzin was commanded to go and fight in a war against the kingdom of Tlaxcala. Two captains had the order to expose him to the most dangerous place so that he would be killed during the battle. Cuacuauhtzin realized what awaited him but, faithful to his sovereign and friend, he carried out his orders although it meant going towards his own death.
In addition to being lord of Tepechpan, Cuacuauhtzin was a poet and could therefore bear witness of his distress. Thus we know of this episode, besides various chroniclers' commentaries, through the transcription of the sad songs he composed and sang at the banquet he gave for his relatives and friends.

A few words about the adaptation of the poem
Firstly, I thought it indispensable to make a formal editing of the meaning and then to subordinate the articulation of the lied to the editing. The overall form consists of 3 main sections and a coda: 1) philosophical considerations about life, vanity and death (corresponding to the first two stanzas); 2) the message directly addressed to Nezahualcoyotl, referred to by his nickname Yoyontzin (stanzas three and four); 3) the message addressed to the relatives and friends at the farewell banquet in which Cuacuauhtzin prompts them to rejoice, while showing deep sadness in the face of his fate (stanzas five and six); and a short coda (stanza seven) in which the central part of the previous stanza is repeated.
By subordinating the formal articulation of the musical texture to the different levels of meaning of the poem, I created a traditional kind of drama. But that dramatic effect underlies the piece since it directs the presence and duration of the different sections, although their sequence does not follow a dramatic process noticed as such. In other words, the association of a musical approach with a level of meaning is determined by a compositional necessity before being a dramatic strategy.

Here the drama is musical and not operatic.
It is also the case for the construction of the vocal melody with respect to the original text in Nahuatl (initially spoken by the Aztecs, it became the common tongue throughout the Mexican Empire by the middle of the 15th century) which is an agglutinative language (i.e. the verbal root agglutinates directional, nominal, verbal and adjectival prefixes and suffixes around it). Whereas the Romance languages need a whole sentence to express a concept, Nahuatl uses a single word composed of several particles from different words. For example, the word calli (house) pertains to the concepts calco (in the house), calnauac (by the house), and so forth.
It seemed to me that this linguistic trait had a high potentiality of musical organization, but it had to be musically rendered in a way that could be understood. I therefore decided to give the different recurrent words a musical feature easily identifiable and relevant in the multiple harmonic contexts of the piece.
At first, I identified those words (sometimes reduced to mere phonemes within a concept-word) and established a sort of table of correspondences so that the structure of the repetitions could be grasped at first glance. Then, in order to find their musical correspondents, I made a selection so as to have unchanged figures throughout the piece on the one hand, and changeable figures according to circumstantial musical requirements on the other. For instance, the word tlalticpac (here on earth) is always translated by a very slow figure that repeats the note B flat, whereas the word noyollo (my heart) is characterized by two large harmonic intervals in the vocal line (ascending-descending). But if the rhythmic articulation is somewhat similar for each recurrence, then the pitch changes in accordance with the harmonic context. In both cases, the resulting musical image is sufficiently distinctive to be memorized and recognized.

About a possible pre-Columbian sonority
The choice of a text such as Cuacuauhtzin's - and consequently the desire to establish a more or less direct connection with pre-Columbian Mexican civilizations - does not necessarily imply trying to recreate a pre-Columbian sonority. There are indeed some groups who are researching on extant traditions and original instruments. But the music they are doing is theirs, it is their idea of the pre-Columbian sonority. In fact nothing precise is available, for example, regarding poetic declamation with music, and most traditional civilizations have integrated European instruments into their own music. But except for the obvious difficulty of knowing such a sonority and the fact that in Icnocuicatl the singer plays two pre-Columbian instruments (the omichicahuatzli, "rain stick", and the teponaztli, a kind of wooden drum), I think that it is very important - in order to modestly approach such a remote world - to find the essence of a universal thought which addresses us beyond local traits. The pre-Columbian civilizations did not separate thought, poetry or science from life; in this sense they lived closer to the truth than did the European civilization of the Renaissance, which they had to face at the time of their quasi-total destruction. But my view of those civilizations is but that of a European of the late 20th century.
Moreover, the language through which I express myself - Western European modern music - involves a degree of abstraction that was held only by a politico-religious elite before the conquest (e.g. the extraordinary astronomical knowledge and its implications in daily life and architecture). Because of the systematic destruction of indigenous knowledge and the complete insularity of the colonial world, this abstraction is no longer characteristic of modern Indians.
I seek to get as close as possible to pre-Columbian civilizations by studying the works of various anthropological schools and the ancient texts that survived. And each time I go to Mexico, my (albeit sometimes difficult) contact with the Indian reality deeply stimulates my work. I attempt to bear witness to the universal aspect of pre-Columbian Mexico, which is still alive, as well as human issues such as life in the face of death through experiences like Icnocuicatl.
And what about music?
Music can convey meaning provided it is not bound by its own questions of language. And I believe that music lies in the space between sounds or inside sound rather than in the translation of a system of codes. Through its instant way of affecting perception, music has an advantage over the other arts and even philosophy. Now it should be able to come close to the essential.

© Gualtiero Dazzi
Paris, 31 March 1994