• piano
  • Soprano, Baritone
  • 31 min

Programme Note

Songs of Cifar and the Sweet Sea is a work in progress with multiple songs being added. Once complete, the piece will be a 70-minute song cycle for soprano, baritone, and piano. The songs, however, can be performed in any order and not all the songs have to performed at once.

Commissioned by Carnegie Hall
Premiered by Robert Gardner, baritone, and Molly Morkoski, piano at Weill Recital Hall on 10 October 2004:
     Me diste oh Dios una hija
     El Naciemiento de Cifar
     El niño
     El rebelde
     Tomasito, el cuque

Commissioned by the Marilyn Horne Foundation
Premiered by Andrew Garland, baritone, and Donna Loewy, piano at Zankel Hall on 26 January 2007
     Two Songs to texts of Pablo Antonio Cuadra
     En la Vela del Angelito

Composer Note
Songs of Cifar and the Sweet Sea draws on poetry by the Nicaraguan poet Pablo Antonio Cuadra (1912-2002). As a young man, Cuadra spent more than two decades sailing the waters of Lake Nicaragua, meeting peasants, fishermen, sailors, woodcutters, and timber merchants in his travels. From such encounters, he was inspired to construct a cycle of poems that recount the odyssey of a harp-playing mariner, Cifar, who likewise travels the waters of Lake Nicaragua. In my initial reading of the poems, I was struck by how Cuadra writes of commonplace objects and people but ties them to the undercurrents of his country's past of indigenous folklore. Despite Cuadra's plain vocabulary, ordinary things are thus rendered mythical, revealing Cifar's capacity for wonder and passionate lyricism.

Knowing that I had a treasure trove of poetry to spark my composer's imagination, I sent out to choose a limited selection of poems to set, but it wasn't long before I knew that I would have to set them all, making for a full evening-length program. In addition, I knew I would have to broaden my vision to include another singer — Cifar, represented by a baritone drawing on traditional Nicaraguan vocal practices, would need a female singer to carry the many women that figure in his life. And finally, while my experience accompanying singers tells me that the piano is an admirable lieder partner, perfectly suited to evoke typical Nicaraguan marimba and guitar sounds, I also know that upon the song cycle's completion, I will create another version scoring the piano part for full orchestra.

I. El nacimiento de Cifar (The Birth of Cifar)
XV. Me diste ,oh Dios! una hija
XVIII. Primer parte: EI rebelde (First part: The Rebel)
XVIII. Segund parte: Tomasito, el cuque (Second part: Tomas, the cook)
XVIII. Tercer parte: El nifio (Third part: The Child)
XXII. Primer parte: Eufemia
XXII: Segund parte: En La Vela del Angelito (At the Wake of the Little Angel)
XXX. Pescador (Fisherman)

I. EI Nacimiento de Cifar (The Birth of Cifar): In this first song, we are introduced to our protagonist at the time of his birth. Already, hints of blood, danger, and a supernatural presence in his life are evident. The explosive vocal release at the ends of short phrases is typical of Miskito Indian music of Nicaragua. The quick repeated notes in the piano harmonizing the vocal line emulate Nicaraguan marimba performance practices.

XV. Me Diste ioh Dios! una Hija (You gave me, oh God!, a daughter): We jump many years into the future with this song that introduces a side to Cifar that may come as a surprise to the audience. For the first half of the song cycle, we are treated to a number of songs that show us his instinct for survival in face of all manner of hardships. He is, consequently, physically and emotionally tough. In this song, however, he admits to his newfound vulnerability in being a father to a young woman. Unmanned by the tenderness he feels, he asks that God spare his daughter of the hardships thrown his own way, and laughs ironically at himself at the end of the song. During the song itself, there are moments when he goes into falsetto, and we do not always know if the constriction in his voice is a sign of true emotion or is done in self-jest. The back-and-forth echo Cifar enacts with himself could reflect either the soloist/back-up chorus style of singing popular in Nicaragua, or be interpreted as Cifar mocking himself further through mimicry. The piano writing is in a sing-song rocking rhythm typical of many seafaring songs and combines the strums/tremolos of guitars and drums with the repeated notes of marimbas.

XVIII. Primer Parte: El Rebelde (Part One; The Rebel): In this mysterious song, a scene is coolly described of preparation being made for rebellion. We do not know if Cifar is a willing participant or not.

XVIII. Segund Parte: Tomasito, el cuque (Part Two: Tomasito, the Cook): A scene is described of a ship's cook being tortured. Chillingly, it is not clear what Cifar's role is.

XVIII. Tercer Parte: El Nino (Part Three: The Child): Cast in the solo style of "velorio" funeral singing from Latin American cultures, the vocal writing emphasizes a rise and fall ofline, and grace note-inflected tenuto pulsations to mimic the sound of sobs. Cifar cries for the child that used to be him, for a lost innocence.

XXII. Primer Parte: Eufemia (First part Eufemia): Jumping to a point in Cifar's life when he has already seen and experienced a lot (falling in love numerous times, engaging in drunken brawls, escaping spirits on supernatural islands, participating in revolutions, parenting children who disarm him of his machismo, etc.), Cifar now fights a storm while aboard a boat and compares the tempest to a former lover, Eufemia. Only, he can't placate the storm with kisses like he does with Eufemia when she's angry. In the deadly calm of the storm, he witnesses one of his comrades (who has appeared in other poems) become crazy with fear and jump overboard to his death, before the storm returns again.

XXII. Segund Parte: En La Vela del Angelito (Second part: At the Wake of the Little Angel): As the coda to the previous song, Cifar describes in concise words the stark wreckage of another ship, "La Esperanza," as he views a child's coffin floating away. In the previous song, he seems to relish the battle with the storm/Eufemia and even treats the death of his comrade with some (false?) bravado. At the realization that children have perished, however, he understands the depths of the damage left in the storm's wake. There is perhaps even a touch of shame that he could have enjoyed the tempest at all. In the distance, the storm still brews, ominous. (Note: Eufemia and En La Vela del Angelito were commissioned by the Marilyn Horne Foundation.)

XXX. Pescador (Fisherman): As one of the last songs to the cycle, the music from the opening returns as Cifar's life likewise comes full circle upon his death. He returns to the magical island where he had been born, among sharks and blood, permanently shipwrecked at last.

— Gabriela Lena Frank



More Info

  • World Premiere Recordings of Songs by Gabriela Lena Frank
    • World Premiere Recordings of Songs by Gabriela Lena Frank
    • 2nd August 2022
    • Art Song Colorado and the Denver Art Song Project have an upcoming album, El Rebelde, featuring music by Gabriela Lena Frank and Shostakovich. Performed by tenor Javier Abreu, baritone Andrew Garland, and pianist Jeremy Reger.