AL MENOS CANTOS
SONGS OF JACK DELANO
Laura Virella, mezzo-soprano
Alla Milchtein, piano
Release date: 6/17/2022
Executive Producer: Gillian Riesen
Producer/Mixer: Jonathan Estabrooks
Artwork: Emitha LLC
Recorded: Big Orange Sheep
TEXT: Emilio R. Delgado
1. Una mujer yo quería
2. Tú no sabes
3. Tocaron a la puerta
4. Cuando el río suena
5. ¿Qué haces ahí sentada?
6. Qué lejos de mí
TEXT: José de Diego
Tres cancioncitas del mar
TEXT: Nimia Vicéns, Ester Feliciano Mendoza, Carmelina Vizcarrondo
10. Los catañecitos
11. ¡A navegar!
12. Cantarcillo marinero
Cuatro sones de la tierra
13. Unicornio en la isla
16. Sentimiento de olor
TEXT: Tomás Blanco
9. ¿Cómo he de irme?
TEXT: Ayocuán and Nezahualcóyotl
“Yo quisiera aprender una cosa:
¿Cómo hacer con las manos un pétalo de rosa?”
~from "Lección," 1st Movement of Pétalo de rosa
Jack Délano (1914-1997), born under the Jewish name Jacob Ovcharov near Kyiv, modern-day Ukraine (then occupied by Russia), was brought to the United States in 1923 as a child by his family. He studied viola and composition at the preparatory level, as well as illustration, and went on to travel Europe as a teenager, where he became interested in photography -- the work for which he is most widely recognized.
He was invited by Roy Strycker to join the federally sponsored Farm Society Administration during the Depression. This marked the beginning of his life as a socially committed artist, and is probably the impetus for his adoption of the name Delano, after Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In 1941, he was sent to Puerto Rico to document the effects of the times on the colony. The poverty was "far worse" than in any other regions he had visited, according to his own account, but he was struck by "the dignity, indomitable spirit, and unquenchable sense of humor of the people in the face of the most appalling adversity."
Délano was captivated. So following his service as a military photographer during WWII, he and his wife, Irene, came back to Puerto Rico to make the island-nation their home. Committed to their Puerto Ricanness, Jack and Irene raised their family there, and were constant and inextricable participants in the culture-forging effort of Puerto Rico throughout the 20th century. He was brilliantly multifaceted: a filmmaker, a composer and an illustrator of children's books designed in collaboration with Irene and often with friend Tomás Blanco (Cuatro sones de la tierra). He helped found Puerto Rico's first public television station. Through all these diverse creative outlets, Délano consistently manifested his passionate commitment to center Puerto Ricans in their own story.
This album is comprised of a large part of his art song repertoire: music written for voice and piano, highlighting the words of illustrious (José de Diego, Tomás Blanco) and some now-obscure (Emilio R. Delgado) Puerto Rican men and women (Nimia Vicéns, Carmelina Vizcarrondo, Ester Feliciano) -- people who dedicated their lives to the rebuilding of Puerto Rican society through political and artistic writings that told our story around the world. These songs serve as an auditory record of our lived collective experience.
I fell in love with the music of Jack Delano at age 11, when I had the great fortune to be one of the children in the Coro de Niños de San Juan who premiered his suite Pétalo de rosa. His soundscape was hauntingly captivating. Highly modal and harmonically deceptive, his meandering vocal lines feel like an unexpected stroll through the twists and turns of a surrealist painting, a book of magical realism, set in a luscious, exuberant tropical forest that lies right at the edge where consciousness becomes soul.
That is my voyage with this album. It is a celebration of Puerto Ricanness and its essence of adoption. We come from everywhere, and we become who we are, by choice -- in the decision to witness each other and build with each other.
In these tumultuous times, when continents keep claiming islands, and Man keeps taking Life, I offer a simple gift -- the only gift I have to give: a voice. A voice that proclaims our story. A voice that leaves behind what the Aztec princes ("¿Cómo he de irme?") identified as most precious: flowers, songs."
- Laura Virella
NOTES ON THE ALBUM - by Evan L. Snyder
Music by Jack Délano (1914-1997)
Poetry by Emilio R. Delgado (1901-1967)
Until very recently, much of the work of Emilio R. Delgado had seemingly disappeared from the public consciousness of Puerto Rico. This is perhaps unsurprising, because, despite being an active participant in Puerto Rican literary circles in the 1920s (even founding two significant literary magazines), Delgado moved abroad in 1931, living first in Spain, and then, following a storied escape from a prison in Alicante, fleeing to New York. While it’s possible that Delgado and Délano never met (since Délano didn’t move to Puerto Rico until nearly ten years after Delgado’s departure), Delgado’s work clearly captured the composer’s attention.
Canciones is made up of six settings of Delgado’s poems, which Délano dedicates to his daughter, Laura. Délano seems particularly taken with the imagery of Delgado’s poems, which he often musicalizes in clever and charming ways—the knocking rhythms in the piano in “Tocaron a la puerta” (There was a knock at the door) and the chiming clock motif in “¿Qué haces ahí sentada?” to foreshadow the final line “El tiempo no pasa en vano” (Time does not pass in vain). When the poetry provides less a concrete scene, however, as in “Tú no sabes” (You don’t know) and “Qué lejos de mí” (How far from me), and attempts to instead express the ineffable—putting words to a feeling or a sense that only poetry (and now music) can convey, Délano masterfully captures those sensations put forward by the text. For instance, the piano intro to the final movement, “Qué lejos de mí,” offers the listener an immediate sense of nostalgic longing, with its modal harmony and melodic climb and plateau, but the distinctive pause before beginning again under the singer creates an actual space, giving the listener a chance to feel the same distance that the poetry describes.
Music by Jack Délano
Poetry by José de Diego (1866-1918)
José de Diego was a fierce advocate for Puerto Rican independence, best remembered for his political contributions, especially those following his resignation from his presidentially-appointed position in the Executive Cabinet of the Governor of Puerto Rico. In the years that followed, from 1904 to 1917, his work as an elected member of the House of Delegates was so impactful that it earned him the moniker, “The Father of the Puerto Rican Independence Movement.” Although perhaps overshadowed by his political accomplishments, de Diego was
also an influential writer, as both a journalist and as a poet, and published several collections of his poetry, which were both popular in his lifetime and also came to be considered major contributions to the Modern Puerto Rican Poetry Movement.
Alta noche, in form, is most aptly understood as one single dramatic song, rather than a set of two, as de Diego’s paired poems might suggest. These two poems, which make up its text, “Vigilia” (Sleeplessness) and “Sueño” (Dream), depict a narrator, first lying awake, unable to sleep, and then passing into a dream. The dream description is both ghastly and surreal, images collected from the narrator’s eyes, which have flown from their sockets. Délano sets these paired scenes using a harmonic language that keeps the listener off-balance, alternating between major
harmonies and dense polychords, which overlay major and minor harmonies at the same time. This alternation, paired with the repeated text “Sombra...” (shadow), comes to take on that meaning—neither light nor darkness, but the space between. As the dream reaches its climax, the narrator looks on as the Virgin Mary’s veil transforms and becomes a flag. Comforted by this vision of glory, the narrator awakes, as the dawn streams into their window, musically treated with a triumphant arrival on the same major chord that opened the first movement. Subverting
the listeners’ expectations, however, Délano continues from this arrival into a final statement of the recurring polychord—dawn giving way to shadow, once more.
“¿Cómo he de irme?”
Music by Jack Délano
Poetry by Nezahualcóyotl (1402-1472) and Ayocuán Cuetzpaltzin (15th/16th century)
The only poetry by non-Puerto Ricans in the collection, ¿Cómo he de irme? is an unusual song text from two perspectives. Firstly, the poetry itself is a translation, not originally in Spanish, but rather Nahuatl, a Mesoamerican language spoken primarily by the Aztecs and their predecessors. Secondly, the text is not by a single poet, but rather a collage of the works of two poets, Nezahualcóyotl and Ayocuán, both of whom were rulers and poets in 15th century central America.
The setting, completed in 1992, is one of Délano’s final works. The text, combined with Délano’s minor harmonic landscape and pervasive falling half step motions, offers a somber meditation on the brevity of life. The poetry asks, “Will my name be nothingness... Will I leave nothing behind me on earth?” Délano, in the autumn of his own life, certainly must have been confronting some of these same questions himself. The poetry suggests one answer: “¡Al menos flores, al menos cantos!”—to leave behind “at least flowers, at least songs.” There’s a hidden hopefulness in this; 500 years after the deaths of Nezahualcóyotl and Ayocuán, Délano was giving life to their songs again. Perhaps in another 500 years, his songs will still be heard as well.
Tres cancioncitas del mar
Music by Jack Délano
Poetry by Nimia Vicéns (1914-1998), Ester Feliciano (1917-1987), and Carmelina Vizcarrondo (1906-1983)
Unlike all the other collections of Jack Délano’s songs presented on Al menos Cantos, Tres cancioncitas del mar is a collection of individual poems by several different poets, rather than several poems by one individual. Collections of this sort (sometimes referred to as “anthology cycles”) put the burden of continuity, inter-movement cohesion, on the composer—the relationship of the texts and their musical setting needing to justify to the listener their
The three poets whose work makes up the Tres cancioncitas, Nimia Vicéns, Ester Feliciano Mendoza, and Carmelina Vizcarrondo, were each well-respected and individually influential poets, all writing in Puerto Rico across the 20th century. Although, these three poets championed radically different styles, the three poems of theirs curated here by Délano share a central image, that of the ocean. The first movement, looks to the waves as a connecting force, one that brings the many peoples of Puerto Rico together, regardless of their origins, as the waters carry the ferry
from Cataño to San Juan (a message that was no doubt important to the composer, an immigrant himself to the island). The verses of the second movement present a journey of imagination, sailing in a boat made of moon petal, with masts of crystal, images that Délano sets with a wandering, dream-like chromaticism, interrupted by sudden energy and consonance in the poem’s repeating chorus of “¡A navegar, marinero!” (Let’s sail, sailor!). The final poem bookends the singer’s journey, with a lighthearted ballad, its child narrator happily sailing off into the sea, disappearing into the distance as the music fades from the audience’s hearing.
Cuatro sones de la tierra
Music by Jack Délano
Poetry by Tomás Blanco (1896-1975)
Tomás Blanco was a famed Puerto Rican author, known even today for his thoughtful historical writings about Puerto Rico’s unique cultural history and for his critical analyses of race and racial prejudice throughout the island’s past. Less remembered are his many other collaborations with Jack and Irene Délano (besides Cuatro sones de la tierra)—the numerous children’s books that the three collaborated on together: Tomás writing, Irene illustrating, and Jack providing musical annotations to ornament the stories.
Cuatro sones de la tierra, on the other hand, is a work certainly intended for a more mature audience. The four poems that make up the cycle are deeply sensual and incredibly charged, almost entirely in the form of a direct address from one lover to another. Délano sets them with incredible nuance, abandoning generic song-like qualities in favor a direct and specific setting, a dramatic reading from the lover’s perspective. One of the most impactful moments in the cycle comes at the end of the second poem, “Redondel” (Roundabout), when Délano repeats the final five lines of the poem:
para quererte mía,
para tenerte mía,
para que sigas siendo
—tal cual eres, indescriptible—
más que nunca mía.
in order to want you as my own,
to have you as my own,
to let you go on being
—exactly as you are, indescribable—
more than ever, mine.
After the first three and half lines repeat themselves exactly, a sudden shift appears during the word “indescriptible,” the final two syllables suddenly a half step higher, as if the speaker was forced to try something different, in hopes of describing their indescribable lover. The words that follow, “más que nunca” (more than ever), now appear a fourth higher, allowing the singer strive far beyond their early fervor and setting up the music to cadence in the opening key, “Redondel” itself now having come full circle. Not to miss one final opportunity to drive home the depth of the speaker’s attachment to their lover, the singer repeats again their final word over the piano’s