Crafting Love Songs from Sonnets: Judith Cloud's Settings of Pablo Neruda

By Strempel, Eileen | Journal of Singing, November/December 2011 | Go to article overview

Crafting Love Songs from Sonnets: Judith Cloud's Settings of Pablo Neruda


Strempel, Eileen, Journal of Singing


ARIZONA COMPOSER JUDITH CLOUD has crafted a passionate and beautiful song cycle, Four Sonnets by Pablo Neruda, comprised of poems from Neruda's Cien sonetos de amor (100 Love Sonnets). These settings for voice and piano utilize Stephen Tapscott's eminently singable English translations of Neruda's Shakespeare-inspired sonnet collection, penned by the 1971 Nobel Laureate between 1955-1957, dedicated to his third wife Matilde Urrutia, and originally published as a private, 300-copy subscription edition book.1 In this wide-ranging collection of 100 poems, Neruda explores his love for Matilde in traditional sonnet form, from virtual free verse to conventional, strict forms.2 In four equal subsets of twenty-five poems, the set follows a couple through the various stages of either the day or the life cycle of their love: morning, afternoon, evening, and night.

An autobiographic celebration of the poet's relationship with Matilde Urrutia, the Cien sonetos de amor are erotic and earthy poems that explore the devout, emotional, physical, and sensual experiences of the love between Neruda and Urrutia, which began in Santiago in 1946 during the time Matilde assisted the poet as he slowly recovered from a long illness. Brimming with sensuality, Neruda wrote these poems soon after his second wife, Delia del Carril, learned of his affair with Matilde Urrutia and left him in 1957.3 Now publically united with Urrutia after years of meeting clandestinely, Neruda's love is expressed in clusters of interconnected images: women are repeatedly compared to wheat, bread, and grain against a backdrop of mixing sand and sea, and serenaded by guitar accompaniment. These image clusters focus on the auditory imagination, with frequent references to the world of sound ("I hear," "I listen"), evoking the notion that hearing is the sense that most effectively stirs the imagination and the soul. The intertwining of symbols establishes a link between the real and the imaginary, the visible and the invisible, all through the classical body structure of the sonnet. The return to -and the continued exploration of-these simple images progressively infuses them with layers of rich meaning, and these poetic image clusters are particularly effective as manifested in Judith Cloud's musical setting.

Indeed, Neruda's Cien sonetos de amor provides ripe fodder for musical treatment, perhaps because the heightened auditory sensibility of the poems frequently serves as an almost operatic display of passionate declamation. Cloud's cycle of four songs is comprised of one poem from each of Neruda's four temporal subsections of Morning, Afternoon, Evening, and Night. Her musical counterpart to Neruda's pervasive "image clusters" is created with motives that aurally depict embraces and hidden desires, as well as tears and doubts, in shifting collections of musical meaning. The return to central motives throughout the song cycle conveys an organic love that is both overtly stated as well as musically iterated. Neruda's personal narrative becomes an exploration and (reencounter with deepening love, as the introduction, interplay, and reuse of musical motives create increasingly rich layers of dialogue as a musical manifestation of Neruda's image clusters.4 Thus, Cloud's musical setting echoes Neruda's poetic usage, because unlike Wagnerian Leitmotivs that develop and shift in organic interaction with the dramatic proceedings, her musical motivic usage centers around the layering and periodic return to important central themes. For both, the return to key motives provides effective, deepening, cumulatively complex meaning.

Cloud's decision to set Neruda's poems in a 1986 English translation by Stephen Tapscott is the first level of negotiation as a construction of meaning, with the translation itself an act of reinterpretation. As translator, Tapscott notes in his introduction:

Neruda's particular innovation is his use of voice, in sound and in syntax, as the force that binds lines and stanzas into integrated wholes. …

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