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ClassicsOnline Home » BALADA: Maria Sabina / Dionisio - In Memoriam
The Barcelona-born composer Leonardo Balada is credited with pioneering a blending of ethnic music with avant-garde techniques. The symphonic tragedy María Sabina, one of Balada’s bestknown works, tells the extraordinary story of Sabina, a Mexican Indian mushroom-cult priestess who meets fierce resistance from her people when endeavouring to open the holy rituals to the outside world. Some of the text in Balada’s work is based on her incantations, of which the composer has written, “While composing the work, the power of the text was so extraordinary that I felt inspired by it. I recall composing the music even when I was travelling, in airports or hotels”. The cantata Dionisio: In Memoriam is a homage to Dionisio Ridruejo, a poet and politician from Soria, Spain, on whose ideological, philosophical and descriptive writings the work is based.
By David Denton
Leonardo Balada (b. 1933) María Sabina • Dionisio: In Memoriam
Working with outstanding writers has been one of my most rewarding professional experiences. There is something extra dimensional in their way of seeing the world and expressing it. That aspect of my experience is only comparable to my experience in being associated with painters of enormous talent. From Salvador Dalí and Alfonso Mier in the plastic arts to Camilo José Cela in literature, they left a stamp in my musical thinking.
I met Cela, a Nobel Literature Prize Laureate, in 1967 in New York. When I expressed my intention of composing a cantata with my own text, his answer was “zapatero a tus zapatos” (shoemaker stick to making shoes.) He told me he was working on a text based on the Aztec Mexican priestess María Sabina, and that I should visit him in Majorca to talk about a collaboration. Once in his Mediterranean villa I saw that his writing was under way, although not advanced enough that he would not add a number of lines after an interchange with my first wife, Monica, an Irish actress, to whom the work is dedicated, whose extroverted ideas and expressions he found interesting, amusing and suited to the character he was writing about. The première in New York was warmly received but in Madrid, a performance five weeks later at Teatro de la Zarzuela was booed several times, partly owing to the modernity of the music but mostly because of the provocative language of the text. I had to interrupt the performance I was conducting twice. While composing the work, the power of the text was so extraordinary that I felt inspired by it. I recall composing the music even when I was travelling, in airports or hotels.
María Sabina was a Mexican Indian, a mushroomcult priestess who died of natural causes some years ago. She was still alive when its character was hanged as culmination of the work at its première in Carnegie Hall. Some of the text is based on María Sabina’s incantations and the dramatic problems she encountered with her people, who objected to the opening of the holy rituals to the outside world.
María Sabina is in three parts. Part I starts with the Town-crier announcing to the town’s people that María Sabina has been condemned to be hanged. They approve of the sentence although they respect and admire her. María Sabina states her sins and her virtues. In Part II the old ladies of the town overcome with superstitious fervour, applaud the sentence. María Sabina calls upon her supernatural powers. The townspeople press the Hangman to carry out the execution. In Part III the people insist that she be hanged at once, while María Sabina in a desperate effort proclaims she is pure and innocent. The Hangman asks María Sabina for forgiveness and the sentence is carried out.
This tragifonía (Symphonic Tragedy) for narrator, chorus and orchestra in its original form was finished in 1969 and had its première in 1970 at Carnegie Hall, sponsored by the Hispanic Society of America. Maria Soledad Romero narrated the title part.
The cantata Dionisio: In Memoriam is a homage to Dionisio Ridruejo, a poet and politician from Soria, Spain. It is based on his poems and prose of ideological, philosophical and descriptive character. It expresses his love for his land, as well as the experiences as a volunteer fighter with the División Azul, an army sent by the Spanish dictator Franco side by side with the Nazi army, to Russia to fight the Bolsheviks during the Second World War. On his return from those battles, Ridruejo broke with Franco and his ideologies and moved towards supporting a democratic and free Spain. The selection of the text was made by Emilio Ruiz, a writer also from Soria, who contributes his own writing to complement Ridruejo’s text, which is spoken by a narrator. Ruiz’s text is sung by the chorus. The work does not correspond to a chronological structure of events but is a synthesis of what happens to the poet and what he thinks. It alternates the tense and dramatic with the lyrical and contemplative.
The music of this cantata is in the modernistic style I used in early compositions, like the cantatas María Sabina, No-res and Torquemada, but in Dionisio: In Memoriam one encounters musical ideas of ideological or folkloric nature. In that sense this work is close to my operas Columbus and Zapata, in which the abstract musical material is used along traditional melodic lines. I started that symbiosis of ethnicity and avant-garde techniques in Sinfonia en Negro (1969) and developed it further in Homage to Casals and Sarasate (1975).
Dionisio: In Memoriam was composed in 2001, commissioned by the Musical Autumn of Soria, and was first performed in 2002 by the Orquesta Filarmonía. The cantata is dedicated to the Spanish conductor Odón Alonso.
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BALADA: Maria Sabina / Dionisio - In Memoriam