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The Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier (Lausanne, 1904-Paris, 1980)

El arpa y la sombra / The harp and the shadow

Three Preludes for Orchestra

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Around 1986, when the commemorative acts of the 5th Centenary of the Discovery of America began to monopolize our then near future -today irreversible past-, I began to caress a project that, due to its ambitious scope and the enormous difficulties that its start-up, I soon dismissed: the composition of the music for a show -I dare not call it an opera- based on the novel El arpa y la sombra, by the Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier. Everything seemed to come together to bring such a work to port: music written by a Spanish composer, based on a literary work by an outstanding contemporary Hispanic-American author, based on a very personal vision of the character and adventure of Christopher Columbus... Well it will be, to illustrate those who have not read said novel, to expose not so much its argument as the declaration of the principles that led Carpentier to write it, through his own words:

"In 1937, when making a radio adaptation of Claudel's "The Book of Christopher Columbus" for the radio station Radio Luxembourg, I felt irritated by the hagiographic effort of a text that attributed superhuman virtues to the discoverer of America. Later I came across a Incredible book by León Bloy, where the great Catholic writer requested nothing less than the canonization of someone he compared, plainly, with Moses and Saint Peter.
The truth is that two pontiffs of the last century, Pius the 9th and Leo the 3rdXIII, supported by 850 archbishops, proposed for three times the beatification of Christopher Columbus to the Sacred Congregation of Rites; but this, after a careful examination of the case, outrightly rejected the application.
This little book should only be seen as a variation (in the musical sense of the term) on a great theme that remains, moreover, a very mysterious theme... And the author says, hiding behind Aristotle, that it is not the poet's job (or, let us say, of the novelist) "telling things as they happened, but as they should or could have happened".

As is logical to suppose, Carpentier's Christopher Columbus is far from resembling the one that is usually presented to us: he is not a mythical character, sum of virtues, but a human character, sum of defects that range from unscrupulous lust -which even leads him to to maintain intimate relationships with Queen Elizabeth, as a means of obtaining financing for his company-, to the point of greed: Columbus regretfully recalls, on his deathbed and while awaiting the arrival of the confessor, how in his diary he mentions "...only fourteen times the name of the Almighty in a general relationship where the mentions of GOLD exceed two hundred. And even so, "Our Lord" is used almost -I admit it now with horror- as a courtesy formula...". A character, therefore, enormously different, as the center of an absolutely masterful novel.

Cover of one of the first editions of El arpa
y la sombra
(Siglo XXI of Spain Ed., 1979)

Carpentier uses the following excerpt from The golden legend as a preliminary to the book:

In the harp, when it resounds, there are three things:
the art, the hand and the string.
In man: the body, the soul and the shadow.

An imaginary straight line must have crossed that triplet diagonally in the writer's mind at the time of the work's gestation: thus, the novel is divided into three parts: I) The harp; II) The hand; and III) The shadow. In the first one, Columbus is not the protagonist, but rather the Pontiff Pius the 9th, ready to present to the Sacred Congregation of Rites his proposal for the beatification of Christopher Columbus, a project cherished in his imagination since, in his youth, when he was only Canon Mastaï, he carried out a long and dangerous voyage by ship through South America, as a result of which he considered convenient the existence of a saint who "compact the Christian faith in the old and new world, finding in it an antidote against the poisonous philosophical ideas that too many adepts had in America...".
The second part, The hand, presents us with the true personality of the character that Pius the 9th wanted to elevate to the altars, in the sense exposed. It constitutes the central part, the largest part of the novel, although curiously, we suppose that for purely literary reasons, Carpentier avoided its reference for the title of the work, leaving only the nouns that open and close, respectively, the triplet of The golden legend, as opposite extremes. Lastly, La sombra recounts the fictitious session of the Congregation of Rites -which Columbus himself attends, in the form of an invisible shadow- in which the cause of his beatification is dismissed. In a delirious dialogue, not only the President, the Devil's Advocate and the Postulator, but also (and no less) León Bloy, Víctor Hugo, Jules Verne and Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, express their views on the cause. Closing the novel, as a coda, the shadow of Columbus laments his misfortune, condemned to be a man like the others, to the shadow of Andrea Doria, in a last and phantasmagorical dialogue, held between the majesty of the colonnade of Bernini, in Saint Peter's Square in Rome.

This music entitled El arpa y la sombra is nothing more than a succession of three chained preludes, which were to be -and perhaps will be one day, if the project now rejected comes to fruition- the preludes with which the three acts of the aforementioned show would open, and whose titles would be El arpa, La mano and La sombra, natural y respectively.
Since giving technical explanations about the score here would be as extensive as it would be absurd -for this reason I have preferred to expand on the literary pretext, which can help the listener much better to focus his attention on a new work- I will limit myself to saying that each prelude intends to reflect something of the character of each part of the novel: The harp is characterized by the contemplative and static, through a development consisting of the growth and subsequent elimination of a series of cells (harmonic, melodic, timbral) that are continuously transformed, without losing his identity. La mano evokes the character of Columbus in his fundamentally human aspect, symbolized in the sensuality of wide melodic passages, eminently singable, and frequent tonal stages. Lastly, La sombra is a living movement, in which different sections follow each other in a very changing way, in an evocation of the scherzante liveliness of the third part of the novel. A coda, majestic and not without a certain pathos, puts an end to this succession of Preludes to El arpa y la sombra. As a curious fact, the chords with which the third prelude opens and which lead the coda have been calculated from the various proportions (mass, diameter, distance, etc.) between the known planets of the solar system in the time of Columbus.
Finally, it should be noted that, once the fifth centenary of the Discovery of America had passed and the composition of the opera based on Carpentier's novel had been completely dismissedt, the three Preludes of El arpa y la sombra ended up being those of each of the three acts of my opera D. Q. (Don Quijote in Barcelona) . On the other hand, between Christopher Columbus and Don Quixote it is easy to find many parallels.

with Sergiu Comissiona and the Spanish RTV Orchestra, greeting after
the premiere of El arpa y la sombra (April 30, 1992)

The score for the Preludes of El arpa y la sombra, commissioned by the Spanish Radio Televisio Symphony Orchestra, began in Madrid at the beginning of 1991 and was completed in Puerto de Mazarrón (Murcia) in July of that same year. It is dedicated to my friends Rosa Mª Molleda and José Luis Temes, and was premiered on April 30, 1992 at the Teatro Monumental in Madrid by the RTVE Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sergiu Comissiona.

Cover and first page of the program of the premiere

In 2006, El arpa y la sombra was included, along with four other symphonic works and under the direction of José Luis Temes, in the monographic CD dedicated to me by the Malaga Philharmonic Orchestra as part of its 12th Cycle of Contemporary Music.

Cover of the monographic CD of Málaga Philharmonic Orquestra (2006)

First page of El arpa y la sombra

Page 16 of El arpa y la sombra

Page 31 of El arpa y la sombra


Premiere recording (with noises): Spanish Radio Television Orchestra (Cond.: Sergiu Comissiona). Monumental Theatre (Madrid), April 30, 1992

I. El arpa

II. La mano
III. La sombra

Youtube link


Spanish Radio Television Orchestra (Cond.: Adrian Leaper)

Madrid, Manumental Theatre, December 11, 2017


The harp and the shadow
By Tomás Marco
(Review published in Diario 16. Madrid, May 2, 1992)

To end the season of the Spanish RTV Orchestra, Sergiu Comissiona prepared a beginning with the Academic Overture, by Brahms, and a vibrant ending with Ravel's Bolero, in which percussionist Juan Pedro Ropero shined first. In the middle, Fantasy for piano, choir and orchestra, which was used for a splendid piano lesson by Joaquín Achúcarro, and the world premiere of El arpa y la sombra, by José Luis Turina.
This contribution of Turina to the V Centenary, is written with a hand that has a deep knowledge and a great capacity for sound invention. She was lucky that Comissiona understood and translated it very well, as well as the orchestra. The public gave him a categorical evocation of total success.

Dear music
By Carlos Gómez Amat
(Review published in the newspaper El Mundo. Madrid, May 2, 1992)

Fun music, dear music. Not in all the concerts -far from it- one has a good time. If not yawning, which is very rude, many invite you to think about shrews. That is why we must point out a concert like the last of Comissiona at the head of the horns of Spanish RTV Orchestra.
Comissiona, when he gives it his all, when he gets excited, dances and gesticulates, transmits his emotion to the public and gets everyone to do their best. Great choir and orchestra, really splendid, with superior category.
The premiere of the RTV commission, El arpa y la sombra, by José Luis Turina was one of the greatest successes of Spanish music in recent times. And it is that the master has succeeded in the lyrical drama of this tripartite work based on the historical fantasy -fantasy and reality- of the also musician Alejo Carpentier.
These preludes may well be, as the author thinks, of a work or similar. Language, without losing its actuality, achieves direct communication. This too is dear music.
Turina the 2nd was applauded by an audience that does not easily accept news.

About the harp and the shadows
By Enrique Franco
(Review published in the newspaper El País. Madrid, May 31, 1998)

The season of the National Orchestra and Choir of Spain was closed by the Polish maestro Antoni Wit (Krakow, 1944), well known and esteemed by our public. He did it with an extremely attractive program that he defended with extraordinary professionalism. A work by José Luis Turina was restored, commissioned by the Spanish RTV orchestra, which presented it in 1992: El arpa y la sombra. As it is easy to guess, part of Carpentier's novel written in 1937 and in turn suggested by Claudel's Book about Christopher Columbus. Carpentier, the writer who wanted to be a musician and in large part was, traced a variation in the musical sense of the term, on the Columbian theme, and José Luis Turina felt "touched" and planned to bring the argument and its Carpentier transparencies to the operatic scene, in which he had succeeded early with Ligazón, on Valle-Inclán.


The project did not go ahead, but Turina had already imagined a kind of three preludes -one per act- that, more or less, constitute the orchestral work. It will be useless to notice that, outside the starting point, what we have before us is a meditated page of great beauty, but totally objective. If you want, it is possible to detect an aura of the theme, as the Cuban writer saw it, but it is not too necessary either: the music is worth by itself. We always celebrate Turina's mastery over his work, that is, his ability to punctually and neatly carry out his projects and inventions. Such a gift allowed us to call Turina, from a very young age, a master. Simply because he is. Antoni Wit also enjoys such an important quality, who rehearsed and exhibited the work with insight and dedication, so that we could praise with the psalmist, "the triumphant harp and cymbals" of the Madrid composer. [...]

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