Goyescas Negras: Scenes from the Deaf Man’s Villa

Goyescas Negras: Scenes from the Deaf Man’s Villa

Goyescas Negras: Scenes from the Deaf Man’s Villa

(Symphony in three movements after Goya)

Program Notes

This symphony was inspired by the “black period” (1820-1823) paintings of Franciso de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828). This group of fourteen paintings was first executed on the walls of La quinta del sordo (the deaf man’s villa), his home on the banks of the Manzanares River outside of Madrid. They were later transferred to canvas and now hang in Madrid’s Museo del Prado.

These incredible paintings have been the source of endless study and debate, in part because Goya’s motives for painting them, and indeed even his own titles for them, are unknown. However, they are well known for their painting techniques, which presage both Impressionism and Expressionism, and for the their raw, unprecedented emotional power: nothing could be further from the sunny pastorales, religious scenes, and aristocratic portraiture of his early career.

One traditional interpretation is that these are the nightmare fantasies of a lonely old man, sick, disillusioned, totally deaf for many years, and half-insane, done “with the sole purpose of satisfying his own inner calling” by an artist who represented “sensations and feelings; almost never symbols and allegories” (Francisco Javier Sánchez Cantón, translation by the composer).

At the other extreme, another Goya scholar informs us that the paintings make a coherent socio-political statement about “the disastrous effects upon humanity of an absence of reason….” (Patricia E. Muller).

Wherever the truth lies, it is certain that this body of work has fascinated viewers for generations and has exerted an enormous influence on the history of Western art.

The name Goyescas is – of course – borrowed from Granados’ opera and virtuoso piano pieces by the same name, which are in turn inspired by other Goya paintings. The word does not have a direct English translation; Goya-esque pieces is about as close as one could come. The second movement of this symphony borrows two of Granados’ tunes, in the fine and ancient tradition of one artist paying tribute to another by incorporating and paraphrasing the work of the admired artist in his own (during the same trip to Europe in which I discovered the Black Period paintings, I also saw Picasso’s variations on Velázquez’ Las meninas and Dalí’s phenomenal takeoffs on Goya’s own Caprichos, so the Spanish visual artists certainly have been active in this – musical examples are too numerous to mention).

I have had many wonderful teachers and mentors through the years. This symphony is dedicated to the two most important of those: John Eaton and Ramon Zupko.

I. Saturno devorando a su hijo (Saturn devouring his son)

This is certainly the best-known work in the group. Muller thinks that a more accurate title for this terrifying vision might be “Satan devouring Judas,” citing as evidence the fact that the figure being consumed by the wild-eyed, grotesque monster is a fully-formed adult, not an infant. Further, Goya seldom painted classical subjects. Although I have retained the traditional title, I have been mindful of the possible Satanic connection, and have made a few harmonic and-especially-rhythmic tie-ins with the Satan-inspired dance of the finale.

II. Las parcas (The fates)

A man sits, bound by his thread of life to the three fates. This movement is an introduction and passacaglia on one of the Granados’ loveliest tunes, taken from the fourth movement of Goyescas, “Quejas, o la maja y el ruiseñor” (“Laments, or the maja and the nightingale”). The tune appears in both the relentless ground bass of the passacaglia and in the continuous variations above it. The climax is interrupted by the snipping of the thread of life by the fate Atropos. The coda is based on the theme of the “the death of the majo” from the Goyescas movement entitled “El amor y la muerte.”

III. El aquellare (The witches’ sabbath)

This huge painting presents a hideous group of crazed witches, clustered around the devil, in the form of a goat, who seems to be delivering a sermon. The music depicts an invocatory dance of the witches, the appearance and sermon of the devil (in the voice of the tuba), and a final frenzied dance of the demon and his minions.