Líneas de piedra y piedad

Líneas de piedra y piedad

Líneas de piedra y piedad

for soprano, double bass and piano (on texts from Mexican and Guatemalan cemetery inscriptions)

Program Notes

Líneas de piedra y piedad has the longest genesis of any of my compositions to date. The last year I lived in Mexico City, I shared a house on the old Camino Real de Tetelpan with a friend. The house had a lovely view of the Panteón Jardín, an extremely large cemetery. As it was primarily a cemetery for the elite, it was replete with elaborate mausoleums and other structures. From a distance it looked rather like a miniature city (my roommate said all the white marble made him think he was looking down on Pompeii).

One day we decided to take a walk through the graveyard. My west Texas Protestant upbringing had in no way prepared me for a Mexican Catholic cemetery. I was overwhelmed by the extravagance of the mausoleums and by the extreme emotionality of the inscriptions. I went back the next day with a pad and pen and wrote down some of the texts I thought particularly interesting, with the idea that someday I would set some of them to music. Among the stranger inscriptions were a text that said “Mother, you are our only God,” and the single line “Placing flowers forbidden” carved into a massive, but otherwise featureless, block of granite. I was particularly moved by the inscriptions on the graves of children. Somehow the depth of feeling overshadowed the maudlin doggerel used to express it.

This was in 1982. In 1983, my mother committed suicide. I reacted to this tragedy by creating art about it (as so many artists deal with tragedy), beginning a series of pieces which are in different ways concerned with death (many of which also reflect the six years I lived in Latin America). This piece is a part-perhaps the culmination-of that series. I showed the texts I had collected to my teacher, John Eaton, and his wife, Mexican mezzo-soprano Nelda Nelson, both of whom encouraged me to pursue the setting, but other projects kept getting in the way. A few years later I collected some more inscriptions in Guatemala. I kept returning to the texts, but each time another project, with a deadline or a guaranteed performance date, would intervene. Also, I found that this piece was simply not amenable to the sporadic bursts of free time I had available for composing; I really needed an extended time with no distractions if I was to write it at all.

In 1994, twelve years after collecting the first texts, I was awarded a three-week residency at the Atlantic Center for the Arts, an artists’ colony in Florida, where I was to work intensely with Karel Husa. I decided this would be a perfect opportunity to tackle-finally-this project in earnest. The idyllic surroundings, stimulating company, and concentrated work time made it possible for me to finish the piece during the residency.

Technically, the composition is in three main sections, each of which is divided into five subsections, which are related musically, and usually textually, to the subsections of the other main parts:
I — a-b-c-d-e; II — a’-b’-c’-d’-e’; III — e”-d”-c”-b”-a”. The durations of the sections are worked out according to the ratio 3:4.

During most of the work the texts are presented as they appear in the original inscriptions. However, as the climax at the end of part II approaches, the vocalist (and at times the players as well) begins spinning out increasingly incoherent and mixed-up fragments of the texts, finally arriving at something very like hysteria.

The title, Líneas de piedra y piedad, is a play on words in Spanish. Líneas de piedra simply means “lines of stone,” but piedad means both “pity” and “piety.”

I am grateful to John and Nelda for their continued interest in seeing this project come to fruition (virtually every time I saw Nelda she would ask when I was going to get “her piece” written), and also to the New York-based ensemble Bermuda Triangle for expressing interest in this work. I am further indebted to the Atlantic Center for the Arts and its great staff for the gift of time and solitude, and to Karel Husa for his encouragement and advice.

Líneas de piedra y piedad is dedicated to Nelda Nelson and John Eaton. Like so many of my compositions, it is also written in memory of my mother, Charlou Thomas Satterwhite.


The texts were collected by the composer at the Panteón Jardín in Mexico City and the Municipal Cemeteries in Antigua and Chichicastenango, Guatemala. The recurring motto Pasad y visitad a los muertos and the text beginning El que se creyó grande were taken from the entrances into the cemetery in Antigua. The rest were taken from tombstone and mausoleum inscriptions. The texts in normal type are in their original form (immediate repetition of words or phrases in the music is not reflected below); the texts in italics were freely rearranged by the composer. The exclamation ¡Ay! was also added by the composer.

Pasad y visitad a los muertos.Enter ye and visit the dead.
Mamacita, te fuiste y nos abandonaste, y contigo se fue nuestra felicidad. Triste quedó nuestro hogar sin tu sombra querida. ¡Ay!Mama, you left and abandoned us, and with you went our happiness. Our home remains sad without your beloved shadow.
Pasad y visitad a los muertos.Enter ye and visit the dead.
Carlitos, un ángel hermoso fuiste en en
Que al saberlo Dios pidió tu presencia.
No pensó en nosotros que al sentir tu
Siempre lloraremos tu corta existencia.
Carlitos: a beautiful angel you were in
When he realized it God demanded your
He did not think of us who in your
Will always mourn your short existence.
Si allá en la tumba oyeres lamentos tristes no dudes que son gemidos que yo lanzo desde aquí. Y si acaso allá en el cielo ves una estrella titilando recuerda que aquí llorando me he quedado yo para tí.If there in the grave you shall hear sad lamentations, doubt not that they are sobs that I send forth from here. And if by chance there in Heaven you see a star twinkling remember that I have remained here crying for you.
Pasad y visitad a los muertos.Enter ye and visit the dead.
Señor, nos los habaias (sic, probably “habíais”)prestado para nuestra dicha y consuelo. Ahora nos los reclamais y os los devolvemos con el corazón hecho pedazos pero ¡Cúmplase vuestra santa voluntad!Lord, you had loaned them to us for our happiness and comfort. Now you reclaim them from us and we return them to you with our hearts torn into pieces but, Thy Holy Will Be Done!
Ella amó los versos,
Adoró las flores,
Llenó de pájaros cantares
El jardín inolvidable de su vida.
She loved poetry,
She adored flowers,
She filled with songbirds
The unforgettable garden of her life
Pasad y visitad a los muertos.Enter ye and visit the dead.
Triste quedó nuestro hogar por tu partida dejándonos sin tu sombra querida. Te fuiste y nos quedan tus virtudes como un ejemplo y la bondad de tu corazón como un templo, con cariño de tus sobrinos, en especial José Antonio.Our home was left sorrowful because of your departure, leaving us without your beloved shadow. You left us and with us remain your virtues as an example and the goodness of your heart as a temple, with affection from your nephews, especially José Antonio.
Pasad y visitad a los muertos.Enter ye and visit the dead.
Hacía falta un angelito como tú en el cielo y Dios te llamó para estar a su lado- Un recuerdo de tus afligidos padres.Heaven lacked an angel like you and God called you to be at his side.-A memorial from your afflicted parents.
Después de mi jornada in este mundo, nos reuniremos donde tú estás.After my journey through this world, we will be united where you are.
En otra rivera volveremos a verte. ¿Sí? ¿Cuándo? Cuando Dios lo quiera.In another path we will see you again. Yes? When? When God wishes it.
María, allí en el cielo donde estás, hazme un huequito para que entre a estar contigo.María, there in heaven where you are, make a little hole so that I may enter and be with you.
Pasó a la eternidad llevando su frente limpia, su conciencia sana y su corazón tranquilo.He passed on to eternity with his head held high, his conscience clean and his heart in peace.
Fuiste como una estrella fugaz.You were like a shooting star.
Madre fuiste para mí: amor, sacrificio, abnegación. Dios te bendiga.Mother you were for me: love, sacrifice, self denial. God bless you.
Madre: has dejado de existir, pero tu recuerdo siempre vivirá en el corazón de tus hijos, nietos, y bisnietos.Mother, you have ceased to exist, but your memory will always live in the hearts of your children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.
Madre, eres nuestro único Dios.Mother, you are our only God.
Madre, fuiste un Dios fugaz. Madre, fuiste nuestro único amor. Fuiste un Dios bendiga el corazón de nuestra estrella has dejado de ser para mí, has dejado tu recuerdo, has dejado el corazón de amor de nuestro único sacrificio, has dejado de ser Dios, has dejado de… Madre, Madre.Mother, you were a shooting God. Mother, you were our only love. You were a God bless the heart of our star you have ceased to exist for me, you have left your memory, you have left your heart of love of our only sacrifice, you have ceased to be God, you have ceased to… Mother, Mother.
Señor, nos la diste para hacernos felices en la tierra. Nos la quitaste para darle felicidad en el cielo.Lord, you gave her to us to make us happy on Earth. You took her from us to make her happy in Heaven.
En otra rivera volveremos a ver a Carlitos, un ángel hermoso llevando su frente hecha pedazos, hecha un huequito, hecha un Dios titilando. Nos abandonaste, nos dejaste, nos la quitaste, nos te ausentaste. Hacía falta una madre en el hogar, en la tierra, en el cielo triste, la tierra triste, el hogar triste, una madre triste y sin sombra, sin sombra querida, sin sombra triste, sin amor, sin sacrificio, sin abnegación, sin frente, sin conciencia, sin corazón. ¡Ay!In another path we will see Carlitos again, a beautiful angel with his head turned into pieces, turned into a little hole, turned into a twinkling God. You abandoned us, you left us, you took her away from us, you absented yourself from us. There was lacking a mother in the home, on the earth, in the sad heavens, the sad earth, the sad home, a sad and shadowless mother, without a beloved shadow, without a sad shadow, without love, without sacrifice, without self denial, without conscience, without a heart.
Aquí yacen los restos de José F. Méndez Zúñiga que amó a Dios, su hogar, las flores, los pájaros y la música.Here lie the remains of José F Méndez Zúñiga who loved God, his home, the flowers, the birds and music.
Pájaros sin música, Madre sin pájaros, Carlitos sin sombra, José sin huequito, María sin hogar, nosotros sin esperanza.Birds without music, Mother without birds, Carlitos without shadow, José without a hole, María without a home, we without hope.
Pasad y visitad a los muertosEnter ye and visit the dead.
Profunda herida se abrió en nuestros corazones desde que nos dejaste sin ella y no hay lenitivo a nuestro dolor sino ante este pensamiento “Así fue la voluntad de Dios.” Adoramos esa divina voluntad y nos sometemos a ella con cristiana sumisión.A deep wound has opened in our hearts since you left us without her and there is no ointment for our pain except this thought: “Thus was the will of God.” We adore that divine will and we submit ourselves to it with Christian resignation.
Surge un astro cuando nacemos y su brillo es mayor cuando morimos.A star is born when we are born and its brightness is the greater when we die.
Su amor fue la familia, su pasión el trabajo, su divisa el deber, y su lema la verdad y la honradez.His love was his family, his passion his work, his calling duty, and his motto truth and honor.
El que se creyó grande, o se creyó chico, él que fue pobre, o fue rico, el cementario a todos los cobija por que iguales duermen, por que iguales somos, convertidos en ceniza.He who thought himself great, or thought himself small; he that was rich, or was poor, the cemetery shelters them all, for equal they sleep, for equal we are, transformed into dust.
Pasad, pasad.Enter ye, enter ye.
Esta tumba guarda tu cuerpo, Dios tu alma y nosotros tu recuerdo.This tomb guards your body, God your soul and we your memory.
Prohibido poner flores.Placing flowers forbidden.

– Translations by Marc Satterwhite

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

A message is required.
Name is required.
E-mail address is required.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.