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The Song

But the Moorish influence is nowhere more apparent than in the Spanish singing. There is nothing European in that quavering lament, in those long-drawn and monotonous notes, in those weird trills. The sounds are strange to the ear accustomed to less barbarous harmonies, and at first no melody is perceived; it is custom alone which teaches the sad and passionate charm of these things. A malagueña is the particular complaint of the maid sorrowing for an absent lover, of the peasant who ploughs his field in the declining day. The long notes of such a song, floating across the silence of the night, are like a new melody on the great harpsichord of human sorrow. No emotion is more poignant than that given by the faint sad sounds of a Spanish song as one wanders through the deserted streets in the dead of night; or far in the country, with the sun setting red in the cloudless sky, when the stillness is broken only by the melancholy chanting of a shepherd among the olive-trees.

An heritage of Moordom is the Spanish love for the improvisation of well-turned couplets; in olden days a skilful verse might procure the poet a dress of cloth-of-gold, and it did on one occasion actually raise a beggar-maid to a royal throne: even now it has power to secure the lover his lady's most tender smiles, or at the worst a glass of Manzanilla. The richness of the language helps him with his rhymes, and his southern imagination gives him manifold subjects. But, being the result of improvisation--no lady fair would consider the suit of a gallant who could not address her in couplets of his own devising--the Spanish song has a peculiar character. The various stanzas have no bearing upon one another; they consist of four or seven lines, but in either case each contains its definite sentiment; so that one verse may be a complete song, or the singer may continue as long as the muse prompts and his subject's charms occasion. The Spanish song is like a barbaric necklace in which all manner of different stones are strung upon a single cord, without thought for their mutual congruity.

Naturally the vast majority of the innumerable couplets thus invented are forgotten as soon as sung, but now and then the fortuitous excellence of one impresses it on the maker's recollection, and it may be preserved. Here is an example which has been agreeably translated by Mr. J. W. Crombie; but neither original nor English rendering can give an adequate idea of the charm which depends on the oriental melancholy of the music:

Dos besos tengo en el alma Que no se apartan de mí: El ultimo de mi madre, Y el primero que te di.

Deep in my soul two kisses rest, Forgot they ne'er shall be: The last my mother's lips impressed, The first I stole from thee.

Here is another, the survival of which testifies to the Spanish extreme love of a compliment; and the somewhat hackneyed sentiment can only have made it more pleasant to the feminine ear:

Salga el sol, si ha de salir, Y si no, que nunca salga; Que para alumbrarme á mí La luz de tus ojos basta.

If the sun care to rise, let him rise, But if not, let him ever lie hid; For the light from my lady-love's eyes Shines forth as the sun never did.

It is a diverting spectacle to watch a professional improviser in the throes of inspiration. This is one of the stock 'turns' of the Spanish music-hall, and one of the most popular. I saw a woman in Granada, who was quite a celebrity; and the barbaric wildness of her performance, with its accompaniment of hand-clapping, discordant cries, and twanging of guitar, harmonised well with my impression of the sombre and mediæval city.

She threaded her way to the stage among the crowded tables, through the auditorium, a sallow-faced creature, obese and large-boned, with coarse features and singularly ropy hair. She was accompanied by a fat small man with a guitar and a woman of mature age and ample proportions: it appeared that the cultivation of the muse, evidently more profitable than in England, conduced to adiposity. They stepped on the stage, taking chairs with them, for in Spain you do not stand to sing, and were greeted with plentiful applause. The little fat man began to play the long prelude to the couplet; the old woman clapped her hands and occasionally uttered a raucous cry. The poetess gazed into the air for inspiration. The guitarist twanged on, and in the audience there were scattered cries of Ole! Her companions began to look at the singer anxiously, for the muse was somewhat slow; and she patted her knee and groaned; at last she gave a little start and smiled. Ole! Ole! The inspiration had come. She gave a moan, which lengthened into the characteristic trill, and then began the couplet, beating time with her hands. Such an one as this:

Suspires que de mí salgan, Y otros que de tí saldran, Si en el camino se encuentran Que de cosas se diran!

If all the sighs thy lips now shape Could meet upon the way With those that from mine own escape What things they'd have to say!

She finished, and all three rose from their chairs and withdrew them, but it was only a false exit; immediately the applause grew clamorous they sat down again, and the little fat man repeated his introduction.

But this time there was no waiting. The singer had noticed a well-known bull-fighter and quickly rolled off a couplet in his praise. The subject beamed with delight, and the general enthusiasm knew no bounds. The people excitedly threw their hats on the stage, and these were followed by a shower of coppers, which the performers, more heedful to the compensation of Art than to its dignity, grovelled to picked up.

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Here is a lover's praise of the whiteness of his lady's skin:

La neve por tu cara Paso diciendo: En donde no hago falta No me detengo.

Before thy brow the snow-flakes Hurry past and say: 'Where we are not needed, Wherefore should we stay?'

And this last, like the preceding translated by Mr. Crombie, shows once more how characteristic are Murillo's Holy Families of the popular sentiment:

La Virgen lava la ropa, San José la esta tendiendo, Santa Ana entretiene el niño, Y el agua se va riendo.

The Virgin is washing the clothes at the brook. And Saint Joseph hangs them to dry. Saint Anna plays with the Holy Babe, And the water flows smiling by.


William Somerset Maugham