As Gabriel Lena Frank’s productive three year tenure as the Houston Symphony’s Composer-in-Residence comes to a close, this Latin Grammy-winning and Grammy-nominated composer has been preparing one of her most ambitious projects to date. Frank’s new Conquest Requiem calls for a large orchestra and chorus, plus soprano and baritone soloists. This is a big piece not only in terms of number of performers, but also in its message. The Conquest Requiem is the composer’s commentary on a pivotal era in history that has long fascinated Frank: the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire.
“I suppose this has been a while coming as I’ve long been a collector of the testimonials of the conquest’s many chroniclers—the conquistadores, the priests and friars, and the natives,” Frank reflected. As a composer of Chinese, Jewish, Eastern European, Peruvian, Spanish, and Quechua-Indian descent, Frank herself is a product of this historical epoch. “Tackling one aspect of the conquest for this piece comes from a personal connection to an event of such magnitude,” she said. “At the same time that entire societies were decimated, we witnessed the birth of new music, literature, food, political philosophies and, yes, even religions.”
Frank was especially attracted to the stories of two real historical figures who played important roles in the conquest and are represented in the Requiem by the soprano and baritone soloists: Malinche and Martín. “I think the most poignant commentary can be made by looking at the stories of individuals,” Frank said. “To that end, the Conquest Requiem is inspired by the true story of Malinche, a Nahua woman from the Gulf Coast of present-day Mexico who was given to the Spaniards as a young slave. Malinche’s prowess as an interpreter of her native Nahuatl, various Mayan dialects, and Spanish elevated her position. She converted to Christianity and become mistress to Cortés during his war against the Aztecs, and would later give birth to their son Martín, one of the first mestizos of the New World.”
“Depending on how history treats her, Malinche is viewed variously as a feminist hero who saved countless native and European lives, as a treacherous villain who facilitated genocide, as a conflicted victim of forces beyond her control, or as a symbolic mother of hew new mestizo people. Her story is at once personal and historic.”
The requiem itself is a fusing of European and Native American influences. In a highly original move, Frank decided to incorporate the rhythms and inflections of three different languages into this new piece. Listeners familiar with Requiems by Mozart and Verdi will recognize verses from the traditional Latin text, but interwoven with these well-known words is poetry written by Aztec nobility in Nahuatl. Frank has had a longtime interest in Nahua literature: “For a few months while a grad student at the University of Michigan, I took some private tutorials in Nahuatl, but other than that, really had little familiarity with Nahuatl,” she recalled. “A great aid to me was a current graduate student at the University of California at Davis, Cuauhtemoc Quintero Lule, who helped me with translation and pronunciation. The Nahuatl is mostly assigned to our two soloists who carry the roles of Malinche and Martín. Latin is sung by all.”
To link together the Latin and Nahuatl text, Frank called on one of her most frequent collaborators, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Nilo Cruz. “When we met in the fall of 2007, the artistic chemistry was instant,” Frank recalled. “I’ve actually done six pieces with Nilo, with the Requiem being the seventh, and we’re about to embark on an opera for our eighth!”
For the requiem, Cruz contributed “essential Spanish lyrics that not only tell the story of Malinche and her mestizo son, Martín, but also tie together the traditional liturgical verses from the Latin Mass for the Dead with Nahua poetry as chronicled by fallen Aztec princes. Of course, Nilo excels as a wholly original and wondrously lyrical writer, but he also has the ability to grasp history and cull together existing texts. When I gave him a wish list of the Latin and Nahua verses I felt most drawn to, he did a wonderful job in making it all work.”
The Requiem also includes “a substantial role for the chorus that sings, even if just a few lines, in every movement. The chorus is very much like a Greek chorus, offering a mix of philosophical, spiritual, and dramatic commentary throughout.”
Musically, the Requiem is divided into seven movements, which have both familiar Latin titles such as “Dies Irae” as well as Nahua ones, including the opening “Cuicatl de Malinche” (Song of Malinche) which features the soprano soloist. Characteristic of her immediate and eclectic musical style, Frank describes the Requiem’s musical language as “a freely tonal language that is colored by atonality, with readily perceivable rhythmic and melodic shapes. Orchestral colors are quite important to me as they paint a landscape of the New World.”
Reflecting on what she hopes listeners will take away from a performance of her new work, Frank hopes that her music will help “in demystifying and de-demonizing harmful myths,” noting that “Our country’s greatest strength has always been its diversity.”
“I have long been drawn to mythology and folklore with its frequently close ties to spirituality; and freely confess that from time to time, I witness an event or visit a place or meet a person whose very incandescence gives me pause,” she added, reflecting on the spiritual associations of the Requiem genre. “It is perhaps from this place that I chose to honor those who have gone before us not simply in a piece entitled ‘Memorium’ but ‘Requiem.’” –Calvin Dotsey
See the world premiere of Gabriela Lena Frank’s Conquest Requiem May 5, 6 & 7 at Jones Hall.