Canto General: The Bible of Latin America

Canto General is Pablo Neruda‘s tenth book of poems. It was first published in Mexico in 1950, by Talleres Gráficos de la Nación. Neruda began to compose it in 1938.

“Canto General” (“General Song”) consists of 15 sections, 231 poems, and more than 15,000 lines. This work attempts to be a history or encyclopedia of the entire American Western Hemisphere, or New World, from a Hispanic American perspective. More.



Theodorakis had met Pablo Neruda in Paris in the 1960s. In 1970, during Theodorakis’ Paris exile, Theodorakis was officially invited to Chile by Neruda, who was then Chilean ambassador in France. During this visit Theodorakis listened in Valparaiso to the Canto General, performed by the Aparcoa group.

Then Mikis Theodorakis decided spontaneously to compose his own “Canto General”.

At a subsequent meeting with the Chilean president Salvador Allende, and later in Paris with Neruda [more about this meeting in one of the paragraphs after this sign ⚛ in this post], he suggested a poem selection for his setting.

The first seven parts of the work were available until 1974 (1-3, 6, 9, 10, 13). In 1976, Theodorakis added a separate Latin-Greek text to the work: “Neruda Requiem Aeternam”. In 1980-81 Theodorakis completed his work with five more parts.

In 1972 Theodorakis used various melodies of the Canto General for the soundtrack of the film “État de Siège“. The music was partly recorded by the group Los Calchakis on traditional Latin instruments.

For 1973 Theodorakis planned a tour with the oratorio through different countries of South America. Neruda himself was going to recite himself his poems during the performances. [More in the paragraphs after this sign: ⚛]

Six parts of the work were planned to be performed in an instrumental version for folksongs, and with Arja Saijonmaa and Petros Pandis as singers but without a choir and others in Buenos Aires and Mexico City. The participation of Neruda was missing due to his illness. The performance in Neruda’s home country Chile had to be canceled as well, because on 11 September the elected government of Allende was overthrown by Pinochet’s military coup. The planned venue, in the Estadio Nacional de Chile, was converted by the military into a concentration camp. Neruda died because of his illness on September 23, 1973, only 12 days after the coup.

The first six parts of the oratorio were then premiered in their final orchestral version on 7 September 1974 at the Humanité Press Festival in Paris, and shortly thereafter (October 1974) [information according to the video from channel Pieter Hendriks; the wiki page writes the year 1975, but since Pieter Hendriks has recorded several Theodorakis concerts, I am convinced it is October 1974] after the end [24 July 1974] of the Greek military dictatorship in Athens.

The first performance of the complete work took place on 4 April 1981 in East Berlin.

The first performance of the Canto General in Chile took place in the Teatro Monumental of Santiago in April 1993 [more in one of the following paragraphs] under the direction of the composer, Franz-Peter Müller-Sybel and the soloists Arja Saijonmaa and Petros Pandis. [Until so far the translation of the German wiki page about Canto General. An English version is not available.]

After this long introduction (to avoid confusion about dates, years, and more) follows the reason for creating this post.

                                                                     .  ⚛..

In the YouTube-list with the latest Theodorakis-music uploads of this week I found one with a recording of a concert that was already available on YouTube for at least nine years, what has been copied again and again, and published in other channels. 

The video of this week is an upload of Carlos Pinto V., the full name is not mentioned. The video has very interesting information. I translated it with Google Translate  and edited it into this one:


The Bible of Latin America

The “Canto General”, the chosen work for the opening of the “Festival Mundial de Teatro de las Naciones”, the 23 of April of 1993, in the “Teatro Monumental” [Santiago, Chile] describes the creation of the Latin American world, its vegetal kingdom, animals, birds and men, with their little stories and their great struggles. [This video is a full length recording of that concert:]



For Theodorakis, “the ‘General Song’ is ‘The Iliad’, the ‘Bible’ of Latin America, a great work that Pablo Neruda wrote during the years he had to hide himself, in the late 1940s. This is also the reason why he frequently speaks about the civil war in Greece in 1949.” (He refers to the poem ‘Voy a Vivir’, which Theodorakis also set to music).

After finishing the first four parts, initially only for a popular orchestra, the composer, Petros Pandis and Arja Saijonmaa made a first tour to South America. Mikis Theodorakis:

“After returning to Paris, we began rehearsing in a small studio in Rue Poliveau. There I met Neruda, who listened to the pieces very carefully. [For a full screen display of the photos: click]




Then we went to see him at his house and I asked his opinion because I was very concerned to capture the rhythm and the intonation of the Spanish language. Neruda took a copy of the ‘Canto’ and wrote me with a green pencil what he thought:

“It does not matter that there are small inaccuracies of intonation. The essential thing in a musicalization is that it picks up the essence of the poetic work, that captures the music that is in the soul of the poetry. And you have understood the soul of mine. If someone is interested in my poetry, you can buy the book and read it. In a music version of it, it may happen that no word is understood in the text, especially if there are contrapuntal complexities, polyrhythmic, and so on. In your case, the important thing is that your music correctly interprets the spirit of my poetry.”

Then, he added:

“But I beg you to put a couple of poems more to music, of the ‘Canto’: ‘Zapata’, ‘Sandino’, ‘Lautaro’, ‘Voy a Vivir’: with that the composition will be complete.”

And I did it”.



Neruda asks for permission

Shortly afterwards, in 1973, the musicians prepared to return to Santiago, invited by Allende, to make a great presentation of the work.

“Some concerts were also scheduled in other Latin American cities. Shortly before leaving, my representative received a letter from Neruda requesting permission to accompany us on the tour and recite his texts himself. I laughed, and wrote him a most affectionate letter, telling him that it would be a great honor if he would recite his poems at our concerts, and that he did not need to ask permission to do so. It was the great dream of my life.”

So things began, the journey began. And Buenos Aires was the first to be considered as a possibility.

“I called Neruda on Isla Negra. His voice sounded very muffled. I said: “We have been very successful here, but at the end of the presentations everyone was calling your name. We have missed you very much.” He said: “I’m sorry that I could not be with you, but I’ve had problems with my rheumatism. My doctors would not allow me to travel.” I think none of them had told him that he had leukemia. Neruda: “But I promise you that when you perform next week in Santiago, I will be there and recite.”



“Small Problems”

Shortly before leaving for Chile, Theodorakis and his people received a call from Allende’s secretary, who asked them to postpone the trip because there were “a couple of small political problems.”

They decided to postpone the arrival for a week.

Theodorakis: “We went to Venezuela and there we received the news of the military coup and of the death of Allende. We learned of the death of Neruda within a few days later, in Mexico, where we participated in a great march of protest against the Chilean military junta.

In the evening there was the presentation of the ‘Canto  General’, in the Opera of Mexico City, where I turned to the public and said that I dedicated the work to Neruda, Allende and the freedom of the Chilean people. Then we made hundreds of presentations around the world, always in homage to Neruda, Allende and Chile.”


Note: the texts of the Canto General can be found in the page “Canto General” in the menu of this blog. Translations into English, French, German and Greek can be found there as well.



About "The Music of Mikis Theodorakis"

The blog "The Music of Mikis Theodorakis" started in 2010. The not-for-profit activities of the initiator were and are to collect, create and publish information about the MUSIC of the Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis via YouTube, Google+, Twitter, and this blog. Sources for this information are utterly strictly related with Mikis Theodorakis' Music only. The icon is a bouzouki. It is Greece's national symbol for freedom. During the Regime of the Colonels (Military Junta, 1967-1974) the bouzouki was forbidden. Mikis Theodorakis used this authentic Greek instrument in almost all his compositions, and Greeks were listening to Theodorakis's music in the underground scene, during the Military Junta time.
This entry was posted in Books, Chile, Choir, Concerts, Μίκης Θεοδωράκης, Mikis Theodorakis, Music, Poetry, Songs of Resistance, South America and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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