Something for Thursday

Back, at last, to Leonard Cohen, while it’s still September. This time, we’ll look at “Take This Waltz”.

I’ve only heard “Take This Waltz” either on its own or in the context of a Cohen Greatest Hits album, so I didn’t know that it is actually based on a poem by a Spanish poet or that it first appeared on an album comprised entirely of settings of this poet.

The album was Poetas en Nueva York, and it was a collaborative project in which a number of artists, Cohen among them, paid tribute to Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca (1898-1936). Lorca’s short life was likely a difficult one, as he grappled with (among other things) being gay in early 20th century Spain, and he was eventually murdered by the Nationalists.

One of his poems, “Little Viennese Waltz”–which Lorca wrote during a two-year stint in New York City–was translated, adapted, and set to music by none other than Leonard Cohen for the afore-mentioned album, and in this setting Lorca’s poem has achieved a kind of new immortality.

Here’s the poem:

In Vienna there are ten little girls,
a shoulder for death to cry on,
and a forest of dried pigeons.
There is a fragment of tomorrow
in the museum of winter frost.
There is a thousand-windowed dance hall.

Ay, ay, ay, ay!
Take this close-mouthed waltz.

Little waltz, little waltz, little waltz,
of itself of death, and of brandy
that dips its tail in the sea.

I love you, I love you, I love you,
with the armchair and the book of death,
down the melancholy hallway,
in the iris’s darkened garret,

Ay, ay, ay, ay!
Take this broken-waisted waltz.

In Vienna there are four mirrors
in which your mouth and the ehcoes play.
There is a death for piano
that paints little boys blue.
There are beggars on the roof.
There are fresh garlands of tears.

Ay, ay, ay, ay!
Take this waltz that dies in my arms.

Because I love you, I love you, my love,
in the attic where the children play,
dreaming ancient lights of Hungary
through the noise, the balmy afternoon,
seeing sheep and irises of snow
through the dark silence of your forehead

Ay, ay, ay, ay!
Take this ” I will always love you” waltz

In Vienna I will dance with you
in a costume with
a river’s head.
See how the hyacinths line my banks!
I will leave my mouth between your legs,
my soul in a photographs and lilies,
and in the dark wake of your footsteps,
my love, my love, I will have to leave
violin and grave, the waltzing ribbons

And here is Cohen’s song. Cohen’s voice lends a kind of surreal gravity to the music and the words, as his gravely baritone seems to rise from the earth, barely conforming to the waltz rhythm at all at first. There’s a dreamy earthiness to Cohen’s setting; I wonder how Lorca might have felt about it.

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