JORGE MARTÍN: “As a composer, you have to approach Whitman’s poetry with humility, but you have to have gumption of your own.”

Jorge Martín

Jorge Martín

“Cuba gave to the world some of the greatest popular music ever, a mix of European melodies and complex African rhythms, which was truly a great contribution. As a small child I heard it all around me. But classical music stole my imagination and my heart.”

Jorge Martín lived the first six years of his life in Cuba, where a miniature piano was his favorite toy. When he was three or four, his older sister brought home a record of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto and Jorge felt an immediate connection to the music. With his mother’s encouragement, he followed his passion through piano lessons in New Jersey, where the family settled in the United States, through music studies at Yale and Columbia University, to a prolific career as a composer of opera, orchestral, chamber, choral, vocal, and solo works. A classmate at Yale of The Cecilia Chorus of New York’s Music Director Mark Shapiro, he wrote an a cappella choral work based on texts by Walt Whitman called One Hour to Madness and Joy, which Shapiro premiered with his chamber choir Cantori New York in 2004. Now, in the year of the bicentennial of Whitman’s birth, Shapiro asked him to revisit the piece, this time with accompaniment, for The Cecilia Chorus of New York.

“The a cappella version was extremely difficult to perform and, upon looking at it again, I realized something was missing in the conception. I decided to add the organ and one percussion instrument for each of the four parts. For Part I, the sizzle and crash of the cymbals matches the tingle and exultation of madness and joy. The simple twinkle of the triangle in Part II, Miracles, turns each image into a miracle. In Part III, O Secret of the Earth and Sky, the deep beating of the bass drum captures the excitement of a daring voyage; and in the final part, I Call to Thee O Soul, the solemn tolling of a tubular bell as the soul diffuses into space.”

“Adding the organ was more complex and more of a challenge. I had written the a cappella version for six parts, and in the new version I reduced it to four singing parts plus organ. The organ is an independent instrument, and it would not do to have it just double the chorus. I had to create space for it, room for it to express its sounds and its colors through the organist, who becomes a participant in the creation of each piece he or she plays. Each organ is different, and that determines the choices the organist makes when confronted by the score that is written.” 

Jorge Martín has set more music to texts by Whitman than by any other poet. “His poetry is quotidian and deeply spiritual at the same time. He mimics the Bible in a modern American vernacular way. In Miracles (Part 2 of One Hour to Madness and Joy), the chorus sings Whitman’s list of miracles, and they are the most mundane things: wading along the beach in the edge of the water, watching honey bees around the hive, talking by day and sleeping at night with someone you love, a sunset, a new moon, the motion of the waves – and he asks at the end, “What stranger miracles are there?” In its simplicity, Whitman’s texts are grand, operatic and bigger than life. You need a lot of gumption to write what he wrote.” 

Given the majesty of Whitman’s poems, how does one approach them as a musician?  

“You have to find your music in his words, just like an actor has to find himself and his own interpretation when reciting a written speech. With Whitman, you have to approach the poetry with humility, but you have to have gumption of your own.”

BIOGRAPHY: Jorge Martín, Composer

Jorge Martín was born in Santiago de Cuba in 1959; his family settled in the United States in 1965. He has degrees from Yale College and Columbia University. He writes in all major genres and his music is commissioned and performed by all kinds of artists and groups across the United States. In 1999 and again in 2012 he received a generous Cintas Fellowship for creative artists of Cuban descent, and also the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ prestigious Academy Award in Music in 1998. In 2005 Mr. Martín was awarded a fellowship by the Bogliasco Foundation in Genoa, and artist’s residencies at Yaddo in Saratoga Springs in 1993 and again in 2003. The Fort Worth Opera Festival presented the World Premiere of Martín’s first full-length large-scale opera, Before Night Falls, in the spring of 2010; Florida Grand Opera revived the production in 2017. The opera is available on record. Mr. Martín has numerous other recordings available commercially, and he is a member of A.S.C.A.P. For more about Jorge Martín, visit jorgemartin.com.