Tag Archives: Sor Juana de la Cruz. Cinco de Mayo Celebration

The mysteries of the human heart…”Me acerco, y me retiro”: a musical setting of a poem by Sor Juana de la Cruz by composer Max Lifchitz


I was asked by the pianist and composer Max Lifchitz to participate once more in a concert dedicated to the classical composers of Mexico for the annual “Cinco de Mayo Celebration” vocal concert presented by North South Consonance.  The concert will take place on Sunday May 3, 2015  at 3 PM at the Christ and St. Stephen’s church in NYC.  I had the idea of asking my colleague, contralto Celeste Mann to join me in the vocal recital in order to make the occasion more celebratory.  I also suggested that Max compose a new piece for piano and two female voices for us to debut at this concert.

Celeste and I left the choice of text up to the composer, and were intrigued to find that he had chosen a poem by the Mexican nun, writer and poet Sor Juana de la Cruz (1651-1695) from what is considered her “Lesbian Love Poetry” canon, “Me acerco, y  me retiro”.

Me acerco y me retiro:
¿quién sino yo hallar puedo
a la ausencia en los ojos
la presencia en lo lejos?

Del desprecio de Filis,
infelice, me ausento.
¡Ay de aquel en quien es
aun pérdida el desprecio!

Tan atento la adoro
que, en el mal que padezco,
no siento sus rigores
tanto como el perderlos.

No pierdo, al partir, sólo
los bienes que poseo,
si en Filis, que no es mía,
pierdo lo que no pierdo.

¡Ay de quien un desdén
lograba tan atento,
que por no ser dolor
no se atrevió a ser premio!

Pues viendo, en mi destino,
preciso mi destierro,
me desdeñaba más
porque perdiera menos.

¡Ay! ¿Quién te enseño, Filis,
tan primoroso medio:
vedar a los desdenes
el traje del afecto?

A vivir ignorado
de tus luces, me ausento
donde ni aun mi mal sirva
a tu desdén de obsequio.


Sor Juana de la Cruz

I had not read Sor Juana since my days in college, and was happy to look her up again…considered one of the finest exponents of Spain’s Golden Age of literature, as well as being considered the beginning of Mexican literature, Sor Juana’s independence, intellect, her cloistered life in which she was able to arrange for her cell to become a highly sought after salon attended by the intellectual elite of what was then Viceroyalty of Spain in Mexico, makes her a towering figure of Spanish letters as well as modern women’s gender studies and model for many women writers of Latin America.  The poem that Lifchitz chose is generally acknowledged as fruit of a “romantic” friendship (perhaps not a lesbian relationship as we would understand it in modern times, scholars suggest) that Sor Juana had with a Mexican countess.  Nevertheless, the text speaks of an intimate window for us to peak thru of Sor Juana’s experience of love, the push and pull of an emotional upheaval caused by the uncertainty of her friend’s feelings towards her.  The setting for two female voices creates the sensation that is familiar to me, of brain or heart speaking to itself, sometimes obsessively, questioning and in the end berating…

The setting includes passages of trumpet like exclamations in the higher voice with searing emotion; the contralto is set in a much lower range, sounding like a private mussing, a mumbled prayer almost. The choice to compose a setting for two female voices serves to accentuate a tone of an intense internal debate…Sor Juana uses the pastoral poetry pseudonym of “Fillis”, as not to disclose the real identity of the lady in question.  Preceded by a dramatic piano introduction, the composer sets the stage for the dramatic soliloquy for two female voices to unfold.

I asked Max Lifchitz to write a few words about the piece, I include here below:

“My musical setting attempts to both capture and portray the melancholic feelings of exasperation and resignation evident in Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz’s poetic lines. Her poem  “Me acerco y me retiro” (I approach and withdraw) clearly deals with unrequited love and expresses deep feelings of despondency and sadness over a lover’s disdain. A celebrity during her lifetime, Sor Juana (1651-1695)  came to new prominence in the late 20th century with the rise of feminism and women’s writing, officially being credited as the first published feminist of the New World.
I approached the writing of the duet with unusual trepidation and anxiety. Dealing with a poem by one of Mexico’s most revered intellectuals inspired me to juxtapose old-fashioned sounding harmonies with more present-day constructs. It also stirred me to compose lengthy piano interludes hoping to provide an adequate musical commentary to the multiple emotions and shadings implied in the poetry. I also exercised extreme caution and respect denoting the poetry’s sapphic meter with its many starts and stops. Overall, I sought to enhance the forcefulness and urgency of Sor Juana’s poetry.”

Composer Max Lifchitz

The word premiere of “Me acerco, y me retiro” by Max Lifchitz will take place on Sunday May 3, 2015 at 3 PM, as part of the Cinco de Mayo Celebration concert of vocal music by classical composers of Mexico at the Christ and St. Stephen’s Church in Manhattan, located at 120 W. 69th Street.  Included in this vocal concert are songs by Manuel Ponce, Rodolfo Halffter, Salvador Moreno and Maria Grever.
May 3 Revised 4 (2)