Making sense of the lyrics...
This month we’re looking at the music and life of Enrique Delfino, one of the great innovators and creators of a sophisticated, elegant musical style in the 1920’s. Tango was having a moment in France, and hand in hand with that musical elegance went an exploration into French literary themes in tango lyrics. This new ‘tango romanza’ was musically lush, and lyrically whimsical. In some cases the usual characters were simply remade walking the streets of Paris instead of Buenos Aires. And in others tango lyricists dreamed of characters from French novels. Such is the case with ‘Griseta,’ with music by Deflino and Lyrics by José González Castillo. Today, among other things, we’re going to see if we can explain each literary reference.
José González Castillo was the father of Cátulo Castillo (see articles on Verdemar and Tú) and although he had been exposed to the folkloric lyric styles of payadores (improvising bards) and understood tango’s roots, he was a sophisticated writer with literary inclinations. Who better to write a tango romanza?
If a classic tango trope involves a humble girl who leaves her neighborhood to go downtown, pretend to be high class at the tango cabaret, only to return to her old life, the 1920’s saw the advent of new trope: a French girl who goes to Buenos Aires dreaming of romance, only to meet her downfall, either in disappointment (Madame Ivonne), prostitution (Francesita) or death (Griseta). The basic storyline here is that this Griseta (a Spanish approximation of Grisette, roughly translating to ‘seamstress’) falls in love with tango (in a ‘storybook dream’) and ends up in Buenos Aires, in the slums where tango is danced. She’s looking for her prince, the protagonist of a French romance novel. She brings the poetry of Paris to the tango scene, but eventually gives up hope, and one night, to the funereal sound of a bandoneon, she goes to sleep forever! The premise is perhaps as sappy as a romance novel. On the other hand, its lack of specificity could imply that there was some other path to ruin. We can imagine the poverty and prostitution cited in the other aforementioned tangos as possible causes.
The literary references alone make this lyric a little dense, even if we get the gist by reading it once through. So let’s take a moment and go through them:
Museta, Mimí, Rodolfo and Schaunard – characters from La Vie de Boheme by Henri Murger, which was the basis for Giacomo Puccini’s opera La Boheme.
Manon and Des Grieux – characters from Abbe Prevost’s 1731 novel L’Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut, a sort of internationally popular trashy romance novel of its era.
Margarita Gauthier (Margarite Gautier) – protagonist of Alexandre Dumas’ novel La Dame aux Camélias, which was the basis for Giuseppe Verdi’s opera La Traviata. From 1848, and also worthy of beach reading. There is also a tango titled ‘Margarita Gauthier’ by Joaquin Mora and Julio Jorge Nelson.
Duval – Armand Duval, Margarite Gautier’s lover from the above novel.
Tangos with French themes were all the rage in the 1920’s and Griseta is one of the most important examples. Griseta would go on to become her own character in the mythology of tango lyrics, with the great lyricist Homero Manzi naming her twice, in his tangos ‘Ronda de ases’ and ‘Tal vez será su voz.’ Probably the only more recognizable name from tango lyrics is ‘Malena,’ but that’s story for another day..
Music: Enrique Delfino
Lyrics: José Gonzalez Castillo