Think Piece

Voices Carry: Philip Glass’s Akhnaten, or Echoes across Time

By Enrique Ramirez


On a cool Spring night in 2014, driving on the Merritt Parkway through the heart of darkest Connecticut, I caught a strange noise through my speakers. It hung in the air inside my car for a couple of seconds before it broke apart into a field of high-pitched static. I detected within that jagged, dissonant burst some notes or chords from a pop song I knew from my youth. There was something else, however. As I focused on the red tail light contrails left behind by the cars and trucks speeding headlong into gloomily somber night, I thought I heard a voice caught in the hissing white noise. I could not understand what was being said, but the sound was unmistakably human, a symphony of glottal stops, fricatives, and sibilants. This voice crackled solemnly and distantly, broadcast from who knows when and where. I then took the nearest exit hoping to chase this human sound, to capture this fluttering pulse of life skipping along the aether.

The previous summer, on a rainy July evening in Chicago’s Union Park, I witnessed a charcoal-black raincloud descend from the sky as Björk took the stage at the Pitchfork Music Festival. I was far away, trying to cover my head as the ground below my feet became a swirl of mud and water. And through the haze, illuminated momentarily by the light emanating from the jumbotrons flanking each side of the stage, I caught a glimpse of the Icelandic singer. She entered in a field of magenta stars projected against three giant screens at the rear. Light glinted from her gold lamé dress. Quills emanated from her head—or at least that is what I thought I was seeing—turning her into a giant sea urchin save for a blank swath that revealed her mouth and face. She was not just from another world, but another world altogether, present, oceanic, suspended in the watery air enveloping the audience. There was a choir behind her, similarly dressed, all clad in platinum wigs, all dancing more or less together but not together, the movement of their arms and legs now appearing like strands of waterweeds carried along by sheets of rain. And then, that voice … so unmistakable. This was 2013.


It is 1897, and Albert Allis Hopkins, the future associate editor for Scientific American and a rabid Charles Dickens enthusiast, publishes Magic: Stage Illusions and Scientific Diversions, Including Trick Photography (1897), which contains a description of the backstage interiors of the Metropolitan Opera in New York. His point of view is that of the interloper, a person arriving upon the flotsam and jetsam of a previous evening’s reverie. His inventory of the items inside the “property-rooms” are matter-of-fact, but even the most casual reader may detect a hint of wanderlust in what at first seems to be mere description of objects from another time:

The property-rooms are the most interesting. Here you may see Siegfried’s Anvil, his forge, Wotan’s spear, the Lohengrin swan, or the “Rheingold;” while under the second fly gallery will be seen the parts of “fafner,” the dragon in “Siegfried,” […] the armory is a room containing a vast collection of helmets, casques, breastplates, swords, spears, lanterns, daggers, etc.; while in a case lighted by electricity are the splendid jewels, crowns, etc. which make such an effective appearance when seen on the stage. Here will also be found a model of the old dragon which was burned up in the fire. Hung up on one side of the wall is an elephant’s head with a trunk which is freely flexible, and in the next room will be found the head of a camel which winks his eyes. In here are also stored the shields and weapons which the great artists use when they impersonate northern gods and warriors. Under the property master’s charge are modeling rooms and carpenter shops. (265)

On November 26, 1922, Howard Carter descended by candlelight into an opening underneath the tomb complex of Rameses VI in the Theban Necropolis. He opened a door, which at least in his recollection, bore the “seal impressions of Tut.ankh.amen” when a current of hot air escaped and almost extinguished his candle. It was an exhalation, a release of pent-up memories of roiling sands, of waters diverting and scarring the Wadi bedrock, a remembrance of stars turning overhead in slowly changing patterns as armies ravaged the valleys and floodplains and made way for new patterns of living, for new forms of speech. It was this whoosh of air that whispered a lament for a burgeoning modernity and revealed to Carter a spectacle beyond his own imaginings. When he caught the first glimpses of “two strange ebony-black effigies of a King, gold sandalled, bearing staff and mace” looming out “from the cloak of darkness” and of “gilded couches in strange forms, lion-headed, Hathor-headed, and beast infernal,” Carter thought of the same world that confronted Hopkins in 1897. “The first impression,” wrote Carter of the gilded chairs, thrones, and chariots deep inside KV62, now known as the Tomb of Tutankhamun, “suggested the property-room of an opera of a vanquished civilization.”

Costanzo, as Akhnaten, flanked by Nefertiti (J’Nai Bridges) and Queen Tye (Dísella Lárusdóttir). Metropolitan Opera, 2019.

Nearly a hundred years later, in November 2019, I learned about Howard Carter’s discovery during a call with Anthony Roth Costanzo, who was just finishing a stellar run in the title role in the Metropolitan Opera’s performance of Philip Glass’s Akhnaten. To prepare for the role—a demanding one written specifically for a countertenor—Costanzo visited the Griffith Institute at Oxford University. It was there that he found Carter’s diary entry with its description of Tutankhamun’s tomb as a “property-room,” and his excitement at doing so was palpable, as if he were channeling the same thrill that Carter might have felt on that day in November 1922.

Costanzo’s photograph of Carter’s diary page, where Carter described entering the “Tomb of Tomb of Tutankhamun” on Nov. 26, 1922

Perhaps this was because like Carter, Costanzo experienced the electric charge felt when one catches a glimpse from another world and time. I was reminded of Arlette Farge’s own account of an “impassive archivist” at the Archives Nationales in Paris, encountering her own property-room of sorts, a portal to another temporality. She noted: Time is elsewhere, as the clock has been still for a long time, like the one in the porphyry room of the Escorial where the kings and queens of Spain are buried, sternly laid out in their marble tombs. At the bottom of that dark Spanish valley the long line of the monarchy lies at rest; at the bottom of the Marais in Paris the traces of the past lie at rest. An analogy between the two mausoleums may seem arbitrary, yet on each of her visits to the inventory room she is struck by this memory from across the Pyrenees. For Costanzo, time too is sequestered in archives and rooms, in seemingly distant elsewheres, yet seamed together through the alchemy of his vocal performance.

Allow me to clarify. We talked of two Akhnatens. There is the first, successor to Amenhotep III and known for introducing a monotheistic cult at el-Amarna that replaced the worshiping of the falcon-headed sun god Ra with adulation for the solar Aten, the disk of the sun that appears to hover like a flying object before the new pharaoh. This is the Aknhaten committed to dusty archives and countless texts (including a novel by Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz). Then there is the Akhnaten of Glass’s work. This is Costanzo’s Aknhaten, with a libretto culled from a diverse array of texts and objects, from E. A. Wallis Budge’s translation of The Egyptian Book of the Dead, to the Pyramid Texts from the Old Kingdom, and even transcriptions of boundary stelae found in James Henry Breasted’s A History of Egypt: From the Earliest Times to the Persian Conquest (1906). This is more than singing, more than the mere enunciation of words written elsewhere. The artist momentarily inhabits a text and lives out its contours by summoning a “voice within a voice” (per novelist James McCourt), a voice that radiates and ensnares the audience in the feint of historical time.

Costanzo as Akhnaten, Metropolitan Opera, 2019.

“Opera time is slower than actual time.” This is Costanzo. In our interview, he is gregarious and friendly, knowledgeable not just about his craft, but also about Glass’s work. His performance at the Metropolitan Opera was not his first encounter with Akhnaten, having played the title role in earlier productions in London and in Los Angeles. I keep this in mind as he describes Glass as an “additive composer” that works with “macro structures,” clusters of time and sound that change ever so slightly to achieve maximum emotional impact. I cannot help but hear the voice of a historian in Costanzo. “The performer’s job is to create the narrative,” he tells me in our interview, as if echoing historian Carolyn Steedman, who remarked how the “practice of historical work, the uncovering of new facts, the endless reordering of the immense detail that makes the historian’s map of this past, performs this act of narrative destabilization on a daily basis.” (48) And Costanzo’s own descriptions of the structures of operatic time are reminiscent of Geoff Eley’s observation that Marc Bloch’s writings “freed historical perspective from simple narrative time, reattaching it to longer frames of structural duration.” (36)

Costanzo with J’Nai Bridges as Nefertiti. Metropolitan Opera, 2019.

This is not to say that performing historically is a kind of abstraction, a form of intellectual suspension that allows the musician to become lost in the structures and rituals of musicking. As it turns out, the craft of working within macro structures and of creating “longer frames of structural duration” is demanding—musically and physically. For instance, Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians (1974-76) is known as an exacting work. To borrow Costanzo’s own words about performing Akhnaten, it is “repetitive” and “relentless.” Music for 18 Musicians lasts about an hour when played live and is composed of 11 “pulses,” each a small piece of music based around a single chord. Different instruments phase in and out of the piece. In one moment, high-pitched female voices accentuate the downbeat. In another, bass clarinets enter with a low swell—a reedy doppler shift of sorts. The sonic complexity of Reich’s piece has a temporal effect as well. In Parallel Play (2009), music critic Tim Page cites his review of Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians as an important event that foreshadowed his eventual diagnosis with Asperger’s syndrome. Here, he remarks on the perception of time while listening to Music for 18 Musicians:

Minerva-like, the music springs to life fully formed—from dead silence to fever pitch. There is a strong feeling of ritual, a sense that on some subliminal plane the music has always been playing and that it will continue playing forever… imagine concentrating on a challenging modern painting that becomes just a little different every time you shift your attention from one detail to another. Or trying to impose a frame on a running river—making a finite, enclosed work of art yet leaving its kinetic quality unsullied, leaving it flowing freely on all sides. It has been done. Steve Reich has framed the river. (Tim Page 2009, 168)

This brings to light some similarities between Costanzo performing Akhnaten and musicians playing Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians. Both capitalize on extended temporal horizons, and both rely on a double commitment of sorts: there is the time depicted in the libretto and the score, and then there is the time required to perform it. One may even sense that the slight variations in key and fluctuating time signatures have been occurring in perpetuity. You have to wait patiently to experience the tonal changes, to feel the emotional shifts. You have to listen carefully for a similar sense of perpetuity in Music for 18 Musicians. Peel away the layers of voices, metallophones, and clarinets, and you will hear the constant and relentless pounding of marimbas and xylophones. Imagine how tired these performers must be. They have been playing for the past 56 minutes, but as Page noted, they could have been playing for an eternity. They could be playing the first sounds ever made. 


“Everything made now is either a replica or a variant of something made a little time ago and so on back without break to the first morning of human time.” (2) It is 1962. This is George Kubler, writing in The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things. His eye is cinematic and roving, envisioning—literally—the history of art in terms of “form-classes,” each a sequence of objects whose differences are manifested slowly and deliberately in long, clustering durations of time. Beginning with a “prime object,” they vary and develop across different materialities, becoming the aforementioned replicas, and in some instances, developing mutations. The routes of Kubler’s “form-classes” are registered as if in a chronophotograph or stroboscopic flash photo: a gauzy presence that makes itself known persistently. I hesitate to call these developing forms phantoms, if only because Kubler reserves this ghostly description for a category of objects that exists outside the contours of his temporal purview. These are fashions, objects marked by “duration without substantial change: an apparition, a flicker, forgotten with the sounds of the seasons.” 

Kevin Pollard, the costume designer for Akhnaten, used these doll’s heads to create Aknaten’s Deshret, the Crown of Lower Egypt.

The twin serpents once wound into a diadem encircling Akhnaten’s head are gone. In its place, a toy doll’s face peers from the front of a Deshret, the Crown of Lower Egypt. Above, a Hedjet, the White Crown of Upper Egypt, receives an egg-shaped stone of veined carnelian, polished and shining. Combined, the two crowns rest on top of a headpiece resembling a Nemes, a simple headdress, and here made of EVA foam and shellacked to look like an ormolu casque. Around the pharaoh’s face, blue, red, and green plastic jewels echo the bands of amazonita, turquoise, feldspar, and obsidian found on the funerary mask of Tutankhamun. And the effect is similar. They splinter light in all directions and for a moment, the audience may be lost in what looks like a radiant crown hovering around Akhnaten’s head. On the neck, aligned with the chin, a giant gold brooch appears suspended between lines of pearls fastened to an oversized pauldron on each shoulder. They are covered with more clusters of doll faces. Some of them are ashen, with lips and eye sockets dabbed in lampblack. Others are simply burnt, covered in dark alligator-skin blotches or bubbling blisters from which dead eyes peer at the audience. A v-shaped bodice shrouds the pharaoh’s torso in cascades of gilded crinoline and tulle. It flares out to create a large split skirt with a lower hem made of turquoise ruffs and more doll faces. Seen from the front, the pharaoh cuts a wide figure, part-Kamakura era Samurai, part-Elizabeth I posing for her Spanish Armada portrait. Flanked by Horenhab and the High Priest Aye, Akhnaten holds a crook and flail, confident in his newfound authority. When he is on the stage performing and in this costume, Costanzo is in Akhnaten’s body. This is what he tells me.

Akhnaten, Metropolitan Opera, 2019

A historical figure, like a fictional character, defies death by living across various texts, in different media. It is “a stand against oblivion and despair,” as Ian McEwan tells us in the final moments of his 2001 novel, Atonement. Whether in the guise of a novelist or under the mantle of the seasoned historian, a writer conjures an immortal subject, and does so in multiplicities. The historical Akhnaten and the operatic Akhnaten can exist in the same place and at the same time. So does Helen of Sparta, whose sequestration becomes the flashpoint of a conflagration, a tale of killing fields and captive voices woven into an everlasting refrain born of war and anguish: “Sing, Goddess …” I think of the image of Helen, her eidolon appearing not just in different texts, but in different places. In addition to the Helen in Homer, there is also the Helen in Herodotus and the Helen in Euripides (as well as the Helen in recent novels like Madeline Miller’s Circe and Pat Booker’s The Silence of the Girls.) Helen narrates her own fate, of the Judgment of Paris, and speaks through Euripides: “But Hera, indignant at not defeating the goddesses, made an airy nothing of my marriage with Paris; she gave to the son of king Priam not me, but an image, alive and breathing, that she fashioned out of the sky and made to look like me.” The image of Helen is substantiated not because it looks like her, but because she breathes, and by implication sounds like Helen. She speaks. She laments. She sings. Helen is telepresent. Helen is theatrical. She is more than a trompe l’oeil. She is a trompe l’oreille.

Two Helens

I heard Helen in 2013, listening to the Buggles’ 1979 hit “Video Killed The Radio Star” on a pair of studio monitors. I closed my eyes and heard her in the background. At first the voice was slow, languorous (not the one that goes “Oh-a Oh”). It was almost lost among the sequenced drums and ARP String Ensemble swells, and monophonic Minimoog and Prophet 5 voicings. During the second verse, when bassist Trevor Horn sings, “And now we meet in an abandoned studio/We hear the playback and it seems so long ago/And you remember the jingles used to go,” Helen’s voice stays in the background until the end of the verse when it transforms into a high-pitched scramble as her recorded voice rewinds at high speed. And finally, as the song reaches its coda, I hear Helen singing “You are a radio star,” only getting louder, panning subtly from back to front, changing from mono to stereo.

Laurie Anderson Radar

t is 1987. I hear Helen in Laurie Anderson’s “Blue Lagoon,” a track from the 1984 album Mister Heartbreak. She is marooned on an island, reciting a letter to a distant love as if she were Miranda from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. She addresses her rambles to a digitized male voice skipping above a wobbling synth. The effect is disorienting, and as we listen to Anderson’s voice, hers is one of resignation turned to sarcasm: “Days, I dive by the wreck. Nights, I swim in the blue lagoon / Always used to wonder who I’d bring to a desert island.” Her letter quickly becomes an interior monologue, oneiric musings to the disembodied, electronic voice that sounds almost like the Ariel-like Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet (1958). She recites Ariel’s song from Act I, Scene II of The Tempest (“Full fathom five thy father lies / Of his bones are coral made”) before riffing on the Epilogue from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, just as the accompanying, irregular rhythms and guitar feedback samples become a swelling chorus of gamelan instruments and steel drums, increasing in volume, as if the song were levitating, invoking a moment when Ferdinand hears Ariel’s singing and asks, “Where should this music be? I’ the air or the earth?”


I have heard voices. They are the sounds of ethereal presences eulogized into printed words, relayed station to station. They are compressed vibrations, airborne, wired and ducted into our cochlear nerves. They mimic speech. They are unmoored in time and space. They scatter across electromagnetic spectra, twisted into technicolor coils of visible wavelengths. They fray and recombine once again as dense fabrics of pixels emanating a ghostly haze of narrow-spectrum blue light. These are the voices I have heard.


Enrique Ramirez is a Brooklyn-based writer, architectural historian, musician, and critic. He is currently a critic in graphic design at Yale School of Art. You can follow him on instagram at @riqueramirez

Featured Image: Costanzo. Ascent.

Intellectual history

“It’s Coming Back Around Again”: Rage Against The Machine as Radical Historians

By guest contributor Jake Newcomb

The music world has been abuzz this year with the reunion of Rage Against The Machine, whose reunion world tour includes a headlining stint at Coachella in April. Rumors of the imminent return have abounded since a spin-off band (Prophets of Rage) formed in 2016 to protest the “mountain of election-year bullshit” that emerged that year. Prophets of Rage’s lineup consisted of the instrumentalists of Rage Against The Machine with Chuck D (of Public Enemy) and B-Real (of Cypress Hill) performing vocals in lieu of Zack De La Rocha, the vocalist of Rage Against The Machine. Guitarist Tom Morello stated back in 2016 that they “could no longer stand on the side of history. Dangerous times demand dangerous songs. Both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are both constantly referred to in the media as raging against the machine. We’ve come back to remind everyone what raging against the machine really means.” Prophets of Rage embarked on their “Make America Rage Again” tour in 2016, and they even staged a demonstration outside the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, an attempted repeat of Rage Against The Machine’s renowned performance directly outside of the Democratic National Convention in 2000, on the street in Los Angeles. Now, Zack De La Rocha has returned to complete the reunion. Their “Public Service Announcement” tour was scheduled to begin on March 26th, in El Paso, Texas, as a response to the domestic terror attack there last August, but in light of the global COVID-19 pandemic, they have postponed all the shows scheduled between March and May. The July and August legs of their world tour are, as of now, still on schedule.

Aside from their signature sound, Rage Against The Machine (hereafter RATM) are most commonly beloved and denounced for their commitment to radical politics, which has commanded significant attention by fans and critics alike. Their songs are public stances taken on some of America’s most polarizing topics: police brutality, wealth inequality, globalization, racism, and the two-party system, the media, and education. They also publicly embraced radical movements outside of the United States, like the Zapatista movement against NATO during the 1990s. Culturally, their fame and left-wing politics have seen them associated with figures like Michael Moore and Noam Chomsky, both of whom RATM has worked with in some capacity. Their politics are often discussed as inseparable from their music (aside from the bizarre case of Paul Ryan, who claimed to enjoy their sound but hate their lyrics) since their political stances and statements are viewed as a key component of their entire act. What is much less discussed, or analyzed by scholars, however, is RATM’s presentation of history. This is surprising, because RATM’s music engages in a “re-casting” of history, not unlike Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, with the past a recurring element of their lyrics. The historical narratives in the songs identify the downtrodden as the protagonist, continuously battling multiple, interlocking spheres of oppression (a.k.a., The Machine) over centuries. This generations-long struggle, and the consistent oppression of the poor and weak, gives urgency to lyrics such as, “Who controls the past now, controls the future. Who controls the present now, controls the past,” a direct homage to George Orwell. Breaking out of this cycle of history is what RATM preaches.  

On their first album, released in 1992 as Rage Against The Machine, RATM’s songs argued that the education system, the media, and the state worked in tandem to brainwash the population into believing false historical narratives and fake news. De La Rocha specifically took aim at public school curriculums and teachers that forced “one-sided” Eurocentric histories down the throats of pupils. This false narrative (of American history), accordingly, celebrates and obscures the violent realities of “Manifest Destiny” ideology as well as stripping non-white students of their historical and cultural identities, in order to assimilate them into American society. The true narrative, according to the lyrics, is a history of racial and economic oppression at the hands of both the state and private corporations, who have succeeded in no small part over the centuries by actual and cultural genocide. Further, this false narrative of history interlocks with contemporary false media reports and psychologically-manipulative advertising that keep the population docile, obsessed with consumer products, and supportive of oppressive class and racial relations. They sing that the United States is trapped in a loop that perpetuates injustice, ignorance of that injustice, and ignorance of the history of that injustice. This is the loop they first called their fans to rally against. 

Despite the unique rap-metal denunciation of “The Machine” that RATM presented on this first album, those familiar with historiography from the 1980s and 1990s will recognize the similarities between their presentation of America’s past and those of others. Compared with popular historiography, RATM presents similar longue durée historical claims as A People’s History of the United States and Lies My Teacher Told, according to which the long-term history of oppression and exploitation in the United States has been long-obscured by false, nationalistic history. Like RATM’s albums, these books were massively successful, although in the latter case, their popularity derived explicitly from their depiction of history. RATM’s presentation of history was present, but it was (and is) obscured by their denunciation of contemporary politics, their revolutionary slogans, and their distinctive sound. Of course, these shifts in popular historiography to initiate a change in the dominant narrative of history also emerged in academic historiography, as with the Subaltern Studies group. Scholars like Ranajit Guha and Gyan Prakash published works on India that tried to move beyond the British colonial and Indian nationalist narratives that obscured the lives of “subaltern” Indian populations and the exploitation they suffered at the hands of colonialism and industrialization alike. Women and gender scholars also prominently emerged at this time to analyze long-term subjugation of women and gender minorities as well as address the lack of women’s historical contributions in academic historiography. RATM’s music can be viewed as an extension of these historiographic shifts into the world of music, specifically the emerging world of alternative rock and rap. Their inclusion alongside this historiography also points to a broader cultural moment, whereby the traditional historical narratives broke down.  

RATM continued to expand their historical commentary throughout their initial run in the 1990s, even going so far as to start their second album with the lyrics, “Since 1516, Mayans attacked and overseen…” in the song “People of the Sun.” The song is an anthem of support for the Zapatista movement in Southern Mexico, who De La Rocha visited before writing the second album. While politically the song was written as a song of support with the Zapatistas, the song associates the struggles of the Zapatistas with others in a long history of oppression in Mexico, dating back to Spanish colonization. So on their second album, RATM continued to address long-term historical trends that repeat over time, which they asked their listeners to fight against. They bring the long-term historical trends into the third and final studio album as well, 1999’s The Battle of Los Angeles. For example, in the song “Sleep Now In The Fire,” De La Rocha identifies many difficult historical topics as being aspects of the same long-term phenomenon: violent greed, specifically in the context of colonialism, slavery, and war. The crews of the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria are part of the same lineage as the overseers of antebellum plantations, and the wielders of agent Orange and nuclear weapons. De La Rocha also suggests in the lyrics that Jesus Christ has historically been invoked as the ultimate justification for various forms of greed or intense violence, pushing that lineage back millennia. 

While music as history is nothing new (in fact, for some cultures, history has traditionally been expressed through music), it is rare to find such an explicit historical dimension in contemporary popular music in the West (although, some intrepid historians have begun interpreting western music and art as history). Not only did RATM present their fans with a unique sound and highly-charged politics in the 1990s, but they also advocated for a historiographical framing that paralleled changes happening in popular and academic historiography. Along with Subaltern Studies and A People’s History of the United States, for example, RATM asked listeners to shift their historical focus to the lives and stories of the oppressed, instead of glorying the rich and famous. This historical framing, no doubt, was tied to RATM’s political project, as were the writings of Zinn and Guha. And like Guha and Zinn, RATM’s productions (cultural rather than intellectual) became both highly influential and targeted by critics. RATM has not announced any plans to record and release any new albums, so the jury’s out on whether there will be any new takes on history from De La Rocha and co. What’s likely though, is that thousands of fans will pack out stadiums this summer to sing along with RATM’s radical history if the COVID-19 pandemic subsides in the United States and Europe.

Jake Newcomb is an MA student in the Rutgers History Department, and he is also a musician. He can be followed on Twitter and Instagram at @jakesamerica 

Intellectual history

Milton at the Opera

By guest contributor John Phipps

February, 1639, and the festivities of the Roman carnival were approaching their apex. There had been processions and parades, public displays of civic and religious devotion—almost all bankrolled by the ruling Barberini family. The Barberini patriarch, Maffeo, sat in the Vatican as Pope Urban VIII. His nephews, Antonio and Francesco, were powerful cardinals and patrons of the arts. Together, the three men had the eternal city in their deep cassock pockets. 

The crowning glory of the carnival was Virgilio Mazzocchi’s comic opera, Chi Soffre Speri (Let he who suffers, hope). It was staged in the Barberini Palace, in a theatre capable of seating several thousand. There were vast choruses, troops of dancers, and a dozen changes of scenery. Real rain and thunder would appear to threaten a stage designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. 

Half an hour before the performance began, the young John Milton was greeted at the door by a Barberini official, and went to take his seat among the lords of Rome. 

John Milton, c. 1629

Milton was on his Italian gap year, having arrived in the summer of 1638. He was, in Susanne Woods’ phrase, ‘an oxymoron in search of the higher resolutions of paradox’: a Protestant in the home of Catholicism; a great poet who was more or less unknown to his contemporaries (ed. Di Cesare, 9). Denied entry into the priesthood, uninterested in the law, and sceptical of Caroline royal patronage, Milton was a brilliant young man with almost no prospects. So he went to Italy, in search of culture, art, and personal validation. 

These were precisely what he found. Milton would write later about his time in Florence:

In that city, which I have always admired above all others because of the elegance, not just of its tongue, but also of its wit, I lingered for about two months. There I at once became the friend of many gentlemen eminent in rank and learning, whose private academies I frequented—a Florentine institution which deserves great praise not only for promoting humane studies but also for encouraging friendly discourse. Time will never destroy my recollection—ever welcome and delightful—of you, Jacopo Gaddi, Carlo Dati, Frescobaldi, Coltellini, Buonmattei, Chimentelli, Francini, and many others.

 ed. Loewenstein, 347

It is a matter of record that Milton was, on his arrival in Italy, accepted as a member of a prestigious Florentine academy. On an almost weekly basis, Milton attended intellectual meetings with poets, scholars and noblemen. In Florence, the educated (and of course, male) humanist could move freely, in an elevated space where the “humane arts” superseded the old, denominational boundaries. Milton’s affectionate words—along with his long correspondence with the nobleman and poet Carlo Dati—suggest that, to Milton, Florence wasn’t far from worldly paradise.

But it’s hard not to wonder what the deeply Puritan Milton must have thought in Rome, which he would later call “the very stronghold of the Pope.” And not just in Rome, but seated in one of its finest palaces, the future author of Eikonoklastes (The image breaker) sitting down for five hours of operatic extravagance. 

His feelings can only have been uneasy. He was not just a puritan and a republican, but the product of a culture that lived in fearful opposition to Rome. In Britain it was commonplace to refer to the pope as Antichrist; a Catholic zealot had tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament within living memory. At the same time, to be invited was a compliment. Milton would have been weighing his acceptance into Roman society against his feelings about the papacy; his uncertainty about princely patronage against his republicanism; his scepticism about Catholic musical propaganda against his cultural and lyric appetite.

All that, before the curtain had even risen. 

And after it had? Opera would not have been, to Milton, what it is to us now. In Italy it was the exciting new art form. Public demand was exploding: in the year of Milton’s visit, two new public opera houses were built in Venice alone. What’s more, Milton’s Florentine companions believed that opera had been invented by their forebears, in an academy much like their own, and they surely would have impressed this fact upon their English guest.  

In an age when Italian cities still functioned like states, regional pride was fierce, and the Florentines took pains to codify their claim to opera’s invention. Milton’s great friend Dati later wrote that opera had its roots in sixteenth-century nobleman Jacopo Corsi’s Camerata, which was “always open, like a public academy, to everyone who had intelligence or talent in the liberal arts … Recitative style for use on stage was born there (ed. Price, 135).”  

“Recitative style” refers to dramatic singing over homophonic chords (as opposed to the more common polyphony), just as in modern operatic recitative. It was at once an innovation and an archaism. Its invention stemmed from the contemporary belief that ancient Greek tragedy was not spoken, but sung, and both Florentine recitative and opera were born out of the desire to recreate the mythical impact of classical tragedy. Not only were many of the early operas on classical themes, they also centred and emphasized the self-consciously Greek device of the chorus.  

Milton was paying attention. At some point in the next few years, most likely not long after he returned to Italy, Milton began drafting tragedies on religious themes. These are clearly conceived with performance in mind: one contains specific instructions for costumes; others talk freely about “the audience.” Two of these drafts, for a tragedy called “Adam Unparadiz’d” or “Paradise Lost,” make extensive use of a chorus, a device unseen on the English stage for many years. One contains the shorthand instruction, “Chorus of angels sing a hymme of the creation.”

“Paradise Lost: The Opera?” It feels too unlikely to be true. But Milton was no stranger to music. His father was a composer; he himself was a good singer and talented multi-instrumentalist. He took a chest of the new Italian music home from Venice. And the 1634 masque Comus, his longest work to date, was set to music by his friend, the composer Henry Lawes. Even as a protestant amongst the world’s leading heretics, it seems that Milton was taking notes for his own dramatic designs. 

Edwin Henry Landseer, The Defeat of Comus (1843)

Whatever his plans were, Milton’s tumultuous life got in the way. His triumph would be to write what some consider the greatest poem in English. But what awaited him beyond the page—blindness, divorce, Europe-wide infamy—cannot have been what he had hoped for from life. 

The ambivalences of his Italian trip never left him. In Paradise Lost, there are several ambiguous references to the Italian humanist culture he experienced, most notably in Milton’s descriptions of Hell. For instance, an image in Book II sounds very like an Italian academy:

Others apart sat on a hill retir’d,
In thoughts more elevate, and reason’d high,
Of Providence, Foreknowledge, Will, and Fate,
Fixt Fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute,
And found no end, in wandring mazes lost.

II. 557-561

The “others” in question are the fallen angels, banished to hell by God for an eternity of torment. Yet the demons seem more like philosophers than hellhounds. 

It’s not just that the fallen angels seem to be like Catholic humanists, civilized but confused, it’s also that Hell sometimes seems awfully like Italy—and in Paradise Lost Milton’s Italian references are consistently Hell-bound. Milton’s description of the devils as they lie chained on the burning lake in Book I goes so far as to be geographically specific, talking of “Angel forms:”

who lay intrans’t
Thick as Autumnal Leaves that strow the Brooks
In Vallombrosa, where th’ Etrurian shades 
High overarch’t imbowr.

I. 301-4

The reference is puzzling, because it is unlikely that Milton visited this remote area during his time in Italy. Some have suggested a reference to Psalm 23; the place name translates to “The valley of the shadow.” Others see a reference to Virgil’s description of the dead in Book 6 of the Aeneid, whose souls flutter and fall like leaves in Autumn wind. But the deliberate Italianisation of the classical image, the biblical reference, the Hellish context and the elegiac tone add up to something rich, strange and ambivalent—much like Milton’s own experience in Catholic Italy.. 


The questions facing Milton in Italy have not gone away. With whom can we acceptably associate? And do we make those decisions for reasons of principle, or for fear of our contemporaries’ judgement? How can we live among people with worldviews that would exclude our own? And if we find we can live among them, what does that say about us? 

The problems of liberalism have never been remote or intellectual. They are the problems of our daily life. Everyone works towards their own answer, though this is not to say that all answers are equally good. But the emotionally indeterminate Italian moments in Paradise Lost demand a change in perspective. If travel provides us with new choices, then art and literature offer us a space where we need not necessarily choose at all: where our many selves can coexist more happily than they can in daily life. 

In Italy Milton was engaged in the messy business of living with difference. He was hungry for knowledge, for culture, for something new and challenging. He was lucky enough to find a world removed not only from the one he knew, but from the increasingly bitter and hostile one he would return to. Several centuries later, on a continent far away from Milton’s, Elizabeth Bishop found herself pondering the narrow possibilities of a wide world, in her poem “Questions of Travel

Is it lack of imagination that makes us come 
to imagined places, not just stay at home? 
Or could Pascal have been not entirely right 
about just sitting quietly in one’s room? 
Continent, city, country, society: 
the choice is never wide and never free. 
And here, or there . . . No. Should we have stayed at home, 
wherever that may be?

John Phipps is a writer. He lives in London.

Intellectual history

Variations on a Theme by Puccini: Theologizing La fanciulla del West

By Editor Spencer J. Weinreich

Giacomo Puccini, La fanciulla del West

“Whiskey per tutti!” “Benvenuto fra noi, Johnson di Sacramento!” “Una buona giornata per Wells Fargo!” (Puccini 11, 23, 50). La fanciulla del West (“The Girl of the West”), Giacomo Puccini’s opera set in the Wild West, is notorious for the jarring presence of American names in an Italian libretto, with English words like “poker” and “polka” jutting out stonily from the flow of song. If one can get beyond the lexical oddities—and, it must be acknowledged, some awfully problematic depictions of Native Americans—Fanciulla is musically spellbinding, its distinctive soundscape defined by the near-total absence of female voices (reflecting the skewed gender distribution of mining camps in the Old West). That said, Puccini’s score does not feature the barnstorming arias that dominate his other operas, as “Vissi d’arte” does Tosca, “Un bel dì vedremo” does Madame Butterfly, and, of course, “Nessun dorma” does Turandot.

One of the few set-pieces Puccini does create for his singers comes in Act I, when Minnie, the titular girl, gives a Bible lesson to some of the miners, culminating in the soprano’s brief, beautiful rendition of Psalm 51:7, 10.

Aspergimi d’issòpo e sarò mondo […] Lavami e sarò bianco come neve. Poni dentro al mio petto un puro cuore, e rinnovella in me uno spirito eletto. (18)

Or, as the King James Version has it: “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. […] Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.”

Eva-Maria Westbroek as Minnie at the Metropolitan Opera, photo credit Ken Howard / The Metropolitan Opera.

Pausing here, Minnie explains,

Ciò vuol dire, ragazzi, che non v’è, al mondo, peccatore cui non s’apra una via di redenzione. Sappia ognuno di voi chiudere in se questa suprema verità d’amore. (18)

Which is to say, boys, that there is no sinner in the world for whom a path to redemption is not open. May each of you learn how to hold this supreme truth of love within you.

This hopeful sentiment will stand her in good stead two acts later, when the opera climaxes with Minnie convincing the miners to pardon her (repentant) bandit lover, Dick Johnson. This she does by reminding them of her lessons and her compassionate gloss on Psalm 51:

Torno quella che fui per voi, l’amica, la sorella che un giorno v’insegnò una suprema verità d’amore: fratelli, non v’è al mondo peccatore cui non s’apra una via di redenzione! (60)

I am what once I was to you, the friend and the sister, who once taught you the supreme truth of love: brothers, there is no sinner in the world to whom a path to redemption is not open!

Giacomo Puccini

Puccini, of course, was a composer, not a theologian. That Minnie’s Psalm puzzled and startled me is due entirely to my own idées fixes. But puzzled and startled I was, for the Bible study at the Polka saloon sets up a curious theological problem within Fanciulla.

The scene is partly drawn from the opera’s source text, David Belasco’s play The Girl of the Golden West (1905), but it has been utterly transformed by Puccini’s librettists Guelfo Civinini and Carlo Zangarini. Belasco has Minnie teach not from the Bible, but from Old Joe Miller’s Jokes; not only do Civinini and Zangarini provide a more edifying textbook, they move the schoolroom scene to the first, rather than the third act, thus “carefully set[ting] up the redemption theme” that Puccini wanted to “hover over the whole work” (Rosen 290 and 289n62, respectively).

Carlo Zangarini

Now, the opera does not tell us anything outright about Minnie’s denominational background, but we do get a clue or two from Civinini and Zangarini’s libretto. If nothing else, that Minnie refers to the psalm beginning “Have mercy upon me, O God” as Psalm 51 points to Protestantism, or at least a Protestant Bible: in a Roman Catholic Bible, using the numbering of the Vulgate, the text would be Psalm 52.

More suggestive still is Civinini and Zangarini’s Italian text of verse 51:10: “e rinnovella in me uno spirito eletto”—“and renew in me an elect spirit” (italics mine). The standard Protestant Italian text of Scripture, the Diodati Bible, gives the second verset of Psalm 51:10 as “e rinnovella dentro di me uno spirito diritto”—matching, virtually word for word, the KJV’s “and renew a right spirit within me.” For those playing along at home, in the Hebrew the adjective in question is nachon (נָכוֹן), which means right, correct, or just. The major English translations of the Bible opt variously for “steadfast,” “loyal,” or “right,” and—more rarely—“resolute” or “faithful.” Eletto, as the cognate suggests, is Italian for “elect” or “elected,” in this case the denoting the Elect, those chosen by God’s secret providence as the recipients of his grace (and thus his salvation). It is impossible to say why Civinini and Zangarini chose eletto rather than diritto, but the choice of a term so crucial to (reformed) Protestant theology seems significant.

All well and good, my patient reader may be (reasonably) wondering, but why should it matter what adjective the librettists chose for a single line in three hours plus of opera? In the grand scheme of things, it surely does not, not even for the vast majority of dedicated operagoers. But for that tiny contingent whose passion for opera is matched by a love of theology, Minnie’s interpretation of Psalm 51 strikes a false note. If we are in the key of reformed Protestantism suggested by the word eletto, it is emphatically not the case that “there is no sinner in the world for whom a path to redemption is not open.” To the contrary, since at least the seventeenth century one of the five points of orthodox Calvinism has been the doctrine of “limited atonement” (the “L” in the mnemonic “TULIP”). Limited atonement holds that the salvific power of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross extends onlyto the elect—that is, to those God has determined from eternity to save. To quote the Synod of Dort (1618–19), at which the five points were adumbrated:

it was the will of God that Christ by the blood  of  the cross, whereby He confirmed the new  covenant, should  effectually  redeem out of every people, tribe, nation, and  language,  all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation and given to Him by the Father (Second Head, Paragraph 8, italics mine).

Charles Hodge

Of course, there are many sorts of Protestantism and many sorts of Protestants. Minnie may come from a non-Calvinist branch of the Christian tradition (despite her use of the word eletto), or from one of the Calvinist denominations that have moderated their doctrinal asperity over the years. Nor should we mistake Minnie herself for a theologian: as she herself protests to Johnson, “Don’t expect too much! I’ve got only thirty dollars’ worth of education…” (“Non vi aspettate molto! Non ho che trenta dollari soli di educazione…” 29). Though a voracious reader, she is largely self-taught; most of faithful, even those far better educated than she, are prone to stumble over doctrine, especially such knotty questions as predestination of soteriology. Indeed, Minnie’s distinguished contemporary, the Reverend Charles Hodge, principal of Princeton Theological Seminary—whose education cost considerably more than thirty dollars—broke with Calvinist orthodoxy to affirm “that God intended to save the majority of humanity” (Gutjahr 40).

So Minnie’s gloss may be something or it may be nothing; hardly much of a reason to care. Such speculations about what happens offstage and before the overture are hardly necessary for appreciating La fanciulla del West—nor do they even approach the importance (or scholarly prominence) of the number of Lady Macbeth’s children or the age of Prince Hamlet. But they spring from the same impulse: to accord fictional characters the status of persons, who do not pop in and out of existence each time they leave the stage.

Guelfo Civinini

Anecdotes are a form of currency in the world of opera. Here is one. A student of Maria Callas’s, so the story goes, missed the high note in an aria from Verdi’s Il trovatore. When corrected, the student claimed the passage was “a cry of despair.” The legendary soprano replied, “It’s not a cry of despair, it’s a B-flat.” It is not for me to challenge the greatest opera singer of the twentieth (or indeed any other) century; certainly, the storyline cannot be an excuse for poor performance. But, properly rendered as a B-flat, the note can and should be a cry of despair—as Callas, unique among opera singers for her dramatic talents, knew full well. Minnie is not just a collection of Italian phrases set to a sequence of notes; she is a character, and perhaps we learn something from exploring beyond what Puccini, Civinini, and Zangarini put on the stage. Julian Budden points out that by placing the Bible lesson before any of the dramatic action, Fanciulla takes away any ulterior motive for Minnie’s teachings: “she enjoins the Christian virtues out of sheer goodness of heart” (312). In her heretically optimistic take on Psalm 51, Minnie’s creators inadvertently fashioned another, hidden token of that warmth of heart, a warmth that suffuses the entire opera.

Think Piece

Social Defiance and Counter-Institutions: What Aesthetic Philosophy Misses in the Ontology of Rock Music

By guest contributor Jake Newcomb

Rage Against the Machine End of set, before leaving stage
Vegoose Music Festival, 28 October 2007.

With the publication of Rhythm and Noise: An Aesthetics of Rock, philosopher Theodore Gracyk made the first breach into a modern ontology of rock music in 1996. Gracyk’s ontology postulated the idea that rock music is separated from other genres of music by identifying sound recording as the most important facet of the genre of rock music – which contrasts the centrality of live performance in classical music. By downplaying the role of live performances, songwriting, and songs themselves in the ontology of rock, Gracyk’s left his assertion open to critique. Some of the critiques that followed Gracyk’s ontology, like Andrew Kania’sin 2006, keep the ontology of rock music “recording-centered,” but try to refine the exact contours of what “recording” is. Kania also acknowledged that rock music is a recording centered phenomenon, and argued that the primary goal of rock musicians is to “construct [recorded] tracks,” as opposed to writing songs. Kania used this assertion to then make the claim that recording tracks precedes the existence of a song, and that it isn’t until after a track is recorded, that a “song” can exist. In 2015, Franklin Bruno entered the debate, arguing not only that songwriting and the existence of songs can precede the recording of a track, but also that the quality of songwriting and songs are as important to the fans of rock music as the skill of recording tracks. Bruno emphasized the viewpoint that songs and recordings are not mutually exclusive, but mutually dependent.

This chain of argumentation leaves out the cultural and social dimensions of rock music, which could be of particular interest to historians. Rock musicians have openly defied the status quo and socio-political norms of their times, and became symbols of resistance to the social structures that surrounded their art. Defining moments in the development of rock, and how that development was perceived by the public, are entangled with the contemporary political and economic situations that surrounded those moments. The examples below demonstrate how rock musicians have symbolized social and political conflict.

Take for example, the identity of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain in the 1990s. In, The Man Whom the World Sold, Mark Mazullo argued that Cobain’s aggressive music and superstar status in the early 1990s for many people brought into the public consciousness a generational conflict between “Generation X” and the “Baby Boomers.” Nirvana’s confrontational music resonated with Generation X, who felt that the generation that directly preceded them, the Baby Boomers, had raised them in a system that could not provide the the pathways to happiness and prosperity that were promised to them by the idealism of post-war America. Mazullo quotes Sarah Ferguson, a journalist, who published an article after Cobain’s suicide saying that, “the hit ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was… a …resounding fuck you to the Boomers and all the false promises they saddled us with.” Following Cobain’s suicide in 1994 “every major print venue in the country ran obituaries and commentaries on Cobain’s heroic cultural role,” and “suicide hotlines were established across the country,” because there was an immediate fear of copycat suicides. Lorraine Ali writing for the New York Times chalked up the significance of Cobain’s death to the generational tension that allowed Nirvana to sell “millions of albums to peers who can relate to their rootless anger.” Here, Ali uses the word “peer” to describe the people who purchased Nirvana’s music, not “fans,” because to many listeners of Nirvana, Cobain was one of them, not just a rockstar. Cobain, plagued by many of the same ills that the listeners of his music were, triggered a deep emotional response from others in his generation who suffered from drug addiction, depression, chronic illness, and childhood trauma, like himself. For many young people in his generation, those characteristics of his personality and the social conditions in which he published his music were as important as the songs he wrote and the tracks that he recorded, and it is a big part of the reason why Nirvana’s music had immense and immediate commercial success.

Punk rock, a subgenre of rock that influenced Nirvana, actively resisted the mainstream and commercial entertainment industry. According to Dawson Barrett, punk engaged in “direct action” politics and “built its own elaborate network of counter-institutions, including music venues, media, record labels, and distributors,” that acted as “cultural and economic alternatives to corporate entertainment industry,” instead of trying to “[petition] the powerful for inclusion.” Which, Barrett argues, “should also be understood as sites of resistance to the privatizing agenda of neoliberalism,” because creating their own institutions and economic circuits was a conscious political choice to not participate in the dominant cultural economic ideology and social system. Barrett’s article, DIY Democracy: The Direct Action Politics of U.S. Punk Collectives, asserts that punk culture descended from “New Left Principles,” like “consensus-based decision-making, voluntary participation, and relatively horizontal leadership structures,” in direct defiance of the neoliberal ideology that evolved alongside punk in the United States. The punk rock musicians who engaged in “DIY democracy” had no desire to exist within the neoliberal commercial entertainment structure and built their own structures. Punk musicians created new modes of living to accompany their art. The development of punk music is also a history of a counter culture openly defiant of materialism, consumer culture, and mainstream political thought.

Václav Havel, photograph by Jiří Jiroutek

The Czechoslovakian rock movement in the 1970s also created “counter-institutions.” The existence of these counter-institutions and the desire to create modes of living outside of the state-accomodated social structures of the communist regime came to a head in 1976 when the members of a rock band called “The Plastic People of the Universe,” were put on trial and convicted for their music and their concerts. The state believed that the music and community of musicians put Czechoslovakia at risk. The trial, and the verdict, were the catalysts for the creation of the Charter 77 organization in Czechoslovakia. Charter 77, made up of the Czech intelligentsia who feared that the state could and would remove their freedoms of speech and assembly, was instrumental in bringing down the communist regime in the Velvet Revolution in 1989. Vaclav Havel, a founding member of Charter 77 and a spectator at the trial of The Plastic People of the Universe, wrote in his highly influential essay “The Power of the Powerless,” that the trial between the communist judicial system and the rock band was a confrontation between “two differing conceptions of life.” The state feared that the rock band’s music and concerts could undermine the solidarity and the morality of the state. Havel criticized the state’s viewpoint and actions as an “attack on the very notion of living within the truth, on the real aims of life.” The state according to Havel, acting from fear, took judicial measures to prevent the rock band from living and acting according to principles of freedom of expression and individual choice, because the very act of “living within truth” put the rigid totalitarian ideology of the Czechoslovakian state into question.

Havel identified that the Plastic People of the Universe had created their own counter-institutions, and he defined them as a “parallel polis.” In the Czechoslovakian state structure, Havel theorized that rock bands, and dissident groups in general, created their own organizational and economic structures in order to perpetuate their existence, and these “parallel polis” structures developed naturally as a response to the state rigidity and limitations of communist Czechoslovakia. Creating and maintaining these “parallel polis” structures was the only way that these musicians could live out their truth, playing the music that they wanted to play and living out the communal experiences that they wanted to have. The parallel polis that The Plastic People of the Universe created had two enormous effects on Czechoslovakian society: 1) it forced the state to take judicial action and punish an entity that they perceived as a threat, which began a new crackdown on elements in Czechoslovakia that the state perceived to be subversive, and 2) inspired part of the intelligentsia to found the Charter 77 organization in order to protect the rights of free speech and criticism. The Plastic People of the Universe inspired immediate action on both sides of a political conflict. While Cobain embodied a generational conflict, the Plastic People of the Universe’s embodied a political one.

The ontologies of rock music developed by Gracyk, Kania, and Bruno all abstract rock music from the social and political conditions that surround the art. At best this is incomplete, but at worst it is misleading. The aforementioned examples elucidate rock music’s tendency to embody social and political conflict, and in the case of The Plastic People of the Universe, inspire action on both sides of a political conflict. Kurt Cobain became a spokesman for his generation not only because of his ability to write popular songs and record popular tracks, but also because he was seen by some as a martyr-like figure. Punk rock musicians often denied mainstream consumer culture and replaced it with counter-institutions and grassroots organization to avoid having to work within the neoliberal economic system. These aspects of rock music are as important to our understanding of its history as the fact that the artform is primarily mediated from the artist to the recipient through sound recording. To move toward a more comprehensive ontology of rock, the cultural and political symbolism that rock music and its practitioners embodied should be taken into account.

Jake Newcomb is an MA student in the Rutgers History Department, and a musician. His essays on his personal experience with music can be found at
Think Piece

Performing Migration: Corridos, Mexican Masculinities, and American Empire (1917-1932)

by guest contributor Monique Flores Ulysses

Growing up as the child of a Mexican mother, when I heard Alejandro Fernández’s rendition of the popular corridoPaso del norte” blasting out of our old speakers on a Saturday morning, I knew it was time for my least favorite childhood activity: cleaning the entire house from top to bottom. As I got older and moved away from home, I stopped having to worry about those dreaded Saturday morning wake up calls. They come to me now as intermittent waves of nostalgia. Despite my best efforts as a kid to roll my eyes and pretend I was too cool for la música de mi mama, I could never deny the power behind corridos, rancheras, and música norteña. And so over the years, I have found myself constantly revisiting the music of my childhood—out of pleasure, but also out of academic interest.

Corridos are the Mexican ballads popular today throughout all of México and the vast Mexican diaspora. They can serve as beautiful renderings of historical storytelling that originated “por y para el pueblo“: for and by the people of México. In many of the corridos from 1917 (the year the current Mexican Constitution was signed) to 1932 (when American deportations of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans were at their height during the Great Depression), a racialized, migrant hetero-masculinity takes center stage. This occurs against the backdrop of negotiated dynamics of power between the expansion of American imperial ambitions and an impoverished, weakened Mexican state. Between 1917 and 1932, Mexican migrants used music, specifically corridos, as a broadly accessible vehicle of storytelling that allowed them to engage in this negotiation. The corridos reveal how migration and the relational experiences of policing and farm labor affected the performance of various forms of Mexican masculinities.

Corridos, as a specific genre of Mexican music, are characterized by restrictions on who is generally viewed as an acceptable performer. In A Texas-Mexican Cancionero: Folksongs of the Lower Border, Mexican-American author and folklorist Américo Paredes notes that although women “were important in the transmission of songs” they were, however, “not supposed to sing ‘men’s songs’ such as corridos and rarely did so in public.” While the borderlands/fronteriza culture allowed some transgressions of this patriarchal performance structure, the gender identity of the migrants in the following corridos is always implicitly that of a heterosexual Mexican man who engages in manual labor (xix).

Songs such as “Despedida de un norteño” (222-24) provide a glimpse into what the migration from México to the United States could entail, focusing specifically on the internal journey from Salvatierra, Guanajuato to Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua as told through a difficult, protracted goodbye to “mi madre querida/ la Virgen Guadalupana (my beloved mother/ the Virgen de Guadalupe),” “mi patria amorosa/ Republica Mexicana (my beloved land/ [the] Mexican Republic),” and the speaker’s biological mother. By focusing on three central aspects of an assumed Mexican femininity that in the narrator’s view need protection, his masculine duty has been fulfilled. The narrator makes clear that while it is his obligation as a man to leave for where there is work to be done, it is also, conversely, his duty to stay with the three mothers (national, familial, and religious) so long as he is able to afford it. The narrator’s masculinity is therefore upheld despite leaving for the United States, as it is the only way he can fulfill his national, familial, and religious duties to México. If he were a richer man, this would have been done from the comfort of home.

In other corridos, relationships with Anglo-American women are central to the performance of Mexican migrant masculinity. In one version of “Bonita esta tierra,” the narrator sings of the sheer amount of wealth found in the United States, with part of this bounty being access to Anglo-American women—if not in reality, at least through fantasy (Paredes). In another corrido, “Consejos a los norteños,” the narrator concentrates on items of clothing as signifiers of newfound wealth in the United States, while singing about Anglo-Americans, especially women, in mocking and sarcastic tones (Guerrero, 1957). The narrator at one point tells the audience that “las güeras de allá/ no se enamoran (the blondes [American women] from over there/ don’t fall in love)” with Mexican men, so one should make sure to bring one’s wife to the United States. “Bonita esta tierra” and “Consejos a los norteños” each grapple with the tense relationship Mexican migrants felt in relation to American wealth and race relations, and both corridos also tie in with larger themes relating to gendered experiences of migration and acceptance in the United States. Each song gestures towards the male narrator’s relationships, or lack thereof, with Anglo-American women as central to these tensions.

This tradition of using music to locate oneself in a long history of migration and to document the journey millions of Mexicans have taken to the United States rests upon songs that have fallen if not into anonymity, then into such localized transmission that they are difficult to trace for outsiders. Just as Jorge Negrete sang of a longing for “México lindo y querido” in the mid-twentieth century, so too have contemporary twenty-first-century singers continued to sing of an idealized México to which those in el México de afuera long to return, if not in life then in death.

In 1995, when Alejandro Fernández released his album Que Seas Muy Feliz with various classic corridos and rancheras, one of them was the popular corrido “Paso del norte” that served as my Saturday morning alarm. Even into the late twentieth century, Fernández’s rendition of “Paso del norte” and its extreme popularity among Spanish-speaking audiences worldwide conveys the continuing importance of the experience of migration, of being far from el interior (México), and of upholding machista masculinities to the collective memories of Mexicans across the world. Yet despite this song emphasizing the masculinity of “el hombre/ [que] anda ausente/ muy lejos ya de su patria (the man/ [who] is absent/ [and] very far from his homeland),” the song also makes clear that though Mexican men may be forced to uphold patriarchal ideals of (heterosexual) manhood, there is space for them to publicly acknowledge their emotions. This public acknowledgement of sadness and sensitivity comes through the very performance and reception of corridos such as “Paso del norte,” wherein the narrator sings of how the tragedy of a man longing for México is so terrible he wishes to “ponerme a llorar (start to cry).” The tough exterior of heterosexual Mexican migrant masculinities are therefore ironically upheld through the very music that gives them the space to challenge these conceptions of what it means to be a man.

The questions with which all of the corridos of migration dealt remain unanswered, despite the volume and urgency of migration increasing to the United States from México and other Latin American countries. This is often due to policies enacted in these nations in order to further secure American imperial and capitalistic ambitions. The tensions involved in leaving your home country due to socioeconomic circumstances beyond your control, only to do so by seeking out a livelihood in the very nation that has worsened these circumstances, continue to be sung about on both sides of la frontera/the border. Central to this tension are questions of negotiating migrant masculinities in patriarchal and machista contexts, couched within larger questions of imperialism, dispossession, and economic imbalances.

Thousands of Mexicans migrated northward in the years after the Mexican Constitution was signed in 1917. Their recollections form a collective body of individual experiences. Though the corridos of Mexican migration cannot recount every emotion felt along the journey to the United States, they can direct us towards a greater understanding of how thousands of individuals negotiated the power dynamics at play between México and the United States from 1917 to 1932 and how they used music to make sense of their lived transnational experiences. Corridos prove fruitful grounds for interpreting how cultural forms served as unifying forces of storytelling during a time when both México and the United States, and Mexicans and Americans, were shaping their fraught relationships with each other. Though corridos of migration exemplify the painful and often humiliating effects of the strengthened policing of la frontera/the border by American officials, they also serve in preserving the voices of those who found dignity through the shared music of their communities. The narratives that have been passed down through these corridos serve as a reminder of the power of a genre of music “por y para el pueblo.” Through these corridos, many of which are almost one hundred years old, the voices of contested boundaries remind all people who have a stake in these borderlands that the constructing of migrant masculine identities across fronteras continue to echo in our shared histories.

Monique Flores Ulysses is a first-year doctoral student in the Department of History at Yale University. Monique is interested in the cultural history of Mexican-Americans and Mexicans on both sides of la frontera/border, with particular interest in divergent understandings of race in relation to marginalized femininities and masculinities, the role American Empire has played in shaping music, fashion, performance, and physical culture, and in the use of popular culture as resistance to oppression. Previous to beginning her studies at Yale University, she received a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) from the University of Victoria in History and Environmental Studies, and a Master of Arts from McGill University in History.