In 1989 William Sweeney recieved the commission and composed El Pueblo, setting one of Pablo Neruda's most directly political (but never overtly propagandist) works. The piece, for baritone, 3 clarinets (all doubling bass-clar and one soprano sax), trombone, piano, percussion and double bass was premiered at the University by The Paragon Ensemble and David Davies. El Pueblo was later recorded for release on the Continuum label alongside works by Lyell Cresswell and James MacMillan (also McEwen commissionees).
Listen to… El Pueblo in full
Pablo Neruda’s funeral became a public demonstration against Pinochet’s CIA-backed coup in Chile. Because of his fame, the procession had to be allowed, and was filmed going through the streets under the guns of those who had murdered his friend, President Allende, only days before. Some of the mourners, well-masked by their comrades, called out “This is also comrade Allende’s funeral!” for the benefit of those who could hear nearby, but also for the news teams and their cameras to take around the world.
There can be no doubt that these defiant mourners inhabited the poetic spirit of Neruda, making the event of his own funeral procession a metaphor, both for another whose funeral was impossible and for an ideal of how human beings should behave when faced with indignity.
The reader will search in vain for overt propaganda in Neruda’s poems. “El Pueblo” is one of his most directly political works, but even here, what is celebrated are not grandiose heroics, but stoicism and tenacity; the reader is never lectured: history and those who make it are explained simply and left for us to make our own judgement. “The People” are not an idealised mass, but the individual who walks through history, whose identity is recognised only in what he or she has created and left behind them.
When I began this musical setting, I remembered a short television film (made I think by A.L. Lloyd) in which as “El Pueblo” was read, a small man appeared in the far distance of a desert landscape. His Andean shuffle carried a heavy load steadily towards the camera, came into focus and passed by unflinchingly, neither taking notice of those watching, nor, it seemed, expecting to be noticed. I tried to carry this spirit through in the music.
The work was “Commissioned by the University Court of the University of Glasgow under the terms of the McEwen bequest” in 1989 and is dedicated “to my parents, and to theirs”.
Bill Sweeney, 2004