Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer (1836-1870) was born in Seville and later moved to Madrid, without achieving either economic success or artistic acclaim.
That’s from the introduction — my translation of it, actually — to the unit on Bécquer from an old undergraduate Spanish reader of mine (believe it or not, I have a Minor in Spanish Literature, though you’d never guess it now). And it goes on to say that Bécquer was sickly all his life, too. Isn’t that the perfect introduction to a Romantic artist?
Bécquer, who was a poet, prose stylist, and painter, was once referred to as “the Spanish Poe.” I’m not sure who originated that description, and honestly, I don’t see it myself. I like much of Poe’s writing (and adore some of it), but his horror and gothic work has the miasma of insanity to it, the sense of staring into an internal abyss. To read Poe’s horror is to breathe in sickness. Bécquer did occasionally write about lonely and obsessed young men (much like himself, maybe?), but those pieces feel more like E.T.A. Hoffman to me — though his protagonists are much less emo. The air is cleaner in a Bécquer piece than in one of Poe’s.
If we have to make an analogy, then I would say that Bécquer is the Spanish Lafcadio Hearn, at least with respect to his prose. That doesn’t have the same zing to it as “the Spanish Poe,” but it’s more accurate. Hearn also has a Romantic sensibility in his writing; in addition, he has a sense of wanderlust, of curiosity about other communities and their cultures, and a taste for folklore. Many of Bécquer’s supernatural tales are framed as stories that he picked up on his travels through Spain, and are often connected to specific physical landmarks. They remind me of reading Hearn’s In Ghostly Japan — except Hearn was writing about an exotic locale (even though he eventually chose to stay in Japan and become, as much as possible, Japanese), and Bécquer is writing about his own country.
But enough introduction. On to the winter tales:
Since these are supposed to be ghost stories for the Christmas season, I really have to give you “Maese Pérez, Organist” (“Maese”, apparently, is an archaic form of “Maestro”; the translation I’m sharing with you uses “Maestro” instead). Maese Pérez is the organist of the humble convent of Santa Inés in Seville. He is such a brilliant organist that even the elite of Seville — including the Archbishop himself — come to the convent for Christmas midnight Mass, rather than attend Mass at the Cathedral.
And don’t think that the experts, and those who know music, are the only ones who recognize his talent, since there is no one who doesn’t love his music. Contrary to their usual custom, the groups of people with burning torches who sing Christmas carols accompanied by tambourines, timbrels, and drums, filling the church with their boisterous spirit, become as silent as the dead, when Maestro Perez places his hands over his organ…; and when he starts playing, you cannot hear a fly…; there are tears in everyone’s eyes, and when the music ends you hear a tremendous sigh, when everyone releases the breath they were holding for as long as the music lasts…
But this year Maese Pérez is ailing, and will be lucky to survive the night. Nonetheless, he insists on playing midnight Mass as he always does, and dies in the place where he’s happiest, doing what he loves the most.
But what about next year?
If this story had ended after the first two-thirds, I would have marked it as “entertaining, rather than frightening,” as Helen Grant says about A Christmas Carol, and given it an unambiguous thumbs-up. The last third is problematic; Bécquer tries to inject a sense of terror where there should be none (the man died happy, doing what he loved the best, remember?). It doesn’t work for me. Despite this, I like the way Bécquer sketches Seville society at the time of the story — I found the detail about the common people coming to Mass with all their instruments to play during the Consecration rather interesting — and his description of Maese Pérez’s music is lovely. It’s a fun Christmas ghost story, in much the way A Christmas Carol is.
Still, I feel like I ought to you share with you a story that’s at least a little bit creepy, so as a bonus here’s “The Devil’s Cross.” The narrator (Bécquer), travelling along the Pyrenees, comes across an old, vine-covered cross made of iron on the banks of the Segre river. The site is picturesque, and inspired by an “indescribable, spontaneous religious impulse,” the narrator takes off his hat and begins to recite one of his old childhood prayers in front of the cross. He is violently stopped by one of his guides, who explains that the cross is “the Devil’s cross,” and not to be prayed in front of. Later that evening the guide tells the story of The Lord of the Segre, a nobleman who was cruel to his vassals both in his lifetime and after it.
I do not know if it was for good or ill fortune, but the Lord of this castle who was hated by his vassals for his cruelty and who, because of his bad qualities, was neither welcomed to the court by the King nor to their hearths by his neighbors, became bored living with nothing more than his ill humor and his archers there on the top of the cliff where his forefathers built their nest of stone.
He racked his brain night and day, trying to think of some new distraction that would interest him, which was not easy since he had already become tired of such pastimes as making war on his neighbors, beating his servants, and hanging his subjects.
The chronicles tell us that on this occasion, although it was unprecedented, he decided on an worthy idea.
His mistake was giving his vassals the taste of freedom from his fist (by going off to the Crusades), and then trying to take that freedom back from them. Naturally, they revolted. But the bad don’t go down easy…
You can read “Maese Pérez, Organist” here.
You can read “The Devil’s Cross” here.
Please note that these translations are not public domain (although the original Spanish tales are). They are generously shared by the translator, Armand F. Baker; please do not share them without proper attribution.