About this Recording
8.553325 - Royal Songbook: Spanish Music from the Time of Columbus
English 

A ROYAL SONGBOOK
Spanish Music from the time of Columbus

 

Musical Sources

The marriage in 1469 of Aragon to Isabella of Castile brought the whole of the Spanish peninsula, with the exception of Portugal, under direct rule from Madrid. With the end of the long wards between Aragon and Castile came a flowering of Spanish nationalism, religious fervour and culture. Nationalism resulted in 1492 in the expulsion of the Moors from Spain, religious revival led to the establishment of the Holy Inquisition; and one of the most vivid illustrations of the flowering of the arts under the ‘Catholic Monarchs’ is the Cancionero Musical de Palacio—the Palace Song Book. A vast collection of songs composed between about 1440 and 1515, the manuscript was compiled at the Spanish court in stages from 1500 to 1520. The practice of collecting an entire repertoire, as an expression of pride in the music, and possibly a desire to preserve it for posterity, dates from medieval times.

The Song Book is the source for most of the music in the present recording, but two later printed collections have also been consulted. Tres Libros de Musica en Cifra para Vihuela by Alonso Mudarra (Seville, 1546) contains not just music intabulated for the vihuela, but also solos for the guitar, and vihuela-songs. Mudarra, a liberal-minded canon at Seville Cathedral is arguably the most musically rewarding of the vihuelistas, and all the vihuela, lute and guitar music on this recording is by him.

The other publication from which we have taken music is Tratado de Glosas by Diego Ortiz (Rome 1553). A treatise on the art of improvising music either unaccompanied or based or existing songs or dances, the Tratado is written in terms of the viol, on which Ortiz was a famous virtuoso. At the end of the book Ortiz gives examples of the most of the types of improvisation, thus leaving some of the earliest surviving solo music for the viol.

These two publications, while produced later than the Palace Song Book, are particularly relevant to any programme of Spanish renaissance music, because of the instruments for which they are written. The vihuela is essentially a guitar-shaped lute, unique to sixteenth-century Spain, while the little renaissance guitar was eventually to grow into that country’s national instrument. The viol surely the most important ensemble instrument of the Renaissance, seems to have been born in Spain (sharing its parentage with the vihuela), travelling later to Italy and Northern Europe.

Perhaps the most striking feature of the Palace Song Book is the sheer variety displayed in its 463 pieces. The earliest songs are in the medieval courtly love tradition: but late texts range from the earthiest sexual innuendo, through artfully simple pseudo-folk-songs, to sacred songs of passionate devotion.

Our recordings reflects this range. The crude phallic symbolism of Calabaca [1], with its ironic (even sacrilegious) reference to the Virgin Mary, is followed directly by two pieces inspired by fervent Marian texts [2 and 3]. Ay Santa Maria first occurs in the earlier Colombina manuscript in a version which lacks the haunting simplicity of this Palace Song Book version. Whilst in Virgen bendita sin par Escobar makes use of a melody which appears elsewhere in the Song Book with a simple pastoral text. The melody is here transformed both by the text and by Escobar’s subtle harmonies into an extended sacred dance-song of luminous beauty.

Long Songs

As one might expect, most of the songs in the Palace Song Book are love-songs: but here again there is variety. A number of texts take the form of a daughter confiding to her mother about her lover, a genre peculiar to this repertoire. In Con Amores [4], for example the girl recounts (in a suitably sleepy quintuple metre) her dream of love; by contrast Pues bien para ésta begins in the middle of a heated argument between the daughter, who is desperate to marry, and her mother, who wants her to wait. (The daughter, by an outrageous combination of threats and emotional blackmail, gets her way.)

Another type of Spanish love-song deals with the Moorish lover, ale or female. In the delightful miniature Tres Morillas [8] the poet is haunted by the memory of Axa, Fatima and Marien, three Moorish girls in Jaen. Aquella mora garrida is a more complex poetical conceit: the text is sung by a girl who has been carried off by Moors, but the refrain is a folk-song sung by a man (“That lovely Moorish girl, her love brings pain to my life”). Both poet and composer handle this double perspective with great skill.

A more conventional vein of love-song is Como ésta [13] in which the singer laments the departure of her lover.

Pastoral Texts

One strand in the Palace Song Book which is parallelled in other contemporary collections is the pseudo-rustic element. In England Henry VIII and his court played at hunters and foresters in May-Day festivities; in France and Italy too there is a substantial pastoral repertoire. So it comes as no surprise to find pieces such as A la caça [17], a glorious evocation of the hunt of love, or Niña y Vinña [19], where a country girl recounts (to her mother!) how she was seduced by a vineyard keeper. The instrumental Guardame las vacas [18] is a setting for solo guitar of a song supposedly sung by a seductive cow-girl Rural imagery crops up throughout the repertoire, from pumpkins [1] to birds [28, 29, 30].

Problem Texts

Throughout the vocal repertoire of the early renaissance there occur songs whose texts are short and enigmatic. In such pieces it is not always possible to tell whether what survives is a single strophe from a longer work, or whether today we simply miss references and resonances which would have fleshed out the texts for a contemporary listener. Spanish collections include many works of this type: the apparently inconsequential words of the vihuela-songs Isabel and Si me llman [22, 23] are at odds with the contrapuntal elegance of Mudarra’s music, but the very quality of the vihuelist’s elaborate settings serves to colour in the sketchy images of the verse.

Instrumental Performance

One way to avoid the problems posed by an apparently incomplete text is to perform such a work instrumentally. Vocal music formed the core of instrumental repertoire in the Renaissance, performed with no ornamentation (for example Amor con fortuna [12]), with decoration shared between the parts (for example Dentro en el vergel [10] and De la momera [11]) or with one voice used as a vehicle for elaborate improvised divisions in the manner described by Diego Ortiz (for example Dios te salve [26]).

Instrumental virtuosi borrowed not only songs but also dances as a basis for their repertoire: the galliard La gamba [15] and the saltarello Alta [20] were both taken as the starting-point for imaginative divisions by Diego Ortiz [16 & 21]. In the case of the Passamezzo [6] it is Alonso Mudarra who transforms the simple chord sequence into the graceful Pavana d’Alexandre for solo guitar [7].

Indeed composers such as Mudarra gave us some of the earliest music for specified instruments. The tablature in which the lute, vihuela and guitar repertoire was written largely defines the instrument for which it was intended. The most substantial such piece on this recording [24] is a homage to the blind harp virtuoso Luduvico: the Fantasia ‘in the manner of Luduvico’ paints an exhilarating picture of an improvising virtuoso. Much of the colour is given by notes which, explains Mudarra, will at first sound like false notes, but which must be played with conviction.

Sacred and Profane

Our recording ends as it began, with two groups of contrasted pieces. A la mia [25] and Ya somos del todo libre [27] set texts dealing with the Crucifixion; the first in the voice of Christ foretelling his fate (with its refrain “they will divide my clothes and cast lots for them”), the second celebrating man’s release from death “and from the power of accursed Lucifer”. Between these pieces is De La Torre’s hymn to the Cross Dios te salve [26], here instrumentally performed.

The final group, by contrast, returns to the world of rustic imagery, with three songs about birds. In Ya cantan los gallos [28] the crowing of the cock awakens a pair of young lovers, she afraid of scandal should they be discovered, he prepared to risk anything for love. There is a sting in the tail of Dindirin [29], though it begins innocently enough: a girl meets a nightingale, and prettily asks it to take a message to her lover—but the message is that she has got married. And with Cucú [30] we return to the earthy mood of Calabaca [1]: a tongue-in-cheek evocation of the song of the cuckoo repeatedly gives way to a reminder of its less welcome significance as the unwelcome symbol of the cuckold!

© 1995 Philip Thorby


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