About this Recording
CD-16276 -
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Sometimes, dreams and fierce determination can compel a person to embark on a great project. In 16th Century Spain, publishing a book—especially on music—was such an individualist enterprise that it meant risking one’s life savings, since the Spanish printing industry wasn’t as prolific as those of other European countries.

Diego Pisador was one of the many gentlemen whose circumstances weren’t especially comfortable. He earned his living as a mayordomo, or tax collector, for the Count of Monterrey in the noble city of Salamanca. He played the vihuela in his spare time, and had a dream to publish a book to “immortalise and perpetuate [his] science in books”, and so that “anyone who can decipher tablatures could start playing [the vihuela] and become a polished musician without the need for any other teacher”. These were very worthy ambitions.

Pisador dedicated seventeen years of his life to his project; fifteen to write it and two to print it. He bought printing materials, hired movable types, presses and machinists, acting as editor and printer of his own work. The expense was so large that it may explain his decision to sue his father and his brother over the inheritance left by his mother.

His father, Alonso Pisador, was never keen on Diego’s book obsession, on his job as a tax collector, or on his bachelordom. His advice to his son was to sell the book’s rights to a publisher, sell his position and get married. Diego ignored his father’s counsel and published his Libro de música de vihuela in 1552. We don’t know if he sold his position  and we can ony surmise about his subsequent marriage.

Posterity hasn’t been too kind to our Salamanca-born vihuelist, who has often been accused of mediocrity both in the quality of his music and his printing. His book may contain misprints, but no more than others, such as Mudarra’s. As regards Pisador’s music, it is clear that his vocal work is stronger than his instrumental, which is usually more complex in form and content. But it must be remembered that the other vihuelist-authors constituted a musical elite and some of them even held positions at the most important Spanish courts.

It has also been said that Pisador was at the service of Philip II, the subject of the book’s dedication, although there’s no evidence to support this claim. Perhaps his job as a tax collector in Salamanca led Pisador to become involved in organising the week-long wedding celebrations of Prince Philip and María Manuela of Portugal in 1543.

What we do know is that Pisador’s book reflects the type of music that was preferred by the Spanish middle and upper classes and which was played primarily on the vihuela. It also shows an exquisite taste in choice and variety of the repertoire, especially in the songs. It is very likely that one of the chief appeals of the vihuela was the possibility of private enjoyment, either for playing the polyphonic music of the great masters or for singing the melodies and poems that enthused people at the time.

From the end of the 15th Century, alongside Italian poetry, a much simpler style of poetry entered the Spanish palaces and noble houses. Musician-poets, with their voices and vihuelas, would elevate rustic romances and villancicos to the level of sophisticated poetry. Thus, the humble shepherdess would become the equal of the noble classes through the clothing of music and courtly verse.

The Libro de música de vihuela is an excellent representation of this popular repertoire of poetic texts within a polyphonic cloak. This recording includes all the villancicos for voice and vihuela published by this “denizen of Salamanca”—as Pisador called himself. Four of these pieces, composed by Juan Vázquez, did not appear in printed form until some years after Pisador’s book. This reflects the fact that dissemination of handwritten works was very common at the time, given the Iberian printing industry’s lack of development, in comparison to those of Italy and France.

One of the most emotionally charged villancicos is Si la noche hace oscura, in which a woman demands her beloved’s presence, as Melibea, whilst waiting for Calisto in La Celestina, sang “midnight has arrived and he has not come / tell me if another beloved is retaining him”. Other villancicos describe powerful feelings, such as desertion by the beloved in Pártese partiendo or in Pues te partes y te vas. Longing is expressed in sophisticated language in Quien tuviese tal poder or in Si te quitase los hierros. At times, surreptitious encounters between lovers are recounted, such as in Aquellas sierras madre, while elsewhere obvious erotic allusions are made, associated with lamentations on the loss of virtue, as in the songs Y con qué la lavaré, one of the most famous villancicos of the 16th Century, Gentil caballero, Mal ferida va la garça or Por una vez que mis ojos alcé. Another theme is the rejection of the fair-skin ideal of beauty promoted by cultured Italianate poetry: so our little shepherdess revels in her dark skin in No me llames sega la herba and proclaims herself the most beautiful in Si me llaman.

In mid-15th Century, the Marquis of Santillana mentioned those “romances and songs that bring joy to the common people”. As time went on, the upper classes began to take pleasure in these stories of Moors and Christians, of heroes and villains. Thus, from the beginning of the 16th Century, many collections were printed, as well as folios containing the most popular romances. Each story used a single melody repeated every four lines, meaning long collections of verses did not need an equivalent volume of music. Another vihuelist, Luis de Narváez, shed some light on this issue: “each set of four lines is sung to the same melody, and because the lyrics for these romances are so well-known, only the first four lines are reproduced”.

Guarte, guarte delves into history, recounting Vellido Dolfos’s assassination of king Don Sancho, during Don Sancho’s attempt to take the city of Zamora from his sister Doña Urraca by siege. Legend has it that, after the regicide, the assassin was chased by El Cid until they arrived at the “door of treason”, as it is still known today. La mañana de San Juan recounts the capture of Antequera in 1410 by the future Ferdinand I of Aragon, a major defeat for the Moors of Granada.

Finally, Paseábase el rey moro is one of the Moorish romances that describe how, ten years prior to the fall of Granada, Alhama was taken by Christian troops. Some years later, during the Morisco Revolt of the Alpujarras, it was banned because of its provocative call on a rebellious people. This is a somewhat peculiar romance as its refrain “¡Ay mi Alhama!” is written in form of a lamento.

The endechas de Canarias represent a completely different genre. Originally funeral songs, later they became laments for ill-fated love. The example in this recording, Para qué es dama tanto quereros, must have been very popular, as its melody appeared with different text, in books such as the Fuenllana collection or one by the theorist Bermudo.

The vocal selection concludes with five villanescas, a term originating in Naples, which was at the time part of the Kingdom of Aragon. These are simple pieces for three voices, with light rhythms and a certain resemblance to popular songs. Their chief theme is the lovers’ lament. Pisador’s tablatures were the first to make written mention of the name villanesca on the Iberian Peninsula. Flemish composer Adrian Willaert popularised the genre, and four of his compositions feature on this album. Madonna mia fa, for instance, is about madonnas—rich and honourable courtesans of Rome, Venice and Florence, whose “favours” were sought after by both noblemen and powerful gentlemen.

Fantasías - named thus by the distinguished vihuelist Luis Milán because “they only arise from the imagination and toil of the author”—represent the kind of music that is more artistic than emotional, as Castiglione stated, which may be why Pisador’s fantasías are not always as felicitous as his vocal pieces. Those included in this recording are the most elaborate and satisfactory fantasías printed in his book.

Let us finish with a few words by Pisador himself, which define his wisdom and circumspection: “the judicious reader must understand that nothing comes out of men’s hands complete, and however good some things may appear, he must give a chance to the ones that don’t seem so good, mainly because people who judge easily often condemn the best”.

Francisco Roa
Translated by María G. Montoya

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