The Great Spanish Tradition (1/2)

Ever since the Moors brought lutes to Spain when they invaded in 711, the country’s appetite for plucked string instruments has been insatiable. But as Simon Trezise reveals there’s far more to Spanish music than guitars and castanets.

England and Spain have striking musical affinities. Both had rich and fascinating medieval periods in which invasions and multi-national rulers made them open to widely divergent influences from abroad (‘Spain’ at the time had more of a geographical than a political meaning). The achievements of medieval composers were eclipsed by almost two centuries of absolute mastery in the polyphonic vocal music of the Renaissance. Decline set in in the eighteenth century, though the odd ray of light still illuminates the fairly arid scenery. Then, as if by magic, both countries enjoyed a huge resurgence of creative genius at the end of the Romantic era, drawing succour from French impressionism, and then reacted in divergent but richly creative ways to ‘mainstream’ developments in France and Germany.

From Moorish minstrels to fantasias
Spain has always conjured up strong musical images in people’s minds. Many stem from the quite distinctive taste in instruments of the various regions of Spain. When the Moors invaded in 711 they brought with them numerous instruments which added unprecedented vibrancy to the sounds available to composers on the Iberian peninsula. Among them were diverse percussion instruments, including the bandair (tambourine), and the ud (lute). The latter was particularly fortunate, for Spain developed an unquenchable appetite for plucked string instruments, the best known of which are the vihuela (cross between a lute and a guitar) and the guitar itself, a timeless symbol of Spain. In his celebrated Libro de buen amor Juan Ruiz, archpriest of Hira, cites a huge list of instruments in use in the fourteenth century. He invokes an intoxicating spectacle of strings, wind and percussion bursting into ‘a paean of variegated acclamation like the birds of springtime newly discovering their potency of song’ (from Ann Livermore’s A Short History of Spanish Music).

We know that a great deal of secular and liturgical music was written or improvised during the medieval period. Christians, rather less bigoted then than a few centuries later, delighted in the activities of Moorish minstrelry, just as they relished their instrument makers. Unfortunately not much has survived the ravages of time, and what there is in the famous Calixtine and Las Huelgas Manuscripts is often of a strongly international flavour, extending even to English monody and polyphony.

The early Renaissance period saw the creation of modern Spain with the wedding of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile in 1492, which brought into harness the two most influential states on the peninsula. Notwithstanding the fact that one of their earliest acts was the creation of the notorious Inquisition, this marked a great and in many ways very liberal age for Spanish music. Secular composition was, as ever, flourishing and had not only the distinctive sounds of the various Spanish languages, but also characterful verse forms whose musical setting often drew on folk music. The romance and villancico were the main forms, the romance being a literary one based on some sort of folk tale, and the word villancico applied to virtually everything in Spanish with a prefatory refrain, regardless of the existence of a repeated ‘chorus’; in effect the word meant a Spanish song that could not be mistaken for a romance.

Juan del Encina is best known among the song composers of the time. His music is highly expressive and he composed melodies with a distinctive Spanish accent, attained through quotation or imitation of folksong or dance. His career precisely coincides with the great events of 1492. The sixteenth century saw the publication of a vast collection for the lute-like vihuela, one of the most intimate and beautiful of all instruments of the period. Ornate fantasias by Luis de Milán rub shoulders with wonderful variations on traditional bass lines or melodies; in the twentieth century Rodrigo could ‘poach’ Gaspar Sanz’s Canarios (a later version of a popular dance-like number) without in any way compromising the popular modernity of his Guitar Concerto.

Music that reached to the heavens
The sixteenth century is dominated by the great triumvirate of Morales, Guerrero and Victoria. They wrote mainly church music in the overwhelmingly popular polyphonic style of the period. It wasn’t a cappella music, for all the indications are that the chapels and cathedrals employed instrumentalists for mass and other events. But the style is comparable to that of Byrd, Palestrina and Lassus. Parts move with points of imitation, dissonance is strictly controlled, and often the melodic lines draw on pre-existing material such as a popular song or motet. One cannot pretend that the music sounds Spanish in any striking way, but many have pointed to the expressive qualities of the music, notably its concert with the text (Palestrina often opts for a rather generalised setting); one hears it most vividly in Victoria’s extraordinary Requiem Mass (1605).

Their music also has an elevated, mystical quality quite peculiar to Spain at the time. These three composers are the very pinnacle of Spanish music. Just as Spain reached to the heavens in its choral music, organ builders had been doing amazing things for several centuries, producing instruments of startling colours and wonderfully ornate cases. Antonio de Cabezón was the first great organ composer; his works show a genius for variation and are full of intricate contrapuntal devices. He was succeeded by a number of fine organists, not least Joan Bautista Cabanilles. The keyboard tradition continued in the eighteenth century with Antonio Soler and featured prominently in the late nineteenth-century renaissance.

Classic CD magazine, 1996


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