Baltimore Consort: Program Notes

Notes on the Program

Today’s concert takes us on a musical journey through the fascinating intercultural history of late 15th century Spain. For nearly eight centuries, Muslims and Christians lived together on the Iberian Peninsula through alternating periods of peace and conflict. There were large Jewish communities in the Christian kingdoms of Castille, Aragon, and Navarre, as well as in the Moorish caliphates of al’Andalus. Paintings from the court of Alfonso X depict Christian, Jewish, and Arabic musicians playing together.

The marriage of Isabella, Heiress to the Kingdom of Castile, and Ferdinand, Prince of Aragon and Catalonia and King of Sicily, in 1469, would put an end to this marriage of cultures. Any opposition to their policies was eliminated in 1476 when they created a national police force, the hermandad, to decrease the power of the independent nobility. With the sanction of the Papacy and the Inquisition, Ferdinand and Isabella undertook the forcible conversion or ethnic cleansing of Spain to create a unified Christian nation. Their military campaign to Christianize Spain culminated in the defeat of the Moors in 1492. In that one cataclysmic year, which we normally associate with Columbus’ discovery of the New World, Christians recaptured Granada and the Alhambra and expelled all of Spain’s Jews from the region. Despite promises of religious tolerance the Muslim expulsion followed a mere ten years later. Ferdinand and Isabella’s focus could then turn to converting and colonizing the peoples of the New World.

The Sephardim scattered across the Ottoman Empire and other parts of Europe, resettling south in North Africa and east in safe havens such as Amsterdam, Venice, and Ferrara, where they preserved their Judeo-Spanish language (Ladino) and a wealth of beautiful folk music. Our program opens with Morena me llaman and Avrix mi galanica, traditional songs collected in the Balkans and published by Isaac Levy in his Chants Judeo-Espagnols, 1970-1973. Sephardic melodies have been subject to many generations of oral transmission; this is music that, according to Spanish scholar Ramón Menéndez Pilár, “lives in its variants”.

Christian engagement with Moorish society is evident in the courtly poetry of the time. Tales of great battles (La mañana de Sant Juan), some told as if from a Moorish perspective (Una sañosa porfía), as well as love songs involving Moorish women (Di, perra mora – cited by several writers including Cervantes and Lope de Vega) are to be found in all the songbooks, or cancioneros, and the books of the vihuelists. Stories of the great voyages and discoveries are conspicuously missing from these same sources.

Further evidence of Moorish influence in Spain is seen in the instruments themselves. Percussion such as the riq (Egyptian tambourine) and strings like the rebab (rebec) came into Spanish courtly culture with the Moorish musicians and instument makers. The predecessor of the lute (oud or al’ud) was introduced into Europe via Sicily and southern Spain (al’Andalus). Due to its Moorish origin, the role of the lute diminished in Christian Spain during the later Middle Ages, but it became the prime instrument elsewhere in Europe during the Renaissance. Spaniards replaced it with the guitar-shaped vihuela, an instrument with stringing, tuning, and notation identical to the lute. Lutenists and vihuelists undoubtedly played each other’s music and there are several examples of European lute pieces in the vihuela books. In tonight’s program, Ronn McFarlane performs Fuenllana’s vihuela setting of Morenica, dame un beso, a three-part villancico by Juan Vasquez, on solo lute.

Even the “tablature” notation for lute and vihuela derives from the Moors. Using numbers and/or letters to indicate fingerings, it is a graphic representation of the strings on the fingerboard. According to Douglas Alton Smith (A History of the Lute from Antiquity to the Renaissance, 2002) such notation was known as early as the ninth century in al’Andalus. It may have been invented by a court musician and oud player named Abu-‘l-Hasan (also known as Ziryab), a black slave who reportedly fled from Baghdad.

The bulk of secular and non-liturgical Spanish vocal music from the Renaissance can be found in a handful of manuscripts called cancioneros. The Cancionero de Palacio, the palace songbook from the court of Ferdinand and Isabella, is a monumental collection of nearly five hundred pieces in three and four parts. It is extraordinary for its large and diverse repertory: salacious villancicos (Cucú,cucú, cucucú and Calabaça) appear alongside non-liturgical religious pieces and heroic romances. The seven published books of vihuela music (1536-1576) are the other prime source and they provide concordant settings to many works in the cancioneros.

The repertory preserved in all the cancioneros is of two principal genres: romance and villancico. The romance is the Spanish corollary to the English ballad; a strophic, narrative poem consisting of lines of eight syllables. The villancico is a lighter, dance-like form that coordinates rhyme scheme and textual refrain with the musical refrain. On occasion, composers utilized the contrast between the romance and the villancico by writing them as a pair (Qu’es de ti, desconsolado and Levanta Pascual). The villancico was then known by the term deshecha. This combination yielded a potent reflexive form. The narrative established by the text of the romance was expanded or commented upon in the deshecha. The emotional tone established by the music of the romance was likewise developed in the deshecha. (For more information on the deshecha see Deborah Lawrence’s doctoral dissertation: In Other Words and Music: Deshecha Practice in the Sixteenth Century, University of Chicago, 2000.)

Juan del Encina was a master of these forms, and his Cancionero (Salamanca, 1496) was the first Spanish publication devoted entirely to the works of a single author. Encina’s Cancionero contains the verses to his romances and villancicos as well as his short pastoral plays (Eglogas). The musical settings of these romances and villancicos, sixty-two compositions in all, are found in the Cancionero de Palacio. Encina’s representation in this songbook is three times larger than that of any other composer.

Diego Ortiz was director of the Spanish viceroy’s choir in Naples, and his Trattado de glosas, a treatise on improvisation, was published in Rome. The music of the cancionero of the Duke of Calabria (Ferdinand of Aragon, exiled in Valencia) was published in Venice in 1556 under the title Villancicos de diversos autores. It is now known as the Cancionero de Uppsala, after the library in Sweden where it is housed. These publications mirror the close relationship between Spain and Italy that developed through the Spanish popes and through the Aragonese court at Naples.

Improvisation pervaded the instrumental practice of Renaissance Spain, indeed, of all of Europe. In addition to embellishing cadences, performers routinely expanded upon, or “glossed”, pre-existing tunes, using them as repeating tenors or foundation melodies for ornamental improvisation. We present two distinct genres of improvisation in tonight’s program: the fifteenth century basse dance, in which a single, lengthy bass line lies beneath a newly spun-out melody, and sixteenth-century pieces based on repeating chord progressions, not unlike the modern twelve-bar blues. Ortiz’s recercada primera and segunda are based on the minor mode passamezzo antico and major mode passamezzo moderno, respectively. His basse dance La Spagna and De la Torre’s Danza Alta are each settings of an old tune called variously La Spagna, Re di Spagna, La baixa de Castilla, Spanier Tantz, etc., which was so popular in its time that over two hundred pieces, including an entire Mass by Isaac, employed it as their foundation.

We end tonight’s program with Juan del Encina’s popular Oy comamos y bebamos, written as a deshecha-finale to his carnival play, Egloga representada la mesma noche de antruejo o carnestollendas. Its message is “live for the moment”; a sentiment, which we hope, will inspire spontaneity in our performance.

—notes by Mark Cudek