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From Iberia to the New World

Christopher Columbus typifies much of the European mix that we will hear in tonight’s programme: born in Italy, finds himself in Portugal (courtesy of a shipwreck), later moves to Spain, and from there sets sail in 1492 to lands not hitherto occupied by Europeans. He is not the only man attempting to find the “New World,” and it is only by his persistent lobbying of Queen Isabella that he is able to put together the funds for the expedition. His boat is the Santa Maria, and his eventual passion is a missionary zeal to convert the local inhabitants.

The following waves of invasion and settlement bring much disruption, cruelty and death. Environments mix for the first time, with catastrophic results: a two-way traffic in new diseases as microbes relatively harmless in one population wreak havoc on unaccustomed immune systems. Measles decimates the peoples of the New World, while syphilis strikes back at Europe. Later attempts at “conversion” are nothing short of genocide.

That is the harsh reality of a dominant power’s lack of understanding in the face of a very different set of cultures. But it is not the whole story. Along with fire and the sword and bigoted values came also much beauty, in the form of art, architecture and music. Even that was not wholly a one-way process. Fusion with local cultures brought about some fascinating results: Catholic priests in copes of exotic feathers and music setting texts in languages that had never been written down before.

But we won’t be performing any of that tonight – we’ll save that for another concert! Instead, the first half of the programme presents works from the golden age of both Spanish and Portuguese music, by the leading composers of the day: Victoria, Guerrero and Alonso Lobo from Spain, and Duarte Lôbo and Rebelo from Portugal. The final work is a setting of the Lamentations by the Spanish born Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla (c.1590 – 1664), who, having risen to fame in early life as master of the music at both Jerez and Cadiz cathedrals, sailed to Mexico and became director of music at the new Cathedral in Puebla. Thus he represents the first step in the direction of music from the Americas – a fascinating area of music history that is only now being explored.

To take my opening statement further, the Italian renaissance was at the heart of a new expressivity that found a voice in the Spanish priest Thomas Luis da Victoria (c.1548-1611). He spent much of his working life in Rome and his music seems to pull together the finesse and style of the great Roman, Palestrina, with the fervour and passion that characterised Spanish music of the time. Vidi Speciosam, however, is a gracious, delicate piece with a text from the ever popular Song of Songs, that explores a variety of textures: answering phrases from different parts of the choir foreshadowing multi-choir music; chordal, chromatic writing alternating with counterpoint; and a lovely chromatic shift on the words “et lilia convallium”(the lilies of the valley).

Francisco Guerrero (1528 -1599), unlike Victoria, never left Spain, and his large output included not only Latin church music, but also works in Spanish that would be performed in street processions. Maria Magdalene captures much of that drama, with a vivid telling of the story of the Magdalene’s visit to the tomb of Christ and the encounter with an angel who spoke of the resurrection. Like Victoria he contrasts clear, chordal writing (for the narrative) with more free counterpoint on the word “Alleluia”.

The younger Alonso Lobo (c.1555 - 1617) actually assisted Guerrero at Seville Cathedral, and doubtless learned much from the great master – as is clear in his masterful and delicate handling of counterpoint, combined with a powerful control of highly-charged emotion. All of these features are very prominent in the six-voice funeral piece Versa est in luctum.

The Portuguese Duarte Lôbo (1563-1646) was not related to Alonso of course, as he worked mostly at the glorious cathedral of Evora. He is most famous for a setting of the Requiem, and Audivi vocem is a motet from that work.

With Joăo Lourenço Rebelo (1610 –1661) we can hear the Portuguese Baroque style in all its extravagance. Panis Angelicus is an a capella piece composed more in the old style (though with a shattering final cadence), but much of his music is polychoral (i.e. in many choirs, after the Gabrieli model) with organ continuo. He also wrote a very weirdly chromatic setting of the Lamentations (which we hope to perform at a later date!).

Joan Cererols, Catalan by birth (1618 -1676), was unusual for a musician of his time in that he spent his entire life at the Monastery of Montserrat near Barcelona. He has a most striking style that is immediately recognisable – particularly in his use of so-called “English cadences” (more usually associated with the music of William Byrd), in which passing notes sketch out a minor 7th chord against a near collision with the major 7th. The more technically minded might also notice frequent augmented chords among the daring and very modern-sounding harmonic devices. Some of his best known music include villancicos (sacred or secular pieces composed in Spanish), but he also composed masses, including a multi-choir Missa de Batalla, and a setting for Vespers.

The Requiem is rarely performed as there is no edition available in modern clefs. Our edition has been typeset by Andrew Connal – one of our own basses— to whom we are very grateful.


Deborah Roberts © 2005