The Baroque Guitar in Spain
It's one of the interesting paradoxes of music history that during the century-long craze for the 5-course 'Chitarra Spagnuola' which swept Europe around 1600, infecting royalty and commoners alike, with hundreds of books of music written for it by dozens of composers in France and Italy, that almost nothing survives from Spain, its spiritual home. Part of the reason might be the economic and political senility of the Spanish Empire in a constantly progressing state of decay since the end of the 16th century; little music of any kind was published.
Another reason might be the evanescent nature of the music itself, coming as it did from an instrument which inhabited the separate worlds of folk and art music. Few guitarists or their activities were documented in Spain because in Spain everyone was a guitarist, and while the quality might range from the dismal scratchings of someone waiting for a shave at the barbershop (where there were always a few guitars hanging on the wall) to the inspired improvisation of a musician in the theatre or at court, the music itself was free and spontaneous, never intended to be notated; part of the internal dialogue of the Spanish people. In any event, we're lucky that three Spanish guitarists of this period did write their music down for publication; Francisco Guerau and Gaspar Sanz in the 17th century, and the subject of the present recording, Santiago de Murcia, in the 18th. Such is the beauty and vitality of what they have left us that it can still give delight today, even as we pensively contemplate all the wonderful sounds that have gone forever, vanished on an evening breeze 300 years past.
In order to appreciate Santiago's achievement I need to say a little about his two predecessors, both of them very different. Guerau, who was a choirmaster at the Royal Chapel in Madrid, wrote in a serious, elevated style. His main subject was the Passacalle, an exploration and elaboration of simple chord progressions which Spanish musicians treated with the same respectful attitude that Germans reserved for the Prelude and Fugue. His one publication, the Poema Harmonica of 1694 is one of the high points of 17th century Spanish music.
Gaspar Sanz (not employed at court) was an educator, a populariser, and in my opinion, more of an inspired collector of folk music than a composer. He published three tiny how-to books in 1674-5 which are crammed with advice on strings, fingering, figured bass and tunes from Spain and the rest of Europe. He even had a go at writing a fugue on a Spanish folk tune (which, perhaps wisely, only takes up four lines of music). The melodies in the book have such a wonderful energy and spirit that they were reprinted again and again and still figure in guitarist's programmes today.
Santiago de Murcia
The real giant of the Spanish baroque guitar however, was Santiago de Murcia (1682 - 1732) who achieved a synthesis of popular and art music that eluded his predecessors and created a large and fascinating body of work. His Passacalles equal those of Guerau and not only was he able to capture the vivid rhythms and harmonies of Spanish folk dances (including ones from the New World and West Africa) but to actually create striking and fully composed versions of them. He was also abreast of musical trends in Europe and wrote updated versions of older French and Italian dance suites, newly fashionable contredances and even arrangements of keyboard pieces and the violin music of that most influential of Italian composers: Arcangelo Corelli. There are three main sources of his music: The Resumen de Acompanar of 1714; The Passacalles y Obras of 1732; and the undated Codice Saldivar No.4 (called after Dr. Gabriel Saldivar, who discovered it in the 1943). Facts about his life are very scanty but the musicologists Craig Russell and Monica Hall have done enough detective work to allow us to make a few educated guesses. He was probably born in the 1680s in Madrid where there are records relating to the de Murcia family at court: Gabriel de Murcia, Royal Guitar Maker, would have been the right age to be his father. Santiago is described in the Resumen as 'Guitar Master to the Queen, Our Lady, Maria Luisa Gabriela of Savoy'. She was a foreign import and although musically educated and already able to play the harpsichord she obviously felt the need for some guitar lessons to bolster her credibility with her new subjects. After her death in 1714 Santiago vanished from view although the fact that both the Passacalles y Obras and the Codice Saldivar No.4 were found in Mexico (as well as some new works turning up in Chile recently) might indicate that he immigrated to the New World.
I think the music is always its own best advocate but I provide here some bits of background information that might be helpful:
Track 2. Prelude: This is part of a longer work in the Resumen which seems to be a transcription of several Spanish keyboard works. I've used the section which paraphrases the anonymous Obra de Falsas Cromaticas from Martin y Coll's anthology ‘Flores de Musica' (1706) to introduce the fine Passacalles in D.
Track 5. Suite: I wanted to include my versions of some of Sanz's melodies as a foil to Santiago's more fully worked out versions of similar material. Because of the brevity of the pieces (the longest work of Sanz is one page long and many of the tunes are only four or eight bars long) every player needs to adapt and elaborate them individually. Featured here is a piece I made up over the Canarios chord progression, then two folk tunes of great charm: La Esfachata di Napoli (hard to translate; something like ‘the impudent Neapolitan girl'); La Minona de Cataluna (the Catalan cutie); and finally Clarin de los Musqueteros del Rey de Francia which strangely has far more of the character of an Andalusian lament than a Musketeers' Fanfare.
Track 6. Zarembecques o Muecas and 9. Cumbees (also known as the chuchumbe): These are both dances of West African origin but seem to have come to Spain via the New World. First, here are some thoughts about dancing in general from the work of the 18th century cleric Padre Antonio Garces:
"Your Eminence asks me about contredanses in which the bodies of men and women come together and they make provocative gestures. They give each other their naked hands, they press them, and give one another signs with which they express love to each other - and not the pure kind. I respond directing Your Eminence to Father Senari of the Jesuit Order, Volume Four of the Christiano instruido, discourse 29, where while clean and sombre dances are not condemned, he effectively proves that immodest dances are ruinous, the overturner of souls... The new dictionary of the Academia Espanola includes the proverb: Surely the devil showed women how to dance and the ass how to bray...because of the vexatious nature of both acts and because neither of them has the good sense to stop..."
If this was the attitude of the authorities to the relatively refined contradance imagine the suspicion with which they viewed the two trendy dances recorded here! Here is part of an official ban issued by the Inquisition on October 31 1716: "We the Inquisitors of Your Excellency; it has come to our attention through denunciations that certain couplets commonly called the chuchumbe have been disseminated and passed on in the city as well as in other cities and villages of this realm. They begin 'A friar from the village is standing at the corner...' to chaste ears, these lyrics are scandalous, obscene and offensive to the highest degree. They are sung and are accompanied by a dance no less scandalous and obscene. They are accompanied by lewd actions, lascivious displays and indecent and provocative shaking - all to the grave ruin and scandal of the souls of the Christian community." The Zarembecques must have been slightly less hard core as it escaped an official ban but its other name Muecas (the sort of face you make by pulling the corners of your mouth apart and sticking out your tongue) is wonderfully suggestive of an atmosphere of general mayhem. One can't help wondering if or how these pieces figured in the Queen's guitar lessons, and also if children in the Royal family today are instructed in the works of Snoop Dog and Ice-T by their music teacher...
Tracks 13 and 14. Preludio Grabe and Giga: These are transcriptions of the first and last movements of Arcangelo Corelli's Violin Sonata Op.5 No. 3. I've added Corelli's original bass line (plucked here on the Bass Viola) into the mix.
Track 15. Gaitas: A name for the Spanish bagpipe. Although most commonly found in Galicia the melody is hauntingly similar to the beautiful Catalan carol 'El Noi de la Mare'
Note on Spanish Baroque terminology: ‘por la E' as referred to in tracks three and four is D minor; ‘por la B' in tracks eight and twelve is C major; ‘por la D' in tracks eleven and twelve is A minor. Compassillo and proporcion are common and triple time respectively.
As more and more obscure nooks and crannies of early music are explored, interest in the baroque guitar has increased. Perhaps because it was both a popular and 'classical' instrument its music has attracted the kind of treatment that used to be reserved for Medieval music when I was a teenager; orchestrated and arranged with a host of colourful and exotic instruments in an attempt to add novelty and make explicit all those qualities found implied in the score. Of course this approach can be vastly enjoyable when done well (and I remember how much I loved my Medieval records) but it seems a shame if the music is only ever experienced in this way - and it does seem to be the norm today. When I mentioned that I was planning this recording to a fellow musician he innocently asked who had been engaged to play the drums...I wouldn't claim that Santiago has the same significance as Brahms, but imagine if recordings of his music were limited to the Hungarian Dances in arrangements for 'Gypsy Style' Ensembles (containing no real Gypsies) and you'll get an idea of what I mean. It goes without saying that certainty in these matters will always elude us but I can't help feeling that Santiago and his contemporaries would have been scratching their heads in bewilderment at the sort of elaborate scorings given to what is, after all, very clearly solo guitar music.
The baroque guitar is such a fragile and limited thing, with a range of just over two octaves, but I do think that to look inward, and explore the great wealth of colour and nuance within its small space is actually very rewarding. After all, as Julian Bream once observed, "There is nothing more perfect than the diminuendo of a plucked string". But I don't really like to imagine myself as a righteous authenticist pouring a test tube of ice water over the heads of my hapless colleagues, and I've thought to make a virtue of inconsistency by asking my friend Susanna Heinrich to pluck a simple accompaniment in a few of the pieces: my versions of Sanz; the Cumbees and Zarembecques of Murcia; and in the Corelli arrangements. These accompaniments arose in the most natural way possible, during concerts by Palladians, when Susi would sit patiently on stage waiting for me to finish my (seemingly interminable) solo slot. In the middle of one long tour she started plucking as I played my pieces, at first tentatively but then with more confidence - the sound was so transparent and yet supportive that I find myself unable to imagine these pieces without her contribution - so much for musicology and preconceived ideas.
I'd like to close these notes with some very appropriate words written by that greatest of all the Spanish baroque guitarists; Domenico Scarlatti (although he was neither Spanish nor, even strictly speaking a guitarist, choosing instead to perform on a mechanized guitar consort):
In these compositions do not expect to find any profound learning but rather an ingenious jesting with art... Show yourself more human than critical and your pleasure will increase.
© William Carter, London, February 2007