Thursday, 21 June 2012

Mexico - the Music of the Renaissance and Baroque

Continuing my imaginary tour of Mexico, following my earlier post on the music of Mexico's great composer Carlos Chávez, it's time to venture a bit further. A lot further to begin with. 

What we now call 'classical music' came to Mexico soon after the Spanish conquistadors. Renaissance polyphony flowed in. Musical histories note the importance of Spain's Cristóbal de Morales as being the composer upon whose shining example Mexican church music was founded. The first name to stand out as someone composing on Mexican soil was Hernando Franco (1532-85), who lived in Mexico City for the last ten years of his life. His devotional 5-part motet for the Virgin Mary, Salve Regina, is a beautiful example of his art for starters. (You can compare Franco's setting of the setting with one by Morales here.) Now things get murky. Franco used to be credited with writing some pieces in the native Náhuatl language, namely the motets (also Marian settings) In ilhuicac cihuapille and Dios itlazonantzine, though the attribution is disputed. From what I read it now seems to be generally believed that a native (Aztec) composer must have written both pieces. There's also some scholarly disputation of the the attribution to Portuguese-born Gaspar Fernandes (1570-1629) of the beautiful Christmas lullaby Xicochi, xicochi conetzintlé, though, as far as I can see, this revised attribution is less widely accepted. Anyhow, back to Hernando Franco. Quite a few of his works survive. Domine ne in furore tuo, setting part of the requiem service, is composed in a chordal, homophonic style - mostly in four parts, but increasing to six parts near the end - which alternates with plainchant. This choral style of writing will also be a feature of other composers we shall meet later in this post. Franco wrote many settings of the Magnificat. The example linked to provides another example of the composer writing part of a piece for four voices then increasing the number of voices to six later on, though this time the plainchant alternates with Renaissance polyphony. The Magnificat and Domine ne in furore tuo settings also share a restraint that appears to be character of Franco's music. His Regina caeli is chant-free but shares this chaste beauty. 

century after the conquest, another man came to Mexico from Spain and spent the last 44 years of his life in the country. That man was Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla (c.1590-1664). Padilla's style has several facets. He often writes in the new Italianate chordal style but sometimes reverts to the old Renaissance polyphonic manner. A huge amount of Padilla's output survives. After the austerity of Franco, let's begin with something cheerful: Exsultate, Iusti, in Domino. This is a piece for double choir which shows that the influence of the Venetian revolution of Gabrieli and Monteverdi passed via Spain and into Latin America. With that piece ringing in your ears (and you might also care to try Mirabilia testimonia tua for another piece of polychoral splendour), now please try Padilla's 6-part Maundy Thursday setting of the Lamentations of Jeremiah and you will hear the composer writing consummately in the old late-Renaissance idiom again. Yes, Padilla isn't all splendour and public spaces. The small-scale motet Versa est in luctum shows how intimate his style could be, and the striking Stabat Mater shows how dissonant his style could be. He could clearly tailor his expressive cloth to suit any text. Doesn't sound very Mexican though? Well, what about the villancico A la xácara, xacarilla (a sort of Christmas carol) and the negrillo Tambalagumba (mimicking the dances of African slaves) - exuberance, colour, dancing rhythms, tunefulness? A composer of considerable range then.

With Francisco López Capillas (c.1605-1674) we reach a composer actually born in Mexico (to Spanish parents). An assistant of Padilla for a while, López followed him in writing sonorous, Italianate pieces like the 8-part Magnificat or this 8-part setting of the Laudate Dominum. He seems to be best known for his mass settings. Also in eight parts, his Missa de Batalla (see also the Gloria, Credo, Sanctus & Agnus dei) will please anyone who enjoys hearing, say, the opening of Monteverdi Vespers - though it is a much simpler creation than that mighty Venetian masterpiece. The Agnus dei is rather different to the other movements, for easy-to-comprehend reasons. Quite what the circumstances behind this piece were I have no idea. Is there a less showy side to López? Yes. His Magnificat quarti toni shows the composer writing for four-part choir with dignity and beauty, and the four-part sequence Alleluia. Dic nobis, Maria is also winning.

Antonio de Salazar (1650-1715) spent the final 27 years of his life in Mexico and is in many ways a fascinating throwback to an earlier age (the age of Victoria and Palestrina) if the motet O Sacrum Convivium - a particularly luminous piece of music - is anything to go by. He also wrote villancicos, such as Tarará, que yo soy Antón and Al Salir el Sol.

Though it's possible to see Manuel de Zumaya (or Sumaya) (c.1678-1755) as the culmination of the main trends so far, sometimes writing in he old Renaissance polyphonic style, sometimes writing in the Italianate polychoral style, his music, however, pushes on into the later phases of the Baroque. He outlived Bach, after all. For a taste of how fine a composer Zumaya was please try his Sol-fa de Pedro (Peter's Solfeggio) of 1715, written for an exam. Here there's delightful counterpoint, harmonic daring, a dancing underlying triple-time rhythm and a manner that has, on first hearing, echoes of the magridalean side of old Monteverdi but also flavours of Bach (of whom Zumaya would have been unaware). After that cheerful tour-de-force, we'll keep things bright with two splendid celebratory works for chorus and orchestra, Angélicas Milicias and the villancico Celebren, Publiquen (both dedicated to the Virgin Mary). These are both bang up-to-date examples of Baroque composition style. His setting of Hieremiae Prophetae Lamentationes, however, could not be more different. Here Zumaya writes in a restrained, chant-influenced, Renaissance-style polyphonic style, to beautiful effect. So, another Mexican composer who is a master of many styles and moods - someone who could write a popular-style villancico of such infectious jolliness as Al prodigio mayor as well as an 11-part motet Laetatus sum of Monteverdian splendour and a more up-to-date double-choral setting of the mass (with orchestra) in the lovely Misa de Tercer Tono a 8.

Moving on a generation to the Italian-born Mexican composer Ignacio de Jerusalem (c.1710-1769), we find no traces of the Renaissance remaining in his thoroughly modern Baroque style, represented to delicious effect in his solo motet, Quoniam tu solus, where his style approaches that of Alessandro Scarlatti. Quem Terra, pontus sidera has the sort of scoring who find in the festive works of Bach and Handel and a charming melodic simplicity that makes it a little gem. Even his villancicos, such as the 3-voice Ay que chiquito, are thoroughly late-Baroque. Listening through more works of Ignacio de Jerusulem only confirms what a delightful composer he is. (Try some of his matins settings for example or the villancico O golpe suave).

If the Renaissance and the Baroque produced such excellent composers as these fine gentlemen, what of the Classical and the Romantic eras - those one hundred and fifty years leading up to the coming of Manuel Ponce and the dawn of the great 20th century Mexican musical revival? I'll have a dig around and try to find out.

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