Our program spans about 100 years of music from Spain, ranging from mid-16th-century motets to large-scale villançicos of the 17th century. Although Spanish music from this time—Spain’s “Golden Age” of arts and literature—is often portrayed as being possessed of a certain somber gravity, it would be a great mistake to characterize all of Spanish Renaissance music in this way, especially music composed for the Christmas season. On the contrary, what emerges even from our limited survey of the repertory this evening is the rich variety of expression in Spanish music. The composers whose music you will hear tonight were capable of a wide range of affects and were adept at depicting fine nuances of emotion. They drew on many sources for their various musical styles, including the lively rhythms of Iberian folk music, learned Flemish polyphony, and a generous helping of Italian expressivity, declamation, and dance rhythms.
The word villançico is derived from villano, or peasant, and the angular rhythms and lilting melodies found in these pieces certainly have some roots in Iberian folk music. Like the English carol, the villançico came to be associated with Christmas more than another occasion. In Spain, the villançico becomes more important than the motet, with pieces being composed in Spanish for insertion in the liturgy used in cathedrals and monasteries on feast days. Most of the villançicos we will perform were used as substitutes for Latin responsorials during Christmas and Epiphany masses. And what an interesting substitution! The villançicos bring a wonderful element of popular culture to the services. The music, with its simple melodies, syncopations, and compound meters, mirrors the music used in theater and popular song. These traits provide the 17th-century villançico with an unmistakable Spanish flavor.
Three composers stand out in our program—Tomás Luis de Victoria, Francisco Guerrero, and Cristóbal de Morales. Victoria (1548-1611) was indisputably the greatest Spanish composer of his day. Guerrero (1528-1599) second in stature only to Victoria, was born in Seville and was employed by the cathedral there for most of his life. Morales (c.1500-1553) was the most important figure in early 16th-century Spanish vocal music.
The vocal and instrumental forces of a large cathedral cappella, with full choirs of wind instruments and large numbers of voices, are a bit beyond our scope in the intimate space of the Folger. We will, however, have representatives of the double reed and brass instruments so characteristic of Spanish practice, as well as organ and an ensemble of “curiosos ministriles,” skillful minstrels on strings and softer winds.
For a more extensive version of these notes, artist bios, and a set list, download a PDF of the program for A Spanish Christmas in the right-hand navigation under Additional Information.