by Speculum

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Chanssonier El Escorial (ca.1490) fourth volume


01. Plus j’ay le monde • Madona bella ~ Robert Morton (ca.1430 - ca.1479)
02. N’oés vous point • Coq en l’orge ~ anon.
03. Se mon flagolet joli ~ anon.
04. Puisque je sui infortunee ~ Horlay (fl ?ca.1450)
05. Yerra con poco saber ~ Johannes Cornago (ca.1400 - ca.1474)
06. Maintenons nous • Resvelle qui dort ~ anon.
07. Donnés au leal prisonnier ~ anon.*
08. Sine verbis ~ anon. Δ
09. Morte o merce (inst.) ~ J. Cornago
10. Morte o merce ~ J. Cornago
11. La Bassa de Castiglia ~ Guilielmus Monachus (fl s.XIV)
12. La Spagna ~ Francisco de la Torre (fl 1483 - 1504)
13. Canon de Tous bien playne ~ Josquin des Prez (ca.1450/55 - 1521)
14. Contrapunto de Tous bien playne ~ C. de Segovia (ca.1501/03)
15. De Tous bien playne ~ Hayne van Ghizeghem (ca.1445 - 1476/97)
16. O gratiosa viola mia ~ anon.
17. Mirando el gran splendor ~ anon.
18. Helas mon tetin ~ anon.
19. N’aray-je jamais ~ anon.
20. Hora crydar ~ anon.
21. Je vis toujours ~ Petrus de Domarto (fl ?1445/55)
22. Je soloie faire • Her bergerés ~ anon.
* - Cantus / Ernesto Schmied
Δ - Cantus / Vicente Parrilla


Manuscript IV.a.24 in the Library of the Monastery of El Escorial, known in a select circle of experts as Escorial B or EscB for short, begins – rather like one of those codices that appear in science fiction films – with a blank page marked with three initials: D H M. These naturally correspond to one of its owners, and indeed the mystery is soon resolved because we know that the Spanish writer and diplomat Diego Hurtado de Mendoza (1505-1575) bequeathed his extraordinarily rich library to Philip II and that it ended up at the recently built El Escorial along with the other books in the royal collection. However, there is a certain aura of mystery about the manuscript itself – a music text – because no one knows where it came from or who might have used it.

The brief biography that accompanies the engraving of Don Diego in Retratos de Españoles ilustres [Portraits of Illustrious Spaniards (Madrid, 1791) states that he was born to Iñigo López de Mendoza, one of the great generals under the Catholic Monarchs, second Count of Tendilla and first Marquis of Mondéjar, and to Francisca Pacheco, daughter of the Marquis and Marchioness of Villena. “From childhood his shrewd, incisive talent," continues the biography, "revealed signs of the greatest accomplishments: well versed in grammar and with certain notions of Arabic, he moved to Salamanca and immersed himself in readings, most notably of the Latin and Greek languages, philosophy and civil and canon law.” Armed with such an education and being of such noble birth, he was a natural choice to serve as an ambassador under Emperor Charles V. In this capacity he was sent first to Venice and later to Rome, where he served as a delegate at the recently convened Council of Trent (1545-63). On his return to Spain at the end of the council, he spent his final years writing, translating ancient texts from Latin and Greek, penning his own works and compiling an extraordinary library. The inclusion of the EscB in this library is surprising for two reasons: firstly, because the manuscript contains nothing but sheet music, and secondly, because the music in question is secular polyphonic vocal music – with or without instrumental accompaniment – and Don Diego was not known to have a special interest in music or indeed to have had any musical training.

The manuscript, which is basically a songbook, was probably presented as a gift to Don Diego or may have been part of a family legacy; if he purchased it, it must have been for a special reason, which may well have been the case if it was a manuscript of royal provenance associated with the Spanish Crown. As its contents are related to Italy, it could easily have originated in the Kingdom of Naples, which had been reincorporated into the territories of the Spanish Crown in 1504 following its bequest by Alphonse V of Aragon, who had conquered it in 1442, to his son Ferdinand.

If this were indeed the case, the hypothesis of the Neapolitan provenance of the manuscript would have to be proven, and although proof never tends to be conclusive where Renaissance music manuscripts are concerned, it does at least make it possible to rule out invalid alternatives.

The collection of pieces chosen for this CD, Speculum’s fourth album dedicated to the EscB, presents an excellent opportunity to speculate on its various possible provenances. The first and most obvious step is to discard any hypothesis which points to a country other than Italy. The reason for this is that some of the fragments – all of them clearly representative of the rest of the manuscript – are in French and some in Italian, and while French was the lingua franca in Europe from the end of the Middle Ages and throughout the Renaissance, the use of Italian was much less widespread. Songbooks that are not from Italy do not usually contain pieces in Italian, and yet this language is used in a significant proportion of the EscB. There is also the occasional piece in Spanish, such as Yerra con poco saber by Juan Cornago, with lyrics by Pedro Torroellas, and while Italian may have circulated as a musical language to a limited degree, this was not at all the case of Spanish, which was used only in Crown territories and diplomatic circles.

Juan Cornago is known to have entered the Court of Naples in the service of Alphonse V around 1453. He subsequently served the latter’s son, Ferdinand I, and finally ended his career at the court of Ferdinand the Catholic King. In Naples Cornago coincided with Torroellas, who returned to Spain on the death of King Alphonse in 1458, which provides us with an approximate date for the composition. Morte o merçe, by the same author, cannot be from a much later date, and neither can Je vis tous jours en esperance by Pedro de Domarto, a practically unknown author who nevertheless was considered worthy of mention by Johannes Tinctoris (†1511), the famous Flemish music theorist who produced part of his oeuvre under the patronage of the Neapolitan nobility starting in 1472.

Another person whom Tinctoris names in his writings is the English composer and chaplain of the Burgundian court, Robert Morton (c. 1430-1476), author of the unusual rondeau Plus j’ay le monde regardé, which mixes French with Italian, as well as of some of the most famous chansons circulating in Europe at the time. The only composition that may have exceeded them in fame was the rondeau by Morton’s contemporary Hayne van Ghizeghem, De tous biens plaine, which, in addition to being copied and even published on numerous occasions since the early 16th century, caught the attention of several composers. One such was Josquin des Prez (c. 1450-1521) who, like others before and after him, adapted the famous composition, respecting the duo formed by the two highest voices – superius and tenor – but replacing the original countertenor with a simple canon.

Besides the works by Cornago, Domarto, Morton and the obscure English composer known by the surname Horlay, the remaining pieces from the EscB included on the recording are all anonymous (the versions of De tous biens... come from other parallel sources). Most these pieces are virelais – ballatta in Italian – rather than rondeaux, which were the two formes fixes of the 14th century and first half of the 15th century; the virelai was the much more popular of the two in the Middle Ages, while the rondeau experienced its heyday in the 15th century, subsequently giving way to more or less stereotyped forms that are usually classified under the heading of chansons. Both forms played a key role in the evolution of the history of music by providing composers with a structure in which to express the notes other than the lyrics of the composition itself, the basis of troubadour music, thus paving the way to the development of a polyphonic vocal language.

A well-known example of a rondeau is one which refers to Morton and Hayne and commences thus:

La plus grant chiere de jamais
ont fait a Cambray la cité
Morton et Hayne: en verité,
on ne le vous pourroit dire huy mais.

The anonymous poet infers a certain friendship or camaraderie between the two composers, whom his reference to Cambrai situates in Burgundian court circles, which was indeed the case; however, this in no way prevented their works from being copied in Italy. From north to south, the Italian courts were influenced by northern composers throughout the Renaissance, to the degree that these masters overshadowed local composers (the reverse is almost unthinkable). It was they who exported forms such as the rondeau to Italy and who, with their superior technical mastery, introduced a style or praxis in which the exercise of counterpoint took precedence over melodic flow, which would only gain importance when the madrigal genre came to the fore.

If not for the presence of the works by Cornago, and even then with certain reservations, this selection of pieces from the EscB – and indeed any other selection from its repertoire – could have been heard in any princely court in Italy towards the end of the second third of the 15th century. And yet when Diego Hurtado de Mendoza somehow acquired the manuscript, most of this repertoire was little more than a memory; for, until the dawn of the 20th century, never had there been an art form as ephemeral as music, with audiences constantly clamouring for new inventions, perhaps because of its very nature. Until at least the 18th century, these demands for evolution affected instrumental music much more than vocal music, for two reasons: the art of improvisation played a pivotal role in instrumental music, and in certain repertoires, such as that of dance, it was often intended for immediate consumption. It is extraordinary that La Spagna, a dance piece from the very beginning of the 15th century, should have been remembered a century later and adapted by well-known composers: from dance masters and choreographers such as Guglielmo Ebreo, who served at a number of Italian courts, including that of Naples between 1465 and 1468, to chapel singers like Francisco de la Torre, who served in court of Ferdinand the Catholic King.

There will never be conclusive evidence of the provenance and intended destination of manuscripts such as the EscB, but perhaps that is of little significance. The important thing is the work of art itself and the cluster of gems it contains, whose power of evocation is possibly even more expressive than any historical record.

Notes by Dr. Maricarmen Gómez

Some remarks

“One of the most obscure periods in the history of Italian music lies between the presumed fading of the Ars Nova period around 1430 and the emergence of the frottola some 50 years later.”

This quote from Walter H. Rubsamen's publication, The Justiniane or Viniziane of the 15th Century (1957), still rings fairly true today, despite over 30 years of musicological research that have helped to enrich our knowledge of this and other periods whose obscurity equals or exceeds that of the time from which the manuscript dates. Proof of this is the revival of the Ars Subtilior, fuelled by the writings of scholars such as Willi Apel, John Nadas and Margaret Bent and by its reappearance in concerts and recordings by a growing number of performers over the last 10 years. The latter in particular has played a crucial role in the consolidation of a repertoire that is gradually being revived as performing musicians rediscover it.

On the other hand, the degree of a musician's confidence when handling a specific musical corpus depends upon the extent of his knowledge about it. In the case of a modern work, this problem does not exist because we not only have the graphics of musical notation but also the musical savoir-faire derived from a praxis that is always up-to-date and virtually incontrovertible, or at least is governed by clear guidelines. The same cannot be said of music from the past, about which we know very little if we assume that there is the same or a similar relationship between what is written and what is tacitly understood. The synthesis of these needs gives rise to the archetypal ancient music performer: a hybrid combination of musicologist and practical musician who must create an efficient relationship between what he knows about the historical aspect and the artistic engagement that a concert or recording entails. This equation does not require a specific proportion of one or the other, but the absence of either will almost certainly produce unsatisfactory results. One of the most obvious purposes of music is to create a particular pathos, and yet it is virtually impossible to create the same pathos as that generated when the work was contemporary. The artist can, however, at least create a pathos that reflects the idea he has formed of the work by using the information at his disposal and his own artistic skill in shaping sounds. Nor must we lose sight of the fact that for music to occur there must be at least three participants: the music itself, the performer and the listener. Object, broadcaster and receiver are involved in an ever-changing relationship subject to an infinite number of more or less subtle variations.

When a concert is performed or an album is recorded, these considerations are accorded relative importance. In fact, we know little about the outcome of this equation because there are infinite variables. What we can do, however, is make a proposal that is satisfactory to the person offering it. The musician chooses a coherent path and, through his efforts, tries to communicate and connect with the audience. Something similar happens to the audience, but unlike the musician the listener is a passive subject: the decisions have already been made, so the audience's opinion, shaped by its knowledge, tastes and state of mind, is the only factor that will determine the degree of acceptance. Another element involved is the music critic, to whom I would recommend "The Critic as Artist", an essay by the brilliant writer Oscar Wilde that offers readers an intelligent insight into the art world and the relationship between creators and those who express opinions and often stand in judgement. I think I may safely use Wilde as a pretext to express a point of view that is shared by most musicians, even the select few who have been awarded prestigious prizes by music magazines. The public expression of a particular person's assessment should not dictate the aficionado's acceptance or rejection, especially when the critique is not offered by Monsieur Croche (the pseudonym Claude Debussy used when writing as a music critic) but by some performer or musicologist, or, as is unfortunately often the case, by record fans who express their likes and dislikes in words as evocative as they are lacking in the supposed rigour they claim to possess: "…a cold, grey performance". A strange choice of adjectives bearing in mind that sound generates neither temperature nor colour.

The process that shapes knowledge – in this case applied to music – is based on the relationship between what is true and what we believe. This relationship produces aesthetics and ethics in constant motion, in which absolute determinisms have little room to flourish. In the case of "historical" recordings, we take things so far that many of us actually try to capture and "resuscitate" sounds in a medium that would be inconceivable in the historical dimension: a recording. A sound creation that was not conceived to be recorded becoming the object of a recording – is this not a contradiction? And yet it is precisely in this contradiction that we can explore and create, varying the ingredients to create singular sound objects. In this case at least, the goal is to communicate audible and emotional experiences from the 15th century and "translate" them for the widest possible range of people today. This is no easy task when one considers that the music of bygone days was composed for very specific audiences who were familiar with the works in question – it was the contemporary music of the day.

The recording of the El Escorial Songbook is a challenge in every respect: the choice of the works that make up an album, the instrumentation, the order of the pieces, the editing decisions to be made with pieces that only exist in a single manuscript and cannot be compared with other sources, and endless details open to a tremendous variety of interpretations. We have created this fourth album with a miscellaneous selection of works that takes the form of a concert programme. Some of the works are unique, while others come from different sources and are not found in the songbook – a pattern followed on all of the previous albums. Although this decision is undoubtedly arbitrary, its raison d'être is evident in the result – an album that aims to be rigorous yet embraces a certain eclecticism. The composition of the selected group also differs from that of previous recordings because almost all of the music is written for three parts, the only exceptions being a handful of four-part pieces. The task of editing is always problematic when handling a musical corpus with few alternative sources. Martha K. Hanen's transcription leaves much to be desired and contains numerous errors; many of these are the result of carelessness, but there are others stemming from fairly arbitrary editing decisions with no critical basis. It is the detailed examination of the original manuscript that should reveal the correct idiomatic expression for this repertoire and, as one might expect, it is through the musician's engagement with its musical performance that we are able to choose among the various transcription possibilities.

The music in the songbook is not simply another example of a repertoire consigned to oblivion and now revived by commercial interests and the conventions of practical musicology. On the contrary: it represents a collection of tiny gems worthy of our respect and admiration that have been meticulously and lovingly prepared to strike up a dialogue between the early Renaissance and 21st-century audiences. I sincerely hope that the experience of listening to the 22 works contained on this fourth album will be a source of enjoyment and revelation for everyone.

Ernesto Schmied


released January 1, 2010

Ernesto Schmied, recorders & arrangements

Mariví Blasco, soprano
Juan Carlos de Mulder, vihuela & lute
Vicente Parrilla, recorders
Guillermo Peñalver, recorders
Manuel Vila, renaissance harp





"Music is the shape and form of the invisible"

L. da Vinci

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