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Light of Heart: Eighteenth-Century Piano Works from Spain

The MHS Review 410, VOL. 12, NO.14• 1988

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David M. Greene


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Spain, as a political entity and a world power, came into being in 1492. Ferdinand and Isabella, whose kingdoms of Aragon and Castile had combined 13 years earlier, drove the last Moorish holdouts from Granada. Carrying their flag, Cristobal Colon, ne Cristoforo Colombo, discovered a world beyond the ocean. Those Jews (seen as a threat to religious purity) who had not been massacred or forcibly con­verted were ordered to resume wandering the earth beyond Spain's borders, thanks to the Inquisition's flourishing under the aged and rabid Tomas de Torquemada (himself of Jewish ancestry). And the Spanish cardinal Rodrigo de Borja was elected pope (as Alexander VI) and prompt­ly divided the yet-unexplored New World between Spain and Portugal.

There followed a century and more of unimaginable affluence bought at the price of unimaginable horrors. During that time there sprang up, flourishing but fragile, an important growth of literature (from Juan del Encina to Lope de Vega and Cervantes), painting (from El Greco to Murillo), and music (from Morales to Cabanilles). There was a comparative wealth of Spanish music, both sacred and secular, in the 16th century, and at least the religious tradition was carried on for a time in the American colonies.

But the energy of that era, sapped by defeats, disasters, and increasingly ineffec­tual rulers, soon began to flag, and the arts fell into a spell as dry as the country's southeastern plateau. There were forms of popular music, to be sure, but these were not easily exportable, and around the courts (where the action was supposed to be) the taste for imported composers (chiefly Italian) came to rule. Certainly the most influential of these was Domenico Scarlatti, who, in his hundreds of little keyboard sonatas, combined both Italian and Spanish impulses.

Scarlatti left many followers who flourished in the especially barren musical century following his death in 1757. The most notable of these was Antonio Soler, who studied with Scarlatti and himself left 120 sonatas. These were relatively unknown until recent times, as were the 90 or so by his somewhat older Portuguese contemporary Carlos de Seixas, who died at 38 in I 742. Most of the Scarlattists, however, seem to have been obscure local musicians, usually connected in some way with a church or monastery, their music left to gather dust in the archives, awaiting the flashlights of modern musicologists.

This record offers a sampling of their work. Of the eight composers represented (two by two works apiece), five are known to have been padres in the theological sense and one in the biological. Two are so shadowy that only their surnames are identified. The rest were all born between 1730 and 1761 and died between 1799 and 1836. Perhaps the most prominent was Mateo Perez de Albeniz, apparently unrelated to the much later Isaac Albeniz, who spent most of his life as a choirmaster at San Sebastian, on the Bay of Biscay near the French border. His sonata represents a small body of keyboard music, he being much more productive of work for the church. (His son Pedro studied with various virtuosi in Paris and taught their methods at the Madrid Conservatory.)

Father Rafael Angles, runner-up in the competition for the organist's job at the Cathedral of Valencia in 1761, succeeded to it by default when the winner left town after a few months and kept it 52 years. His sonatas are said to show some influence from Haydn. Father Jose Larranaga was a Basque who directed the choir of the monastery of Aranzuzu, where he died in 1806. Father Narciso Casanovas (no rela­tion to the famous Venetian stud) was a Catalan who took orders at the great monastery of Montserrat (no relation to the famous Barcelonan soprano) and became organist there. He too seems to have been acquainted with the First Viennese School.

Another Catalan was Father Jose Galles, the latest-born of the lot, who played the organ at Vich Cathedral in his native pro­vince. Madrid-born Father Felipe Rodriguez studied with Casanovas and succeeded him at the monastery. Sebastian Albero, who died at 34, leaving 30 sonatas, was chapel organist to Ferdinand IV while Scarlatti was teacher to the queen.

Many of the pieces on this record seem to come from the collection of 16 edited by Joaquin Nin. Most of them are up­tempo, lighthearted, and dance-inspired.

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