It seemed like new ideas were coming in from everywhere–from the street, from the islands, from Africa, South America and the Middle East. They were turning art, dance, music and theater upside down. The traditional provinces of the highbrow set took a look outside for a change, and realized that a lot of life was happening everywhere besides the places they held court.
In short, it was the right place and the right time to be alive. Unless you were a Jew, or a Moor.
Because the climate we’re describing isn’t New York City in the ’90s, it’s 16th-century Madrid. The contradictions of the Renaissance are by now in full bloom, as Spanish culture incorporates the artistic aesthetics of its ethnic peoples while simultaneously banishing them from the region. Though unconverted Jews were driven out in 1492, and Moors followed them into exile a decade later, it’s hard to tell at times, since Sephardic and Moorish influences remain in Spanish music for centuries thereafter.
These influences, along with those from other cultures in South America, Africa and the Canary Islands, give the Renaissance music of Spain incredible diversity. If you’re in the mood for a short trip back to the 1500s, this is the weekend for it, as the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild brings the venerable Waverly Consort to town.
Their concert, Iberia, is a concert of sacred and secular music from the Golden Age of Spain and Portugal, set in the form of a commedia–the prevalent theatrical form of the period. In three acts, the spiritual, the intrigues of court and the streetlife of the period are considered. There are dances for the intermissions, and a few jokes in the midst.
The mix at times leads to unlikely pairings of the spiritual, the erotic and the courtly, as a cycle of songs devoted to the cavallero traces the conceit of the gentleman soldier from church to court to chapel. The Tenebrae represents the darkening of the world with the crucifixion of Christ, while the Crux fidelis gives strange praise to the tree that bears the body of the Christus.
These are contrasted in short order with a mojiganga, a short, satirical play at the end of the commedia. In Filipe da Madre de Deus’s Antoniya flaciquia gasipà a soprano deals with getting a bit too drunk on Christmas Eve–a problem that has apparently plagued mankind for millennia.
Musical director Michael Jaffee laughs when asked if it should be compared with those variety shows so popular on network television in the ’60s. “It is a bit of a potpourri,” he admits, “but it’s still a fair representation of what was going on in the culture in that period.”
“We tend to categorize or niche influences nowadays, but the boundaries weren’t so clear back then,” Jaffee says. “Tremendous influences were going back and forth, between nobility, mercantile and street classes, between high culture and low culture, and the people who were coming to Spain from everywhere. It was a tremendous mix of cultural ferment.”
In short, not your usual chamber music fare. If Spain in the mid-1500s isn’t on your regular itinerary, you don’t know what you’re missing. But you can find out this weekend.