05.07.15, Kreitner, Church Music

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Nicolas Bell

The Medieval Review baj9928.0507.015


Kreitner, Kenneth. The Church Music of Fifteenth-Century Spain. Series: Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Music, vol. 2. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2004. Pp. xiii, 181. ISBN: 1-84383-075-2.

Reviewed by:
Nicolas Bell
The British Library

The last two or three decades have seen Spanish music of the Middle Ages and Renaissance become firmly established within the common knowledge of music of the period: Penalosa and Morales sit prominently within the tradition that bridges the gap between Josquin and Palestrina, and early polyphony from the Las Huelgas Codex has been recorded more often than from any of the similar manuscripts from other countries. There remains, though, a considerable gap between Las Huelgas, the Cantigas de Santa Maria and the "Llibre Vermell" of Montserrat, the last now dated to the end of the fourteenth century, and the grand Spanish Renaissance mass-settings of the sixteenth century that were known across Europe and into the New World. In some respects the present book serves to bridge that gap.

The subject-matter of Kreitner's book is carefully circumscribed. "Church music" is taken to be polyphonic settings of Latin texts used in the liturgy. Gregorian chant is thus excluded, but also sequences and any other monophonic Latin songs that may have continued in use in the liturgy beyond their heyday in preceding centuries. Two polyphonic settings of the Song of the Sibyl, the prophecy of the Day of Judgement that was performed dramatically in the course of the Christmas vigil, are discussed only in passing, on the grounds that they are in the vernacular. The geographical boundaries also require explanation: a few pieces composed by a Spaniard living outside Spain are included, while music composed by foreigners but disseminated within Spain is excluded. These restrictions themselves impose a chronological curtailment on the subject: none of the sources under discussion dates from before 1450, and most of them probably date from the 1490s. The choice of a terminal date of the early 1500s is sensible, since it is from shortly after that date that the burgeoning of new styles associated with the ever-expanding court of Ferdinand and Isabella came into effect--a period already well covered in the literature. But the terminus post quem of 1400 is effectively an arbitrary one, since within the definition of "church music" taken for this volume, there is no extant music for the first half-century.

As a result, the bulk of this work is a discussion of only sixty-seven pieces of music. In due course it may become possible for a book to be written under the same title that considers all forms of music-making connected with the church in Spain throughout the century in a broader cultural context, but with the present severely restricted state of research such an account would of necessity depend largely on circumstantial evidence. It is to Kreitner's credit that he restricts himself to facts rather than speculation, and as a result he presents us with a first-rate introduction to this underexplored field.

Kreitner sensibly divides his book into chapters devoted to individual manuscripts. This brings about another methodological difficulty, since none of the sources is exclusively a collection of Spanish liturgical polyphony. It is therefore impossible to speak of any of the manuscripts as presenting a repertory of native Spanish compositions; in each case these pieces form part of a larger collection of mixed materials. The two earliest manuscripts, Barcelona 251 and Paris 967, are respectively a collection of "chants and liturgical prose" and a book of music for Holy Week, in each case including three polyphonic pieces in a fairly simple, homophonic style. Kreitner rightly suggests that these compositions may be only slightly more sophisticated than the types of improvised polyphony that we know existed elsewhere at this time, especially in Italy, and which may well have been prevalent in Spain too. Next in his story come the twelve Latin pieces in the Cancionero de la Colombina, a famous collection predominantly of Castilian songs, probably compiled between the late 1470s and the mid-1490s. An unnumbered manuscript in Segovia Cathedral written in 1495-97 combines many highly sophisticated works by Obrecht and other northern composers with much simpler native Spanish compositions by Juan de Anchieta and others. In each case, extended studies of the individual manuscripts already exist; Kreitner's purpose is to chart the development of Iberian compositional style through this period.

The remaining chapters discuss Barcelona 454, a composite manuscript all of which was written in the first decades of the sixteenth century but some of whose pieces may date from the fifteenth, and MS 2/3 in Tarazona Cathedral, which probably dates from the 1520s at the earliest, but which transmits several pieces from earlier decades, known from manuscripts already discussed. Each of the sixty-seven pieces is described and analysed in some detail, and a few tentative conclusions are drawn. Chief among these is that "in the last decade of the century, Spanish church polyphony changed from an ideal that favored the, for want of a better word, simpler archetypes like chant harmonization and accompaniment and smoothed-over homophony, to one where northern-style counterpoint was fully accepted and done with` confidence" (157). Notwithstanding this change of approach, the homophonic style prevalent in the earlier sources may well have influenced the striking passages of declamatory homophony that distinguish some of the sixteenth-century motets of PeƱalosa and Escobar from anything written in other countries. The developments charted by Kreitner through the course of the later fifteenth century therefore serve as an important antecedent to the masterpieces that were to follow.

The book is very well furnished with musical examples. Given that it centres on a small number of manuscripts, it is unfortunate that space was not found for a few plates to illustrate them. The bibliographical references are peculiarly meticulous, always citing precisely the form of name given on the publication, which results in the case of one prolific writer, Maricarmen Gomez, in no fewer than nine different forms of the same name. Kreitner writes with an infectious but carefully controlled enthusiasm, keen to bring this little-known music to greater recognition, but well aware of the reasons why it has been neglected until now. Though it is indisputable that composers in other countries were more advanced in their contrapuntal dexterity, he shows that simplicity need not signify incompetence, and that taken on its own terms, this music is entirely worthy of further study and, it is to be hoped, performance.

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Nicolas Bell

The British Library