Celebremos el Niño: Christmas villancicos from Spain and the New World
Ay andar, andar Juan de Aruajo (1646–1712)
Aires me hielan al Niño Anonymous
Si el Amor se quedare dormido Juan de Araujo
Pues que llora mi Niño hermoso Anonymous (Juan de Araujo?)
Los coflades de la estleya Juan de Araujo
¡Fuera, fuera! ¡Háganles lugar! Roque Jacinto de Chavarría (1688–1719)
Silencio, no chiste el aire Diego de Casseda (1673–1694)
Convidando esta la noche Juan García de Zéspedes (ca. 1619–1678)
Shannon Canavin & Shari Alise Wilson, sopranos
Thea Lobo, mezzo-soprano
Gerrod Pagenkopf, countertenor
David Evans, tenor*
David McFerrin, bass-baritone
Colleen McGary-Smith, cello
Andrus Madsen, harpsichord
Sunday, December 9, 2012 at 3pm
First Lutheran Church of Boston, 299 Berkeley Street
Notes on the Program
A brief history of the villancico
Throughout its 300 plus year history, the villancico, as a musical genre, has gone through many wonderful and diverse transformations. It began its life as a vernacular poetic form cultivated in fifteenth-century Castile, with roots in orally transmitted folk dance/song. The subject matter was almost invariably of a rustic or popular nature in stark contrast to the courtly love lyrics of the romanza. Typical themes, sometimes innocent, sometimes satirical or even bawdy include a daughter speaking to her mother about love, a lad scorned by a beautiful shepherdess, or the tribulations of a cuckolded husband. The name of the form itself belies its origin. Villancico is a diminutive form of villano, meaning a rustic or peasant.
One constant through the form’s history is its musical and poetic structure, which consists, in its most basic form, of a refrain (estribillo) interspersed with a series of stanzas (coplas) giving it an overall ABA structure. The length of the poem, the number of coplas, the relationship between the estribillo and coplas and the number of voice parts are some of the variables treated in seemingly infinite combinations throughout the villancico’s life.
Musical settings survive from the end of the fifteenth century and by the first two decades of the sixteenth century the form already reaches its first flowering in the numerous villancicos by Juan del Encina and his contemporaries found in the Cancionero Musical de Palacio and other songbooks. Encina was a poet and dramatist as well as a composer and it is thought that many of his villancicos were intended as theater music.
By the mid-sixteenth century the villancico developed in both length of form and range of expression, but the next real transformation took place in the context of the religious fervor of the late sixteenth-century counter-reformation when Catholic composers were asked to do their part by providing sacred works in the vernacular and with a more populist musical appeal. Due to its popular legacy, the villancico was the perfect vehicle for these new sacred works. The devotional villancico was set to texts that spoke most directly to the populace, having as its themes saints’ feast days, the intercession of the Virgin Mary and especially the birth of Christ. Thus, the connection between the villancico and the Christmas season becomes intimately connected from here on. In fact, in the modern Spanish-speaking world, the term villancico is used as the generic term for Christmas song just as the term carol is used in English. The greatest exponent of the sixteenth-century sacred villancico was Francisco Guerrero, whose Canciones y villanescas espirituales was published in 1589. Some of Guerrero’s innovations would stay with the genre for the next several generations and into its journey to the new world: an expansion of three or four voice parts to four or five; frequent syncopations, use of hemiola and other rhythmic devices; quick changes between homophonic and polyphonic textures and most importantly the development of a distinct contrast between the estribillo and coplas. If the estribillo is in duple time in Guerrero’s sacred villancicos, the coplas may be set in three. If the estribillo is in five parts the coplas may be for only two voices.
Before we turn to the pieces on tonight’s program, let us see what happens to the villancico at the end of its life. Enormously popular throughout the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries throughout Iberia and its colonies, the form’s resilience and flexibility, exemplified by the addition of basso continuo, obbligato instrumentation, and solo aria copla sections, finally reaches a breaking point with the increasing influence of the Italian cantata in the eighteenth century, and by the end of the century the villancico all but disappears.
The Christmas villancico in the New World
It is difficult to say what distinguishes the villancico of late seventeenth-century Spain from that of its colonies in Nueva España (modern Mexico, plus lands north and south) and the Viceroyalty of Peru (extending along the west coast from southern Ecuador to northern Chile). In fact, there was so much cultural exchange, back and forth between worlds, old and new, that it’s best to think of it as one genre with some regional variations. Spanish composers who never set foot in the territories (such as Diego de Caseda) wrote villancicos that found their way into New World archives, and musical styles and new, catchy dance rhythms based on indigenous and African influences from the New World quickly caught on among the music makers in Madrid and elsewhere on the peninsula.
What is clear is that the cathedral establishments in the larger colonial centers hired and cultivated extremely gifted composers who found inspiration in the European, Indigenous and African cultures that had so cross-influenced by the seventeenth century. Some were born and trained in Spain and came to the colonies to seek advancement (peninsulares) and increasingly, others were pureblooded Spaniards but born in the New World (criollos). A number of pureblood Indians were also documented to have been composers of church music by as early as the late-sixteenth century.
Juan de Araujo, whose works feature prominently in the first half of today’s program was a peninsulare born in Extramadurra and brought to the New World by his father while still a child. He studied music in Lima, where his father held a governmental position, and possibly studied with Tomás Torrejón y Velasco, the writer of the first New World opera. He worked for a while in Panamá and upon returning to Lima he eventually was ordained a priest and worked his way up to the position of choirmaster at the cathedral there and then later at the cathedral of La Plata (modern Sucre) in Bolivia, a position he held until his death in 1712.
Of his some 160 plus surviving musical works, over 140 are villancicos. Most are written for large forces of from six to ten voices, sometimes divided into two or three choirs. Soprano voices are prominent in his works, reflecting the wealth of talented choirboys trained at the cathedral school. Ay andar, andar, Los coflades and Pues que llora mi Niño hermoso, with its rather obscure text, are all in the tradition of villancico texts that expand the three shepherd’s veneration of the Christ child to include a whole group of peasant types, whether they be Criollos, Indios or Negros. Typically, the group comes to observe with amazement the newborn child, to offer simple presents and to entertain with local song and dance. Ay andar gives a vivid description, in humorous terms, of an entertainment for the Christ child with dancing and singing and playing by a local company. The characters egg each other on and criticize each other’s attempts. Pithy references to the newborn child are subtly mixed in to the proceedings. In one clever moment in the estribillo, just when the text says “play it, play it again, Pascual” Araujo repeats a short phrase note for note; effecting a little musical hiccup. Los coflades is certainly Araujo’s best known and most often performed villancico, and for good reason. The amazing text describes a visit to the manger by a brotherhood of black slaves who describe themselves as being from Safala, which is an actual region now in the country of Niger, but then part of what was generically called the Congo. This is not the only specific African reference in the song. Angola is mentioned, another place from where slaves were known to have been brought in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and there is even an African refrain that is repeated at several points “Gulumbé, gulumbé, gulumbá. Guaché, guaché!” Whether these are actual words or made up to sound like African has not been determined. Another phonological peculiarity of this and other “African” villancicos is the pseudo-imitation of black dialect by the lyricist. He replaces ‘r’ sounds, with which the slaves apparently had difficulties with ‘l’ sounds, so “portal” becomes “poltal”, “primo” is changed to ”plimo” and “Negros” is sung “Neglos.” A clear African musical influence here is the use of call and response techniques, in which the chorus inserts short syncopated interjections into the narrative of the soloist.
We know little about Roque Jacinto de Chavarría, except that he was a criollo student of Araujo, and that he spent his career in various establishments in Peru and Bolivia. His villancico ¡Fuera, fuera! ¡Háganles lugar! is a very fun and lively example of, what we can call today, the ethnographic villancico. We have already encountered, in Los coflades, a villancico describing black slave culture. This type was most common and called either “Guineo” or “Negro” or “Negrito.” Other ethnographic villancicos describe (or lampoon) Gypsies, Galicians, Basques, and other groups. ¡Fuera, fuera! can be describes as an “Indios” with its encounter between some Criollo shepherds and a group of Indians at the nativity. They seem to be competing for the attention of the Christ child but all is well at the end as it is said, “In this world we are all Sons of Adam.”
The gentle and beautifully touching Silencio no chiste el aire, a lullaby of sorts to the baby Jesus. In the estribillo we hear the murmuring repetition of the word “rorro” which in Latin-American vernacular is a word for a male baby and as it happens, the name for this sub-genre of villancico.
Juan Garcia de Zéspedes, the only Mexican represented on our concert, was a multi-talented performer and composer. He evidently was a star boy-soprano and learned the viola da gamba at an early age as well. He had teaching, writing and performing responsibilities at the Cathedral in Puebla, but evidently never achieved the rank of chapel master. Although written in two distinct sections, his Convidando esta la noche is not strictly a villancico. The first section is marked “juguete” or vocal prelude, and the second section with its infectious and obsessive hemiola rhythms and repeating I-IV-V harmonies is marked as “guaracha,” a term that survived into the twentieth century as a popular dance form in the danzon repertory of Cuba.
Notes by Tom Zajac