Lizzie I, Thomas, and us

For a long time I had the score of a beautiful work in my ’16th century’ folder: O Nata Lux by Thomas Tallis, but for some reason I never performed it with choristers. Until… somebody asked for it when booking for the Save Our Songs Projects. I’m glad I said okay let’s go….

Thomas Tallis lived during pretty much all of the sixteenth century. Together with his friend and colleague, the magnificent William Byrd,he possessed the sole right to publish his works in print, and O Nata Lux was published in a book of sacred works in 1575. The person who had granted them this monopoly was Queen Elizabeth I, an extraordinary woman whose reign gave some stability in a period of grave political and religious turmoil. Also, she loved music and the arts, – we have several good poems by her – and she worked hard to enhance cultural life in her country. To achieve this, she surrounded herself with talented musicians like Tallis.

Continue reading below the video

Thomas Tallis lived from 1505-1585. He can be seen as a link between early and late 16th century English music.
Renaissance church music hadn’t seen a lot of development for a long time, and Tallis introduced the great polyphonic school into English church music.

Now what is polyphony? We speak of polyphony in a work of music when two or more independent melodies sound together. So if there is a choir with sopranos, altos, tenors and basses, and they sing in 4-part polyphony, their lines start at four different moments in the composition, usually following each other up within the first sentence of the piece. It is like constructing a beautiful cathedral – you start with one wall of stones, and as you build on, the whole becomes a unity, soaring right into the heavens. Tallis constructed his own musical cathedral, in one piece he used 40 voices!

Homophony, on the other hand, is when all the voices in a work sound at the same time. The works by Tallis I used for my Save our Songs Projects have just a little bit of polyphony in them and mostly homophony, as the whole fun of singing polyphony is that you can see and respond to each other when singing. The absolute pinnacle of this style is the aforementioned 40-part motet by Tallis, called Spem in Alium, sometimes mistranslated as ‘I believe in garlic’. He also wrote less complex works, like some beautiful and simple Reformation service music, which is mostly homophonic.

If Ye Love Me is a beautiful example of this less embellished style. As a student, I used to think it was a love song – remember this was before Google, and a lot of things you just had to guess -, but it is actually a ‘motet’ or ‘anthem’ (a biblical text set to music). It is a mix of the polyphonic, and homophonic style, and we are recording this song in our project, each singer in different parts of the world in their own home. The project is not finished yet, but as soon as the video-clip is here I will post it.

As polyphony is pretty difficult to sing, requiring some experience (especially in counting and singing at the same time!), the homophonic style was the one most used in church services so the congregation could sing along. Descant and bass parts would be filled in by trained singers.

Just imagine how all this exquisite music was written at a time when Protestants and Catholics were hacking away at each other! However, Tallis survived all the ruckus, composing his works both in Latin and in English, depending on the religious preference or the tolerance of the reigning monarch. For instance, under Mary Tudor (Bloody Mary), who was a fiercely pro-Spanish catholic, he wrote Latin hymns and masses. Under Elizabeth I (her reign started in 1558), he wrote in English and Latin. Lizzie was a Protestant, but she didn’t mind Thomas’ catholicism. He was all about music, and she simply loved it. Just like we do now.

Lizzie I, Thomas, and us
For a long time I had the score of a beautiful work in my '16th century' folder: O Nata Lux ...
Read More
Virtual? Yes, but also very real.
If we have to stay at home, we have to. In order to stay safe, for ourselves, but also for ...
Read More
Ludwig’s final works
When Ludwig van Beethoven had one of his string quartets played for a nobleman in Saint Petersburg, the aristocrat was ...
Read More
Auntie Anke’s Storytelling Hour II
Auntie Anke takes you on a totally eclectic tour through music history. Today: Renaissance Man! The this beautiful partsong Mon ...
Read More
Auntie Anke’s Music History Storytelling Hour part I
Now I keep wanting to write the Want To as Wanna. Because that is really what she is singing. ‘She’ ...
Read More
Vocal Workout. And physical. And spiritual.
Jack is originally from California but he has lived in the Lot – where I live and work - for ...
Read More
The secret power of songs
As long as I can remember, I have been passionate about singing and writing. I can't choose between the two, ...
Read More
The hippie hymn and the handsome priest
In Holland there is a famous hymn called ‘Spirit from above’. I loved singing it as a child because of ...
Read More
From the ‘Golden Oldies’ series: Renaissance Sting
Let’s go back to the year 1597. As the Spanish are importing their potatoes from South America, the English sit ...
Read More
From the ‘Golden oldies’ series: The Crazy Queen
Here is another episode from the series ‘Every song has a story so why not tell it’. Today we’re going ...
Read More

Virtual? Yes, but also very real.

If we have to stay at home, we have to. In order to stay safe, for ourselves, but also for others who are vulnerable. Of course we want to do everything we can to not spread the virus.

But it can make us sad. Especially in these days when times are supposed to be jolly and full of expectation. I am now asking myself: why do we suppose that these days should be jolly? In times like these, we can only become frustrated, disappointed and sad when we try to meet this crazy requirement, that we should be jolly.

So we must turn inward. We must look inside ourselves and deal with whatever we find there. These days can be hard work if we do this inside work of the soul! So we also need something to make us feel good, really good. I mean we don’t need comfort food. We need soul food.

And the best soul food is music.

This is why the Chorale de Cazals has come up with a plan. We will be singing together. You and us. Online, each in our own home.

The event will take place on 14 December at 19h00. You can buy cheap tickets online – really just to support the choir, so we can continue to spread music and joy. Please join us, and invite your friends too. We can take 99 people on Zoom.

You can book here: www.choraledecazals.fr

Talking about staying at home…. I’ve had the strangest experience during the past few weeks. Since I started my online choir projects in September, I have been feeling so connected to the singers who subscribed.
We
are all in our own homes, of course, watching and listening to each other on Zoom. But I’d never expected to experience such a sense of connection & closeness. The Café Sessions (all singers present, from Sweden across the Netherlands and Belgium right to UK and Canada and back to France again) were fun, and the singing lessons were just extraordinary. I was not only able to see and hear but even to feel what was happening during the session. It nearly made me cry! Thousands of kilometres between us and we were having a singing lesson as if we were in the same room.

When the first lockdown was announced in March, I was very reluctant to try Zoom, Skype or any other of those platforms. I probably simply wished ‘all this’ never happened.

Now, I am convinced that if we need to continue living like this for a while, ‘virtual’ is a second best that is not bad at all.
Even for singers.
Because we want to be creative in finding solutions to continue doing what we love: to give our voices to the world!

Happy Christmas, and see you online!

Ludwig’s final works

When Ludwig van Beethoven had one of his string quartets played for a nobleman in Saint Petersburg, the aristocrat was in for a surprise. He had never heard such strange music. He told the composer. The composer shrugged his shoulders.

Muzio Clementi, the one whose sonatinas we have all played if we enjoyed more than two years of piano lessons when we were small, said the same to Beethoven.
‘It sounds so strange,’ said Clementi.
‘That’s because it’s music for later,’ said Beethoven.

But even now I find that, listening to Beethovens beautiful string quartets, the ones he composed later in his life, sound strange indeed. Not dissonant, nor ‘wrong’. Now please don’t argue that he wrote mistakes because he was deaf. He knew what he was doing. Beethoven knew about music theory. It’s a bit like Leonard Cohen who sings ‘It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift.’ Music theory summarized in one song.

You will find the quartets (numbers 12-16) on the internet.
Wait until dark, light a candle, listen.

Beethoven just before his death sounds, well… not of this earth. Perhaps he really meant to show us that this was music for much, but much much later.

Perhaps for a time when we have all transformed to something that is not of this earth anymore.

Auntie Anke’s Storytelling Hour II

Auntie Anke takes you on a totally eclectic tour through music history. Today: Renaissance Man!

The this beautiful partsong Mon coeur se recommande à vous was written by the great Orlando di Lasso or Roland de Lassus or just plain Lassus. How did our friend get all those different names?

Well, Orlando (or Roh-land) was something of a globetrotter, within Renaissance limits, of course. He was born in the Netherlands, the part which is now Belgium, but he spent his youth in Italy. Apparently already as a young man, he stood out. At 24 years, he was the biggest cheese in church music (alongside Palestrina, of course), and had published several song books. A bit like the Beatles, really. Songbook after songbook he filled, and at the end of his life he had written 2000 works, both for church and for the, well, the pub really.

I strongly advise you to listen to some of his music on the web, and also to have a go at Palestrina’s music. When I say ‘music’, I mean ‘vocal music’ because that is what these men were extremely good at. Why would you have to listen to both composers if we are just going to do one of them in our project?

Well, after thirty minutes of listening, you will be amazed at the difference between these two gods of Renaissance music. Palestrina is clean, clear, heavenly, flowing like a beautiful river in springtime. Lassus is impulsive, intense, emotional, versatile, combining the flavours of France, Italy, Venice, Germany.

Oh man, traveling all those countries, in those days. Just how did they do it? Just imagine. France-Venice on horseback or in a carriage…. Anyway, Roh-land did it, and his international career was boosted by the flourishing art of book printing, and Antwerp in his home country being the commercial centre of Northern Europe.

These are just a few milestones in Roh-land’s musical life. He earned a small fortune by working as a tenor singer in the city of Munchen, Germany. He staged a performance for a noble wedding, also in Germany, where he also performed as an actor, singer, and lute player. As his fame was rising, publishers from all over Europe started to reprint his works. Twice, he won the first price in a prestigious composing competition in the French city of Evreux. He even survived a stroke, and continued working until he was quite old, refusing to take his master’s offer to retire.

Finally, in 1594, he was made to retire as his master, Count Wilhelm, let go of 17 musicians in his orchestra because he needed money to finish a prestigious building project in Munchen. Orlando died soon after.

Mon Coeur Se Recommande a vous is a beautiful, short song in the chanson style. It is largely ‘homophonic’, meaning that you all sing at the same moment, with a few polyphonic elements, which means that the voices come in at a different time, yet following a certain logic.

I always tend to think of Renaissance songs like this as being very closely related to good pop music. The songs are short, they have a logical structure, they are a balm to the ear, and of course, they so often, if not nearly always, deal with the universal theme of love – because love binds us all. All over the world, all through the centuries.

Thank you, Roh-land.

You can look up the song on Youtube. I can recommend this version.

Auntie Anke’s Music History Storytelling Hour part I

Now I keep wanting to write the Want To as Wanna. Because that is really what she is singing. ‘She’ is of course, Dusty Springfield, who left this planet way too early, at only 59 years old. She was an important ambassador of what is called ‘blued-eyed soul’, that is, soul music sung by white people in the sixties, and this song became a smash hit in 1963, when Dusty was only 24 years old.

Dusty was an icon of the Swinging Sixties: beehive hairdo, long evening gown, heavy make up, dramatic shows…. Who didn’t wanna be, or rather want to be Dusty in those days!

I only want to be with you is one of those teenage I got such a crush on you songs that Dusty Springfield loved to sing. In the eighties, it was British singer Samantha Fox – you know, the one who became famous after appearing in the newspapers just when she had forgotten to put on a T-shirt? – who covered the song in a sort of post-disco-era version of which we asked ourselves: ‘Was this really necessary?’


Numerous other covers of the song have been made, and we particularly like Annie Lennox’s version with her first band called The Tourists: there are nice guitar riffs and interesting vocal harmonies. And if you want a rather disconcerting version, then listen to Volbeat and watch the soft horror video clip that goes with it.

Did you know that Dusty hosted a television program in the sixties in which she actively promoted soul singers? She would receive Motown artists who already were famous in America, but had yet to start to make it in Europe.

Dusty was a perfectionist. She would go to great ends to make the perfect recording. The story goes that she hated the Philips Recording Studios and preferred to tape her songs in the ladies toilets because of the great acoustics there. Of course…. Don’t we all like singing in the bathroom!

Therefore, keep singing. Even in rough times like these. If you find yourself humming a song, hum a bit more, perhaps look up the lyrics, perhaps find the song on the web. Then turn up the volume and have a good time with yourself and the music.

As always, viva la musica!

Vocal Workout. And physical. And spiritual.

Jack is originally from California but he has lived in the Lot – where I live and work – for ten years. He is 76 , practices yoga on a daily basis, makes his own Bulgarian yoghurt and is an avid swimmer.  He used to be a windsurfer, which he enjoyed well into his fifties. Today is his first singing lesson and he is completely fascinated by the concept of breath support. For a good part of the lesson he compares breath control with yoga breathing and under water swimming, and his happy conclusion is that singing is basically a sport. ‘So I got a new sport now!’ he chants.

We set to work. Scales and other singing exercises are produced and pursued with gusto. The results  are a bit wobbly at first, which is normal,  particularly since  Jack has never ‘really’ sung before. As the lesson continues, his tone becomes firm as he becomes more aware of what is happening in his body and how the ribcage (for breath) and the head (for resonance and vowel formation) are connected. ‘Wow!’ he exclaims. ‘This feels real good! You know, this would be great for everybody?’ He then explains how he sometimes feels sad when he sees how people of his age – and much, much younger people too – walk around slumped, as if gravity was something they can’t deal with. He demonstrates this by  walking around the room and, as he walks he morphs into an old man. Shoulders  bent forward, belly outwards, he exudes an aura of utter exhaustion.  Then, suddenly, he jumps up again. ‘It’s so imPORtant to breathe well, you know, and stand straight!’ he shouts. ‘Look at Freddy Mercury, or Mick Jagger!’

Mick and Freddy! Now there are a few favourites of mine. Check them out on YouTube and watch how they move on the stage. (I have to say I prefer Mick because he looks more human.) It’s not so much about the way they dance, but rather  how they carry themselves, so the best way to study these  singers’s attitude is when they sing a ballad. It becomes especially interesting if you mute the sound. No distractions. Just watch, like a research scientist. Ask questions. What aspects of the posture make the guy look strong and dynamic? Check out: movement, head, jaw, neck, shoulders, chest, spine, arms, legs, feet, and more movement.

Even if you don’t have an athletic figure like these guys, or like Jack, for that matter, I cannot stress enough the importance of good posture. I love to think of this Buddhist monk who interrupts his teachings on how to meditate every now and again to remind us: ‘Spy stay!’ Meaning ‘spine straight’. Meaning, in the words of the eighteenth century singing masters in Italy, the noble posture. The noble posture enables you to breathe deeply, which stimulates blood circulation, which stimulates oxygen distribution in the body, which nourishes all vital organs, which improves health, which improves happiness, which improves good posture, and round and round it goes.

Singing combines all that, and more. To sing is to play. To sing is to express your true self. To sing is to be a vessel that carries art: the visionary art of composers and songwriters, whether you sing Cohen or Mozart, or one of those folksongs that have resonated through the hills and valleys of the British Isles for a thousand years. To sing is to resonate with your body, almost effortlessly making it more healthy.  No running or weightlifting involved. Your voice asks only one thing of you one: a proud and noble posture – spy stay!. Many of us have un-learned that posture somewhere during our lifetime. We tend to breathe superficially and bend our shoulders and back forward. Perhaps it is because we have been told not to appear too proud. Or maybe just because we have spent too much time in front of a computer or the telly.

So if you want to do your body and soul a big favour, play a little. Stand in front of a long mirror and do a Freddy or a Mick. Stand tall, chest lifted, shoulders low. Spine straight. Exhale through the mouth. Wait a few seconds, let your mouth drop open. Then inhale through the nose, your mouth still open, lift and spread your arms out from your shoulders. This is the ultimate alpha male or female posture. Keep standing like that for ten seconds, breathing comfortably in and out, keeping your chest high. You will notice that it is in fact possible to breathe without letting your chest drop completely.

Feel good? Feel better? Great. Keep playing. I wish you happiness.

The secret power of songs

As long as I can remember, I have been passionate about singing and writing. I can’t choose between the two, so I combine them. When a friend encouraged me to start writing about music history, at first I became nervous because I really did not know where to start. Music History is so HUGE! So I tried to my way into a format that I enjoyed and thought other people would enjoy reading. What came up was the song. The song throughout the centuries.

I could have known this! Songs of literally all periods have always made their way into my heart and soul. I don’t particularly prefer one period or one style and you can see that in my programming. And there are links between songs. Irish guitarist Rory Gallagher based a lot of his extremely hot guitar licks on baroque chord progressions. The make-up of The Stones’ Paint it Black is entirely classical, modulating from the minor D to the parallel major key of F. The Elizabethan bard didn’t differ that much from today’s singer-songwriter.

Songs want to be heard. They surface in the soul, not tied to any boundaries of time. They work their way into the mind and settle there so comfortably we call them ‘ear worms’. It’s those ear worms that demand to be admitted to a concert programme. Often, they present themselves through somebody else so I get emails with Youtube links and messages like ‘Ooh, can we do this?’ or ‘I have always loved this song, can you make us an arrangement?’

Songs also want to be written about, with a little bit of information about their surroundings, their family, their time. Or they want to be linked to songs of later periods who are their brothers and sisters. So that is the work I have to do and I shall do it, she said dramatically, blogging on this website.

So you see, songs have a very strong will of their own. I wish you Happy Reading.

The hippie hymn and the handsome priest

In Holland there is a famous hymn called ‘Spirit from above’. I loved singing it as a child because of its beautiful melody. Only years later did I find out that in the Dutch church we sang the song about three times too slow. The melody is actually a dance song from the early baroque era, a balletto. I think this is quite surprising as the Dutch protestant religion is famous for being stern, strict & sorrowful. On the other hand, I just checked my little red Dutch book of church hymns and the lyricist turns out to be a 20th century poet who was particularly active in the sixties. There you go. A hippie hymn.

But what a hymn it is in the original language! Thank you Giovanni Gastoldi (1550-1622) for Linamorato (‘the suitor’). The happy and bouncy ode to the god of love has a churchy vocabulary about it, so that may be why it attracted the Dutch church fathers’ attention. There is, for instance, a sentence that recurs at the end of each verse in a slightly different form: ‘Let’s give praise to such a Lord’- Signore in Italian. If you write Signore with a capital S, it would become God. If not, it can refer back to the subject of the poem, Amor the god of love.

Before you continue to read, it might be an idea to listen to the song. I found this delicious version on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rwRxJNqPvqk. Close your eyes and enjoy.

Finished? Good. Music history lesson continues. Gastoldi was a sort of best selling artist in his day. He was tremendously popular in the Netherlands also, and apart from the 20th century hippie hymn mentioned above, his works were translated into Dutch even during his lifetime. Apart from being a dance song, it is also an example of a subgenre of the madrigal (lit.: song in your mother’s tongue) with the nonsense syllables falala to serve as a refrain. That is why we call these songs falalas. Hugely popular during the late Renaissance period,  a group of English composers published a special edition of madrigals, amongst which are a lot of falalas, dedicated to Queen Elizabeth I who loved music and was an accomplished musician and poet herself.
Back to Italy. The poetic idea of this brilliantly happy and energetic song is ‘Life is short, so let’s enjoy life, and to live is to love.’ Perfect. What more would you want than to hear these words pronounced in the most beautiful language in the world? Here we go. The lyrics are below.

Now play a little. Read the words out loud, slowly, deliberately, in your best Italian. Even if you don’t speak Italian, just go for it and have fun. For an accent, think of Pavarotti speaking English. Italian is easy to pronounce. The r is rolled. And much unlike English, each vowel has the same pronunciation, always. The syllables with the ridiculous surplus vowels have the stress.

L’inamorato

A lieta viiita, Amor c’inviiita, Fa la la
Chi gioir braaama,se di cor aaama,
Donerà il cooore a un tal Signooore, Fa la la

Or lieta homaaai, scacciando i guaaai, Fa la la
Quanto ci reeesta, viviamo in feeesta
E diam l’onooore a un tal Signooore, Fa la la

Ne fuggir giooova, ch’egli ognun trooova*), Fa la la
Veloci ha l’aaali, e foco e straaali
Dunque s’adooore un tal Signooore, Fa la la.

*) best pronounced as [kel-yon-yun troooova]

Translation: To the happy life Love invites us. One who delights in desire, if he loves from the heart, Will give his heart to such a master. The hour of happines is here, driving out trouble. Whatever remains of our lives, we live it celebrating, Giving praise to such a master. Happiness is fleeting, as everybody finds. It is fast, and it has wings, fire and lightning bolts, So let’s give praise to such a master.  What an explosion of joy! Of course this song is also on the programme of our July Singing Holiday.

Now all this talk about that fun-loving Italian God of Love on the one hand and the stern religion of the Low Countries on the other, is doing something to my brain. I keep being reminded of a calendar I once saw. To be quite honest, the kind of particularly inspiring calendars like the type that grace the office walls of car workshops.  Only in this one the models had clothes on and they were Italian men.  The fascinating thing was that they were all Catholic. Priests, to be exact. No, I haven’t smoked anything, thank you. For several years now, the Vatican has been issueing the so-called Calendario Romano, popularly known as the “hot priest calendar”. All the models are genuine priests, photographed in the streets of Rome during the Holy Week. The Vatican insists that it is purely, I repeat PURELY intended to promote the city of Rome and the Vatican. To account for this, the line-up of extremely handsome young men ends with a few pages of insignificant morsels of historical information about the Vatican. Indeed. Google priest calendar rome, and enjoy. A lieta vita.

From the ‘Golden Oldies’ series: Renaissance Sting

Let’s go back to the year 1597. As the Spanish are importing their potatoes from South America, the English sit down at their kitchen tables and sing. Printing on demand has just been invented and Queen Elizabeth I turns out to be really cultural, so… why not, thought the early printing men, publish one song book after another?

Musical life in Britain was flourishing in the sixteenth century. Poems were sung rather than recited. All layers of society resounded with song, and harmonies (or polyphonies) were three, four or more parts. Contemporary sources describe the multitude of song genres mixing and mingling with no regard for class differences. The ladies and lords of the house worked side by side with their servants, singing. It was like the Von Trapp family avant la lettre. Servants with good voices and sightreading abilities were preferred whenever a family could afford them.

The songs they shared were madrigals (Southern European for ‘song in your mother’s tongue’) and songs or airs. Airs were tremendously popular in England as they rubbed against the genre of ancient folk songs. Thus, the madrigal, Italian in origin and anglicized for instance by the composer Thomas Morley, however beautiful it was, could never win in popularity. This is what a contemporary writer has to say: ‘[the English] sing verses worthy of remembrance, on every subject, amourous, religious, epic, satirical, pastoral, didactic, moving from the world of insects to the world of heroes. Songs rise naturally to their lips, no one knows why, they themselves do not know why.’

You went to the barber shop, there would be a lute on the wall, and you could do a few cool riffs while waiting to have your beard trimmed or your faire lockes cut. A lot of people could sight read. Printing companies made it easy to sing together at the kitchen table by arranging the four musical parts on one sheet in such a manner that from each side of the table you could read without having to crane your neck or read upside down.

John Dowland was something of a pop star in those days. He could wrench a mean riff out of his lute, he could sing, and he composed his own songs. He even wrote instrumental music to dance to. John was what we would call a singer-songwriter.

And just like many creatives, John too had his dark side. When the spotlights went out, he often lapsed into a melancholy mood and he knew it. Describing himself as ‘semper Dowland, semper dolens’, he was always a bit doleful, a little down.

And rightly so: his biggest dream was to be a court composer and it never came true. Well, who does NOT want to play for Obama or Prince Harry? And in those days, there was no Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame, just the monarch as the highest achievement. And John Dowland just died to play for the one and only goddess of that time, Queen Elizabeth I.
But somehow, it did not happen. Either his application was turned down, or he was just doing a series of well-paid gigs for the king of Denmark, and then in the end the Elizabethan courtier that could have gotten him the job suddenly died.

Anyway he kept on writing, singing, and impressing everybody with his lovely lute playing. John Dowland published eleven voluminous volumes of songs and instrumental works. His ayres are still sung and played everywhere, the most famous of them being Now O Now I needs must part. Of course we do that one too in our Singing Holidays in Southwest France. It is just so pretty.

Talking about pop stars: who but Sting would record some of the Dowland songs four centuries later… He did so with a friend lutenist, with his ‘untrained tenor’ (quote Sting himself) and with the prestigious Deutsche Grammophon label. Opinions about this project differ greatly. Personally I think it’s rather cute that a pop singer would want to show his vulnerable side by doing something way out of his comfort zone. To illustrate this, he charmingly confided to a BBC Breakfast interviewer, lute in his lap, that he was not such a terrific lute player. He could have brought his guitar.

Hmm. So you start to sing ‘classical’ music with a not-at-all-classical voice and behold, the purists are all over you. I don’t know. If I think of that sixteenth century barber shop, I tend to think, Hey, those songs needed to be sung. With whatever voice thou happened to have.

From the ‘Golden oldies’ series: The Crazy Queen

Here is another episode from the series ‘Every song has a story so why not tell it’. Today we’re going to Spain. Olé.

Springtime Quiz! How many May Songs are there? Hundreds, I guess. They are usually very merry, but one particularly melancholy one is the Spanish Por mayo era, por mayo (‘when it was in May, in May’) and I would like to draw your attention to this one. Por Mayo was written sometime during the 16th century, however the words are older, taken from a poem that has been famous over the centuries, even up to today. The song is also known as The romance of the prisoner, and the lyrics in translation go a bit like this:

When it was the month of May, oh… of May
When it was hot and sunny
When all the men went out to serve their ladies
Knights and workmen alike going out and flirting

While I, poor wretch, only know the night from the day
By the warbling of the little bird
That sings to me from a nearby branch outside my dungeon
Everyone goes out to serve the god of love
Except me who, sad and troubled, is perishing in this prison.

The mournful melody is set to a surprisingly strong and steady rhythm, hypnotizing and fascinating. Depending on which version you look up on the web, one can dance and/or beat a drum to it.

I always think it’s a miracle that so many old songs have survived the centuries and that we can just download five hundred years’ and more of music from the internet. The romance of the prisoner was preserved because it was part of a songbook that was printed for the Spanish court, famously called Cancionero de Palacio and containing a staggering five hundred songs. And this is where poetry and reality strangely touch because at that court, there was a princess called Juana and her fate was to become just that: to be a prisoner…

Juana sadly entered into history as ‘Juana la Loca’ (loco means crazy). She was born in Toledo in the late 15th century. The young princess was said to be a very intelligent young lady. Intelligent! Let’s see…what was the girl good at? Here is a little list. Civil law, genealogy and heraldry, grammar, history, Spanish, Castilian, Leonese, Galician-Portuguese, French, Catalan, Latin, mathematics. Also she was great at dancing, horse riding, drawing, embroidery, sewing, hawking and hunting, and she could pick a mean tune on the clavichord, the guitar and the monochord. Added to that, she was a natural beauty. Some girls have all the luck. Girls? Luck? Not in those days. Remember, that great Age of Enlightenment in which we could all do what we … anyway, as terminology has it: The Renaissance man. There you are.

So this smart young princess was married off to Philip the Handsome who was king of Flanders and other bits of Europe and, well, handsome. It was said they hit it off really well. They produced no less than six children who all survived, which is rather amazing for those days, I mean that they survived.

creative singing holiday workshops art summer schools classes accommodation vocal technique music france musical choir chorist singers amateur lot dordogne southwest aquitaineWhen her brother died, Juana became official heiress to the Spanish throne. Not long after that she became Queen when she lost her mother, leaving her father Ferdinand grumbling because with his eldest son and wife dead, he had lost his kingly status. Coincidentally at that period, rumours about Juana’s mental health grew stronger. A lovely opportunity not only for her dad (who had coins minted saying ‘Ferdinand and Juana, King and Queen of Spain’) but also for her husband (who also had coins minted saying ‘Philip and Juana, King and Queen of Spain’).

We will leave it to Shakespeare to work out those and other details in a play called ‘Joanna the Mad’ and keep the story short for now. Juana was 25 years old when she was declared unfit to rule and locked away in a convent. It was there that some miniature copies from songs of the royal songbook were manufactured, and survived as a separate little booklet. I like to think that it contained Juana’s favorite songs from the 500 Best Of The Spanish Court Songbook she had known as a Queen, and from which court musicians had performed for her when she was not yet the mad woman in the attic. Perhaps Juana played her nun caretakers in the convent a few of the songs, saying, ‘Can you send me someone to copy these out on paper? They are my favorites, you know. I’m sure that Sister Infatigata can write them for me, she has a good ear and such a knack for calligraphy. Do send her in some day.’

creative singing holiday workshops art summer schools classes accommodation vocal technique music france musical choir chorist singers amateur lot dordogne southwest aquitaineAs far as we know, Por Mayo is not included in Juana’s little private cancionero. But the poignant words of the poem seem suitable to the Queen: the tragic fate of a woman who was proclaimed mad because it was convenient to some. Historians have suggested that maybe she suffered from melancholia, or depression, or schizophrenia. This is the part that makes me mad. Of course she was depressed! How would you feel if you had to live in constant fear of conspiracies and poisoned drinks, being only twenty-odd years old, trying to rule a plague-ridden country on the brink of civil war, having lost your brother and mother at an early age, enjoying very little support because of very efficient slander, faced with a hostile father and throne-hungry husband, and perhaps – since you were intelligent – having premonitions about what they were planning for you? In other words – what does it do to you knowing that you have been a prisoner to start with?

Writing this, I wish I never read about Juana in the first place. Her story is simply too heartbreaking. And she lived to be 75 years old. However, as the Buddhists say, get over what happened but remember the lesson. There are a lot of lessons in this story, but let’s stick to the simplest lesson: ‘To celebrate the 500 years survival of the Cancionero de Palacio, we should perform the canciones in it.’

Already six of them are on my repertoire. Sing, choristers, sing!