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An Interview With Eduardo Lopez Banzo

by Joseph E. Romero

ADRID, 4 September 1997 Eduardo Lopez Banzo left his native Zaragoza in northern Spain at the age of eighteen to study in Amsterdam with the baroque specialist Gustav Leonhardt. After two years with the Dutch master, he returned home determined not to defend yet another version of Bach's Goldberg Variations, but to explore the music of the Spanish baroque.

It was after a recent performance of Antonio Literes' 80-minute allegorical interlude Los Elementos at the prestigious Festival de Beaune in Burgundy, France (see Operanet diary for a brief review), that the 36-year-old harpsichordist and organist offered Klassiknet some insight into the little known world of Spanish baroque music and the dark, rich and spirited pulse of the jacara, zarzuela and villancico. The tall, husky, blue-eyed Spaniard is especially voluble when he talks about his ensemble Al Ayre Espanol and the music they perform.

KLASSIKNET: Your recent performance of the music of Antonio Literes at this year's Festival de Beaune in France and your recordings of Sebastian Duron and José de Torres suggest that these three composers are key to our understanding of the Spanish baroque. Why is their music important?

EDUARDO LOPEZ BANZO: This music is part of a culture which is unknown at present. Al Ayre Espanol attempts to breathe life into this field. Spanish baroque music is the discovery of a completely different languageas unique and as different as the discovery of Charpentier and the French baroque. Moreover, the musical culture we are exmaining should not be considered Spanish music, but Ibero-Latin American music an area which musicologists and scholars are only just beginning to understand.

KNET: What is so different about this musical language?

ELB: Rhythm. It is absolutely different from the rhythms of Italian, French and German music and a major question to be resolved is how these rediscovered rhythms influenced music in France and Italy in the 17th century.

KNET: Can you be more specific?

ELB: In Italy, for example, rhythm is simple. Just listen to Corelli for instance, or music before and even after, rhythm is quite simple, just a C bar or 3/4 bar and never complicated...very beautiful music...but no rhythmical complications. Spanish composers such as Duron, Literes and Torres used combined rhythms. In Literes you have a quartet of four voices, each singing a different rhythm with accents falling in different places. Everything is clashing in such pieces and reminds me of pop music today. Spanish composers at that time were not satisfied with the rhythm of the bass and the voice, but added a lot of rhythms with the continuo and the percussion. Complex rhythms which include a flamenco drum player, for example, recreate this atmosphere. You can hear it in our second recording. The result is really magnificent. It's important to distinguish between Italian and Spanish music. Having heard so little Spanish music, audiences have no frame of reference, so they get confused between the two. Hopefully our concerts and recordings will change that.

The second major difference, of course, is color. The villancico, a religious genre dating from the 17th century and an early form of the 18th century cantata, makes novel use of arias and recitatives. Since it was based on popular images and made use of vernacular texts it enjoyed tremendous success. Eventually, a villancico could be either secular or sacred. Literes' elegant cantata "Ah del rustico pasto" is a fine example of coloratura writing from the Spanish court.

KNET: Which was more important for Spanish baroque composers, the patronage of the court or the patronage of the Church, and were composers in the provinces as active and influential as painters?

ELB: There was an equal patronage, but probably more of the Church. The court entertained heavily and music was essential. The big difference between Spain and other European countries was the nobility. In Spain provincial noblemen who were not close to the court had less influence on music than provincial noblemen in Italy and France. Music was developed mainly with important composers at court in Madrid. But the Church was always present.

KNET: Were composers often priests?

ELB: The Church was the Minister of Culture at the time. All major musicians tried to work for the Church, and many were priests. The cathedrals had huge organs, choirs, lots of singers. Works for four choirs could be composed.

KNET: If it was the Church would it have been the Jesuits or the Dominicans who were particularly powerful in Spain?

ELB: Well, it would have been others such as the Hieronomites. They were a very musical order, important at the Escurial. They wrote the funeral music of the kings. There is a great deal of this ceremonial music.

KNET: Have you explored Jesuit composers such as Domenico Zipoli in South America?

ELB: Yes. That is a fascinating topic. Jesuits were both politically powerful and creative. But they are a special topic. I am aware of work being done in that area, and much of what we learn in South American music of that period can help us understand not only the Spanish baroque, but also the evolution of instrumentation throughout the Hispanic world.

KNET: To what degree did the Islamic presence in Spain influence Iberian baroque music?

ELB: Many people are interested in this facet, but there is still a big shadow. Nevertheless, after an 800-year presence, Arab influence is obvious. The polyrhythms we spoke of earlier color, instrumentation, melody and even the harmonic support - are quite Arab. The problem is how it was assimilated into the Spanish tradition. I suspect it developed mostly through popular music, not court music. Because popular traditions tend to be transmitted orally, research in this area is complicated.

KNET: What was the political climate surrounding music and painting at this time?

ELB: With the death of Felipe II (1598) or, let's say, as of 1700 the Spanish empire was obviously on the decline. The War of Spanish Succession the end of Hapsburg rule, the arrival of the Bourbons. Painting in 17th century Spain was extremely important, and the quality was undeniable. Paintings were commissioned, hung and treasured. Music was ephemeral. More importantly, the 18th century Spanish were still impressed by the polyphony of the 16th century and continued to compose in that style.

KNET: Would it have been the King or the nobility who commissioned music?

ELB: The King. The Spanish King's power was enormous.

KNET: Was Felipe IV's patronage of music as strong as his support of painting?

ELB: Felipe IV was a gamba player. He was extremely important to Spanish culture. Not only did he like art, but he was king during the period of Hidalgo and Calderon. Once we were playing Tono la Muerte for solo soprano and continuo on the death of Felipe IV. You can feel through this piece how the composer, Juan del Vado, and other musicians at that time felt about this king. They knew Spain would never have another king who would love music to this degree. He spent huge sums on music and art.

KNET: So despite political and economic decline in the 18th century, Spanish music remained as fertile as painting?

ELB: Most certainly. We are talking about contemporaries of Velazquez, Calderon and others. Decline in the arts begins mid-century. Goya is an exception. What is amazing is to think that Spain ruled the world in the 16th century, and by the 19th century was considered by the French and the English, for example, as an adventure destination similar to Africa.

KNET: As a Spanish musician do you feel this attitude prevails in Europe today.

ELB: Unfortunately yes. Spain is perceived as a Third World country, although part of the problem has been the Spanish themselves. Things are changing. There is a whole generation of Spaniards who travel, speak other languages and do business abroad.

KNET: When we first spoke two years ago after a performance at the Monasterio de San Juan de los Reyes in Toledo, you said that the wealth of Spanish baroque manuscripts was to be found in Spanish cathedrals, private archives in Madrid and Barcelona, the Escurial and other palace libraries. Since then, has your research revealed new sources of this music?

ELB: Yes, I have researched archives in Central and South America. In fact, most archives are preserved in the Americas and Portugal. There are numerous reasons why this is the case, including issues related to traditions of preservation. In the case of José de Torres, for example, a fire in 1734 in the Royal Palace in Madrid destroyed the muscial archvies there. Much of the music lost has been rediscovered in Central and South America, notably in Mexico and Peru.

KNET: Any advice to musicians on performance practice of this music?

ELB: Classical musicians will have to become accustomed to rhythms such as those heard in the jacara - a very earthy genre. The pizzicato string continuo played like guitars, the castanets, the descending tetrachords typical of the malagueña mixed with classic galant always excite the listener. It is pointless to try and compare it to the German baroque and Bach, for example. The aesthetics are too different. Today, classical music exists apart from popular music. At the time of its composition, Iberian baroque music was a mixture of both classical and popular. It can be difficult for classical musicians to master the popular rhythms of the period.

KNET: Do you mean that classical musicians can be stiff?

ELB: Yes. The rythmic changes in Iberian baroque music are constant. They need to listen to more Salsa...spend some time in Cuba! In Spain, local folk traditions evolved steadily and by the nineteenth century solidified into more staid forms which have little to do with their origins. But the memory of early music is still present in the Americas. We need to revive this memory.

Read a review of Al Ayre Espanol's latest recording

Photo : Marco Borggreve

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