Painting the Spanish Renaissance Through Song

By Catherine Yang, Epoch Times
February 17, 2019 Updated: February 26, 2019

The technique of tone painting goes as far back as the history of music. Even in the time of Gregorian chants, singers used little musical patterns to depict specific emotions and ideas expressed in the text. The idea of ascension might be accompanied by notes moving up the scale, or strife may be indicated by discordant harmonies.

This technique was used especially during the course of the Renaissance in Europe, where, building off the music of the Franco-Flemish school, Italian and English composers were writing madrigals. These secular, multivoiced songs influenced other music at the time as well. Sacred music, too, was incorporating more of such tone-painting techniques.

In the music of the Italian Renaissance, you may find more polyphony, and perhaps the English music was more cerebral. But the Spanish Renaissance conveyed the meaning of the words through the notes with a new degree of expressiveness.

“The Spanish Renaissance composers were very attuned to setting the text, so the music is very expressive,” said David Shuler, music director of the Choir of St. Luke in the Fields.

The choir will perform a program titled “The Splendor of the Spanish Renaissance” at St. Luke’s on Feb. 28, 2019, at 8 p.m. There will also be a pre-concert lecture by Dr. Raymond Erickson which starts at 7 p.m.

The Spanish Renaissance was an era of global trade. This Spanish Golden Age coincided with the Age of Discovery, when Western empires were forming around the world. From Asia to South America and back, Spain was amassing wealth and subsequently was able to foster patronage of the arts.

The concert will include works by composers Francisco Guerrero, Tomás Luis de Victoria, Alonso Lobo, and Cristóbal de Morales, “known as the finest composers in their day,” Shuler said. “It’s just amazing music.”

The concert kicks off with the call of trumpets, and then cycles through the Christian calendar with matching motets. It also cycles through a tremendous range of expression.

Shuler chose motets from all four composers, intending to show the wide range of musical expression during this period. The range of expression from piece to piece is also meant to show the different sides of each composer. The highlight of the program is Guerrero’s “Missa de la batalla escoutez,” which is a Mass based on a battle chanson (song) by French composer Clément Janequin.

“In terms of text setting, there are very different effects for different texts,” Shuler said.

“There are brilliant, exhilarating motets, and there are others that are sad laments,” he said. The works were written for different seasons, such as a Palm Sunday piece that is actually a lament, and a tranquil Christmas motet. And there is an Easter piece, which Shuler said “is one of the most joyous pieces I’ve ever come across.”

Music director David Shuler with the Choir of St. Luke in the Fields. (Choir of St. Luke in the Fields)