iving, hoping, suffering… Drinking… and faith. The villancico developed into one of the most successful genres of polyphonic music on the Iberian Peninsula during the Renaissance. Towards the end of the era, in the late 16th century, as in the Latin American colonies, sacred villancicos became increasingly popular along with secular ones. Our program rings in Advent with Christmas villancicos from the Cancionero de Upsala (1556) and sacred villanescas by Francisco Guerrero (1589). Secular villancicos in Spanish and Portuguese by Juan del Encina, Luis Milan, Cristóbal de Morales, complemented by instrumental pieces by Diego Ortiz and Antonio de Cabezón, show how diverse this genre was and is.
Ivo Haun – voice, lute; conductor | Florencia Menconi – voice | Giovanna Baviera – viola da gamba, voice | Elam Rotem – voice, harpsichord | Félix Verry – renaissance violin | Maria Ferré – vihuela, renaissance guitar | ReRenaissance conducting team: Marc Lewon
Elam Rotem – singer, harpsichordist and composer
Thomas Christ (TC): You are not yet 40 years old and already belong to the profound connoisseurs of early music. How did you get into singing? When did you discover the harpsichord?
Elam Rotem (ER): I started learning the piano when I was eight years old. In high school (when I was around 16) I also started singing in the school choir. Gradually I realized that the music I liked the most – both at the piano and in the choir – were works from the older periods of music history. So it was obvious that to play these repertoires I would have to switch to harpsichord or organ.
Since there are very few organs in Israel, the harpsichord was the more viable option (although harpsichords are quite hard to find in Israel, they are still easier to find than organs). With the harpsichord I discovered more and more the musical world of the 17. and 18th century and also earlier works when I was looking for vocal music. It became obvious that this was the repertoire that impressed me the most and I did everything in my power to learn and perform it.
TC: You founded the internationally renowned ensemble Profeti della Quinta during your training in Israel. Can you tell us something about that and also about the choice of name?
ER: As my interest in old repertoire continued to grow in high school, I started a small singing group with friends. We sang motets from the 15th century in the corridors of the school (the place with the best acoustics we could find) and were thus an interesting attraction for our fellow students. On the last day of high school, we gave our first official concert in a large drainage tunnel (again, the place with the best acoustics we could find, in the absence of churches or old palaces). We sang a mixed program, from 15th century motets to barbershop songs. The group’s name, NEVIE’I HAKVINTA – literally, “The Prophets of the Pure Fifth” in Hebrew – was basically a joke. While we used “prophets” as something biblical, serious and historical, it sounded like the name of a heavy rock band. We agreed that we needed to change it, but for lack of a better suggestion, it just stayed that way. When we moved to Europe and recorded our first album, we had to decide on an international name. We found that when translated into Italian, it sounds good and arouses curiosity.
TC: You are also known as a composer. Make full use of the composition patterns of the 17th and 16th centuries? Is it possible to draw boundaries between imitation and inspiration?
ER: For me personally, it’s always been pretty natural to compose and I’ve cultivated it throughout my studies. As I researched older practices of music making, I found that musicians in earlier times had to regularly deliver and create music, and rarely drew on older, familiar repertoire (as performers almost always do today). If we imitate historical performance practices, there is no reason why we should not also imitate historical music-making practices – namely, composing and improvising. The boundaries between imitation and inspiration are fluid in every work of art.
TC: Do your “style copies” leave enough room for your own creative expression? Are your compositions meant to recognize certain early musicians or do you rather lead the listener into the world of experience of the Renaissance and the Italian early Baroque?
ER: I imagine I would have lived during that time and been active as a musician (and, of course, as a student of the masters I cherish). My goal is to learn the style so that I am able to express both emotions and my personal ideas as a composer from that era would. And just like the music of a composer from that period, it would be a mixture of common idioms, influences from certain other masters, and, of course, original moments. The composers I looked up to the most when composing were from the early 17th century Italian Baroque; composers like Emilio de’ Cavalieri, Claudio Monteverdi and others.
TC: In contrast to the world of the Baroque, the rich musical treasure of the Renaissance is still largely unknown. Do you have a rationale for this?
ER: I think it’s generally the case that the focus of the classical music scene shifted around the end of the 18. and the 19th century revolves, and the further the repertoire is from it, the less it is known. If you look specifically for the difference between the 16th century (“Renaissance”) and the 17th century (“Baroque”), one can assume that the tendency toward monodies and catchy melodies of the later century is somewhat easier to grasp and hear than the sometimes confusing polyphony of the earlier period.
If my first love among early music repertoires may have been the English Carol, my second was clearly the Spanish Villancico, as found in the Cancionero de Palaci and the Cancionero de la Colombina – both collections of carols from around 1500. Here, too, there is an immediacy of expression: the ability to convey a clear mood with the simplest musical means and a sheer power of sound. These characteristics can also be found in the Spanish music of the next century.
What changes, however, is the meaning of the word “villancico”. By 1500 it was clearly a poetic form, a rather light genre, but still a form to begin with. Towards the end of the century, it means a Christmas carol, but still with a lightness that I find very appealing. And once again I wonder how the Brits managed to go so astray with their Christmas music over time, when they had a wonderful repertoire at their disposal. I have no idea how they celebrate Christmas in the Iberian Peninsula, but looking at the number of recordings of riu riu chiu that can even be found on YouTube, maybe they do appreciate their heritage a bit more than the British.
In any case, I can’t imagine a better and more joyful start to the Christmas season than ReRenaissance’s November concert. My mouth is already watering.
(Translation: Marc Lewon)
1. un niño nos es naçido
Villancicos de diversos Autores, a dos, y a tres, y a quatro, y a cinco
bozes, agora nuevamente corregidos, (“Cancionero de Uppsala”),
Jerome Scotus: Venice 1556, fol. 37v-38r (fol. K4v-L1r)
2. riu riu chiu
Cancionero de Uppsala, fol. 41v-42r (fol. L4v-M1r)
3rd Fantasia del quarto tono – Luys de Narváez (active ca. 1526 to
Los seys libros del Dolphin (Libro segundo), Diego Hernández de
Cordova: Valladolid 1538, fol. 27r-28v (fol. D3r-D4v)
4. o Reyes magos benditos– Juan del Encina (1468-1529)
Cancionero Musical de Palacio (Madrid, Biblioteca Real,
MS II-1335), ca. 1470 – early 16th century, fol. 270v-271r
5. quinta pars on an ostinato [Ruggiero] – improvisation
according to Diego Ortiz (ca. 1510/1525-1570)
Tratado de glosas sobre clausulas y otros generos de puntos en la
musica de violones, Valerio et Luigi Dorico: Rome 1553, fol. 60v
6. los Reyes siguen la estrella – Francisco Guerrero (1527/28-1599)
Canciones y Villanescas espirituales, Iago Vincentio: Venice
1589, No. 52
7. diferencias sobre el canto llano del Caballero – Antonio de
Obras de musica para tecla, arpa y vihuela, Francisco Sanchez:
Madrid 1578, p. 189
8. yo me soy la morenica
Cancionero de Uppsala, fol. 39v-40r (fol. L3v-L4r)
9. romerico – Juan del Encina
Cancionero de Palacio, fol. 248v (fol. 206v)
Cancioneiro Musical de Elvas (Biblioteca Municipal Pública
Hortênsia de Elvas, MS 11973), mid-16th century, fol. 94v-95r.
10. si n’os huviera mirado – [Cristóbal de Morales (ca. 1500-1553)]
Cancionero de Uppsala, fol. 6v-7r (fol. B4v-C1r)
11 Pavan Italian – Antonio de Cabezón
Obras de musica, p. 187
12. niño diós d’amor herido – Francisco Guerrero
Canciones y Villanescas espirituales, No. 53
13th Fantasia – Luys Milán (ca. 1500 – ca. 1560)
Libro de musica de vihuela de mano intitulado el Maestro,
Francisco Diaz Romano: Valencia 1536, fol. Bv
Historical Museum Basel