Musical Splendor at Charles’ Imperial Court

Charles V, painted by Titian

Did you ever read Cervantes’ medieval tales of Don Quixote? You should. First, it’s good fun. Second, it’s good fun. Third, Cervantes’ language is wonderful: poetic, evocative, ironic. I was lucky to read a very good French translation and I really, really enjoyed the reading as such. Pictures popped up before my eyes, I lived through the ups and downs of the unfortunate medieval knight and his faithful bickering servant. Oh futile attempts to control our destiny! “Don Quixote” is a parody on Spain’s nobility and the high society’s craving for heroic tales, nevertheless Spain had its hours of glory and splendour in the Middle Ages. Jordi Savall’s performance of music from the reign of Charles V gave me a taste of what one could hear at the Spanish imperial court in the 15th and 16th century.

The reign of Charles V was full of challenges. The Moors had been driven out of Grenada, but internal strife weakened the Spanish kingdom, the French king Francis I was a serious competitor, the Christian church was about to split in two factions. It must have been a great consolation to Charles V, a promoter of arts and a specifically of music, that he could enjoy works written by excellent composers like Josquin des Prés and performed by the Royal Chapel. Jordi Savall’s ensembles La Capella Reial de Catalunya (vocal) and Hesperion XXI (instrumental) performed some of these pieces Monday evening in Luxembourg.

Rarely have I enjoyed ancient music so much. It immediately transported me into the Iberian peninsula, its cruel past and its heroic legends. The different pieces guided the audience through the 15th and 16th centuries and marked the historical turning points. Let me highlight those that gave me the most pleasure. A cancion, composed by Carlo Verardi, glorified King Ferdinand, the predecessor of Charles, and celebrated the liberation of Grenada, the last Muslim enclave on the peninsula. “This is the Bread of Affliction”, a moving Sephardic prayer for tenor, baritone and bass reminded the audience of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492.

While Josquin des Près’ instrumental “Vive le Roy”, commemorating the birth of Charles V, did not impress me much, I almost started to sing myself Juan Vasquez’ romance “Los bracos traygo cansados” (The Arms fell off from searching) about an unfortunate knight. I couldn’t suppress a thought at Jordi Savall’s face if Don Quixote de la Mancha, the Knight of the Sorry Face, would now step on the stage, wondering what kind of adventure would await him in the concert hall!

Two love songs, “Belle qui tiens ma vie” written by Thoinot Arbeau, and “Mille Regretz”, composed by Des Près, marked the marriage of Charles V to Isabelle of Portugal and Isabelle’s death; they gave the singers of Capella Reial de Catalunya the opportunity to delight the audience with some wonderful heart-breaking singing. Another kind of singing was required for Hieronimus Parabosco’s amazing Ricercar XIV “Da Pacem Dominem”, a beautiful liturgical antiphon (alternating voices).

Towards the end, at last, my definite favourite of the evening, a Villanesca alla napolitana (Neapolitan song) called “Vecchie letrose” (Old shrewd women), remembering Charles V loss of Naples and Sicily. This work was probably the song that gave the two ensembles most fun themselves. The fun actually was contagious and quickly taken up by the audience, which may explain why Savall gratified us with two equally dynamic encores.

The pieces performed two days ago can be found on the following albums:

Carlos V: Mille Regretz
Royal Minstrels 1450-1690

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

Writer, photographer, piano student, music enthusiast. And a lot more. You are welcome to follow my blog.

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