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ClassicsOnline Home » CABEZON, A. de: Tientos and Variations (Complete) (Wilson)
“El ciego tañedor” or “the blind keyboardist”, Antonio de Cabezón was one of the most inspired masters of his day and a protégé at the court of King Philip II (whose favourite painting, reproduced on the cover of the booklet, came into his possession while Cabezón was with him in Brussels in 1555). Keyboard music was attaining a status equal to vocal polyphony at this time, and Cabezón’s sophisticated Tientos are at the forefront of a rapid rise in a new intensity of expression. Where the Tientos relate to vocal styles the Variations can frequently be traced to popular songs and dance tunes such as the Folía.
Antonio de Cabezón (1510–66)
Complete Tientos and Variations
In the late fifteenth century, as vocal polyphony built steadily towards the revolution wrought by Josquin des Prés, keyboard music lagged behind in a state of nature dictated by the unnaturalness of its mechanical apparatus. Then, when organists started transcribing Josquin’s sweetly interwoven lines, something changed. They rose to the challenge, disciplined their fingers to match the balance of the voices on their instruments until, about 1530 in the cultural centres of northern Italy and the royal court of Spain, they seized the initiative in composing independent works for keyboard of substance equal to or greater than those for singers. One of the first to do so was a son of minor Castilian nobility, blind from very early youth. With Antonio de Cabezón, in the early morning of the keyboardist’s craft, we have already arrived at a pinnacle of refinement and strength seldom again achieved. A witness to his playing describes its “suavidad y extrañeza”—which could be translated as “delicate fluency and otherworldliness”. Add these qualities to the granitic sobriety of the Spanish character so soon after the Reconquista from the Moors, and you have a foundation for the tension necessary to all great art.
At Palencia, near the small town where Cabezón was born in 1510, a relative of his happened to be vicar-general, and his probable teacher there was kin to the king’s treasurer. This will have smoothed the way to his first professional position, taken up at the age of fifteen, as keyboardist to the wife of the emperor Charles V (King Carlos I in Spain), Isabella of Portugal. This prodigy was passed along at her death to her son, crown prince Philip (later King Philip II), with whom Cabezón remained on terms of personal friendship for the rest of his life.
As early as 1539, we are told that “el ciego tañedor” (“the blind keyboardist”, as he was referred to in official documents) had “penetrated to the core” of composition, leaving “nothing more to be expressed”. Besides daily service at court and constant royal progresses from city to city, Cabezón accompanied his prince on two momentous foreign journeys. The first was a tour of Philip’s future dominions, lasting almost three years: starting in Genoa, passing through northern Italy (with a long stay at the Spanish duchy of Milan, and a chance for young Andrea Gabrieli to hear him in Verona), on to the Tyrol and Germany, ending with a visit to all the major cities of the Spanish Low Countries (Belgium and The Netherlands). Then, when Philip travelled to England in 1554 for his marriage to Queen Mary, Cabezón was in his train. During a stay of eighteen months, the Spanish and English court musicians performed together on several documented occasions. One of the choirboys was a student of Thomas Tallis named William Byrd. Nothing is known of any contact between the mature master and the young genius, and that is enough to convince modern musicology that there was none—but nobody can tell me that Byrd would not have been drawn to Cabezón like an iron filing to an electromagnet. Between these two journeys, a considerable number of Cabezón’s keyboard works appeared in a major printed anthology, using a new kind of notation in numbers, the Libro de cifra nueva (1557) published by the Toledo organist Luys Venegas de Henestrosa.
Cabezón died in Madrid in 1566. His brother Juan, a major keyboardist in his own right, in all probability Antonio’s amanuensis and main lifelong support, died less than two months later—almost as if his reason for living had been extinguished. Antonio’s portrait was destroyed when the Alcázar of Madrid burned, and his tombstone was discarded when the Franciscan church where he was buried was razed. Cabezón’s son and successor at court, Hernando, edited and published a large selection of works posthumously (Obras de Música, 1578).
The profundity and brilliance of Cabezón’s music has been obscured from the outset by the uneven quality of the original editions. The number-tablature used for the first time by Venegas was extremely compact, but rife with possibilities for corruption. He says in his forward that the devil had plagued him with errors, but that he was unwilling to wait another ten years to sort them out. Would that he had. Some of the pieces in the Libro for vihuela exist in their originals by various composers, and the comparison is catastrophic for their editor, Venegas. Besides countless wrong notes, we see missing accidentals or key signatures, voices de-synchronized by entire bars or transposed, measures doubled or left out, even entire sections omitted or bits of different pieces patched together. There are only three such concordances for the Cabezón pieces, but they present a similar picture of desolation. One tiento, actually by Julio Segni of Modena, is misattributed to Antonio. We include it here (CD 2 ) as an early source of inspiration for Cabezón, in the accurate version originally published in the monumental Musica Nova (Venice, 1540).
In Hernando’s posthumous publication, the situation is far better; but here too, in what he calls “mere crumbs from the master’s table”, are many traces of the hectic quality of the lives of both father and son. A tiento (VI) (CD 1 ) published by Hernando is, again, not by Antonio, but by a Ferrarese contemporary, Giaches Brunel. These major errors (and the fact that several “tientos” in both books (CD 1    ) look much more like transcriptions of chansons or the like) cast a pall of suspicion over everything—but only one tiento (CD 1 ) is so much clumsier than the rest that it arouses my doubts. This could be an early work, or one mangled by Venegas. And when we think how nearly all of Hernando’s own music (contrary to wishes expressed in his testament) was left unpublished and, eventually, lost by his family, we can only be intensely grateful for his efforts on behalf of his revered father.
Under such adverse circumstances, it seems to me far more likely that, when ugliness or a broken theme crops up in the original text, some error has occurred along the line—whether in the original notation from Cabezón’s playing, the transfer to number-tablature, or the complex process of printing—than that anything inelegant or technically faulty could have sprung from such an exquisite musical mind. Fortunately, the web of thematic entrances is so dense and the laws of counterpoint so clear that restoration is often feasible, although it must always be remembered that in such cases nothing can be definitive. When I first turned my attention to these problems, the work of the Spanish musicologist Andrés Cea Galán provided much enlightenment. I also owe special thanks to Prof. John Koster (National Music Museum, USA) for much patient and wise counsel. I have gratefully appropriated many of their ideas, but any errors in the final result are my responsibility.
This disc is devoted to Cabezón’s tientos and variations. The word tiento is the Spanish equivalent of ricercar (meaning “to search out”), a new kind of instrumental polyphony which had recently sprung up in Italy. Cabezón was in the forefront of the rapid rise in intensity of the new form through the use of the higher artifices of counterpoint and thematic development; but in his time he was quite without peer in infusing into it the intangible element of real musical interest, as opposed to the mere juggling of dry intervals so often seen in such pieces by lesser masters. Even the historic movement away from multiple themes towards a single subject (and eventually, the fugue), which found its first climax in the work of Andrea Gabrieli, is well advanced in Cabezón’s tientos. Two (CD 1  ) are especially modern in their treatment of harmony and dissonance—“otherworldly” indeed, perhaps precursors of the Stravaganze that appear a little later in Naples (another Spanish possession), and in subsequent “elevation” toccatas. Another pair (CD 1 , CD 2 ) uses the opening notes of the Marian hymn Salve Regina; one seems to illustrate the Ecclesia Militans, the other, the Ecclesia Triumphans.
The three tientos which rework motifs from vocal works (CD 1  , CD 2 ) are particularly notable. The composer of Malheur me bat is disputed; Cabezón transforms the chanson into a picture of the blows of Fortune raining down on her victim. The Josquin Mass movement closes with a heavenly Amen descending through a long downward sequence like a blessing.
Cabezón gets most attention in the history books as the “inventor” of variation sets—the credit for which should go to Italian lutenists and Spanish masters of the vihuela, an instrument somewhat like a guitar set up and tuned like a lute. But the handful of sets of differencias in the Obras marked the beginning of the form for keyboard instruments. No fewer than three of these (CD 2   ) vary a tune called Guardame las Vacas, over a bass that was later known as the Romanesca. Its lively triple time is stretched out here to a whole bar per beat. The last of these three sets is a special case; its insistent tolling and classical structure (grief, denial, resignation) leads me to think it may have been a lament on the death of a distinguished personage, perhaps Charles V; or it might be by Antonio’s brother or son, for Antonio himself. The style is certainly unlike that of el ciego.
The Pavana Italiana (CD 2 ) is what would later come to be known as the Folía. The melody attached here to this most famous of basses seems to have been of Spanish origin, perhaps by Antonio himself; northern composers called it the Spanish Pavane. A French source (Arbeau) tells us it should be played in passamezzo tempo, faster than a true pavane. The Folía appears again later on this disc (CD 2 ) in its original, complete form, a rare pavane in triple time from northern Italy called La cara cossa, transcribed for vihuela by Enríquez de Valderrábano of Valladolid, and varied once by Cabezón, who also often dwelt in what was then the Spanish capital.
The title of the other piece called Pavana Italiana (CD 2 ) is a misnomer, forgivable because of the similarity of the opening harmonies. It is, in fact, a French pavane tune, Belle qui tiens ma vie. Confusingly, there is another set (CD 2 ) on the same tune but with a Spanish title, La dama le demanda. Dance tunes crossed borders with ease in the sixteenth century; this version of the tune, which dispenses with the reprises, also seems to want the livelier passamezzo tempo.
The popular love song del Cavallero (he is about to leave the girl, but promises to return) hosts one of Cabezón’s finest sets (CD 2 ). The Gallarda Milanesa (CD 2 ) may be a relic of Antonio’s stay in that city during Prince Philip’s grand tour; it is a single variation on an entire galliard, which already varies each of its three strains.
The most beautiful and ambitious of all the variations (CD 2 ), on a passamezzo moderno tune called Quién te me enojó Isabel, is almost never played because it comes down to us, in a major failure of proofreading, seen through a glass darkly—or rather, in a fun-house mirror. Many of the bars, through an idiosyncrasy of the tablature notation first pointed out by Andrés Cea Galán, are doubled in length, and several are missing in the final variation.
The last piece in the Obras, incorrectly included under the rubric of the differencias, is something of a mystery. Its title, Duviensela (CD 2 ), is a corruption of D’où vient cela, a chanson by Claudin de Sermisy, but this is not, as one would expect, an ornamented keyboard version of that polyphonic original; if it were, it would belong on an upcoming disc of Glosados. Here, the melody alone is given a darkly brooding, mostly three-voice setting. Then, in one of the most beautiful codas ever composed, the piece rises like a phoenix from its own ashes. Several gestures found in Hernando’s glosados are found in this remarkable piece; I cannot help thinking he put it, with modest anonymity, at the end of his father’s Compendio de música as a small monument—what the French would soon begin calling tombeau.
There are no true variation sets in Venegas’s Libro, but the four secular works using variation techniques are included here to serve as background to the later differencias. (CD 2 ) is the most archaic: a setting of the venerable basse danse tenor called The King of Spain, La Spagna for short, and usually just La Alta in Spain—“the loud”, since it was played by festive instruments at balls. It was out of fashion by Philip’s day, but the conservative Spanish court kept on performing this dignified dance, like modern orchestras wearing Edwardian evening clothes. Cabezón’s two playful voices chase each other around the tenor in long notes.
CD 2  is yet another Folía, used here as bass to an otherwise unknown poem and melody, lightly varied by Antonio, in what looks like an early essay, or one for a pupil. The musical text in Venegas is very corrupt—as is that for the Pavana (CD 2 ) taken from Valderrábano, discussed above. The Rugier glosado (CD 2 ) is an elaboration of another work by that vihuelist: a lovely setting of the opening lines of Ariosto’s immensely popular epic poem, Orlando Furioso, one far superior to the later Italian Ruggiero bass which was used for improvised recitation of the endless cantos.
Our last two works from the Obras are not tientos, but they pack a similar contrapuntal wallop. Ad dominum cum tribularer (CD 2 ) must be a straight transcription of a lost five-part setting of Psalm 120 / Latin 119 (“In my distress I cried unto the Lord”). The two upper voices are in canon at the fourth, and Antonio contrives for them to run parallel at the climax of this searing piece. It may be coincidence that William Byrd chose this text for his first eight-part motet, and the same canonic procedure for his own favourite work.
The Fuga a quatro (CD 2 ) is a four-part canon: three voices in strict imitation of the first, a tour de force for any composer, let alone a blind one. And by repeating a section before his coda, he shows us the point of return to make it a perpetual canon (go back to bar 51 eight bars before the end).
A Frenchman wrote in 1610: “Who can say (if he has any sense at all) that he has never felt the force and effects of music, hearing some excellent player sing on his instrument? As for me…I can say, having sometimes heard…the Spaniard Antonio Caveçon playing and singing on the organ…that I was so ravished and so deeply moved, that I could nevermore doubt the power, efficacy and influence of music.”
Recent research by Prof. John Koster shows that a northern European harpsichord or virginal (not an Italian one) is most appropriate for sixteenth-century Spain. The instrument used on this recording attempts to reconstruct what such an instrument might have sounded like, working backwards from later Spanish examples, as I have tried to reconstruct the music itself. Temperament is modified 1/6 comma meantone, based on evidence in Santa Maria (1565).
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