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ClassicsOnline Home » FERRERO: Nueva Espana (La)
Lorenzo Ferrero (b. 1951)
La Nueva Espana
The conquest of Mexico, once called New Spain (la Nueva Espana), was one of the most extraordinary episodes in the history of mankind: five hundred men, for the most part soldiers of fortune, conquered a large empire in just a few months. But it was also an immense tragedy, for an entire civilisation, with all its knowledge accumulated down the centuries, was destroyed by violence, prejudice and the desire for gold in order to finance other wars that were taking place thousands of miles away.
Many books have been written on the subject, each of which attempts, above all else, to explain how the attitude of the Aztecs in the face of the Spanish invaders could have proved so submissive. The most likely explanation is one of cultural shock too deep to be quickly overcome. The writer Italo Calvino attributed the following words to Montezuma II, Emperor, as we would say today, of the Aztecs. 'Kill them?. I wanted to do something even more important. I wanted to understand who they were.' The cultural shock was no less severe for the Spanish. How could a civilization that was so advanced, so affluent, so ordered, engage in frequent human sacrifice? Whenever there are difficulties caused by mutual incomprehension, the preferred way out is one of destruction. It is happening still today and this took place with unbelievable ferocity then, between 1519 and 1521.
If each of us did not come face to face with diverse cultures on an almost daily basis, often difficult to understand, sometimes even irritating, this story would have no significance other than that of an adventure. Instead, it is of great relevance and reminds us that cultural diversity is a precious asset and must not be squandered, even using methods seemingly less violent than they were then.
La Nueva Espana is a suite of six pieces, written between 1991 and 1999 and dedicated to the memory of that ancient human tragedy. You may call them symphonic poems if you wish. The musical language owes very little to ethnic influences which, in any case, would be completely spurious given the passage of time. If it is possible to identify the angle from which they were written, one might describe it as cinematographic. Not, however, in the sense of a sound track for imaginary scenes, but taking on, so to speak, the perspective of a movie-camera which is able to show the different intensities of emotional involvement a long distance shot or one in close-up, or at a subjective level, through the eyes of a character. These may be the eyes of the character who witnesses with a sad realisation, what is to be a journey of no return in Memoria del Fuego, when Hernan Cortes, the captain of the Spanish - who, according to Lope de Vega, 'gave infinite souls to God' or, according to Heine, 'was nothing more than a bandit leader' - decided on conquest, travelling more than a thousand kilometres from the coast to the capital, Tenochtitlan and had his ships bummed for fear that his men might want to turn back. A similar feeling of sad awareness is to be found in the finale of Noche Triste when the Spanish are forced to abandon the capital which they have only just conquered and many of them drown under the weight of the gold they are attempting to carry away. But we know that the Aztec uprising will be short-lived and that the end of their civilisation is nigh. The few friars who attempt to collect evidence will be persecuted as heretics. In Ruta de Cartes the perspective is more objective, widening progressively as the Spanish continue their march, until it reaches, through transformations in the theme, a very long distance shot, when from the top of the present day Paso de Cortes, they see the valley of Mexico and the great city appears to them, in the words of the eye-witness Bernal Diaz, as 'something of which they have neither heard nor dreamed'. In La Matanza del Templo Mayor, the viewpoint alternates rapidly between that of the 'subjective camera' as seen through the eyes of the Spanish and the Aztecs and the purely 'objective' view of the massacre.
The listener may also discover many points of contact with the dramatic make up of the music, with the need to find for each situation a particular 'colour' (Verdi called it 'una tinta'), and a specific internal rhythm, whilst at the same time providing unifying elements to the different situations so as to make them appear part of a single subject matter. It is not by accident that the structure of several of the pieces is based on the continuous development of a theme while others are based on alternating fragments which recall other parts in the same cycle; but the melodic-harmonic progression of the finale of La Ruta de Cortes is present, albeit momentarily, throughout the work, The slow theme of Memoria del Fuego becomes ferociously aggressive in La Matanza del Templo Mayor, as if the massacre of the Aztecs by the Spanish were the desperate psychological consequence of the burning of the ships. Thematic flashbacks are also to be heard between the end of Presagios, which takes as its starting point the confused vision of catastrophic events, floods, earthquakes, fires preceding the arrival of the Spanish and the beginning of El Encuentro, the complex ceremonial of the meeting when Montezuma lays down his power at the feet of Cortes who, in turn, declares that he has come in the name of a great king and of the only true God.
The cycle follows the chronological order of the historical events which I summarize as follows:
Presagios: the Aztec chronicles in the years preceding the arrival of the Spanish tell of prophecies of disaster.
Memoria del Fuego: having laid anchor near to Veracruz, Cortes orders the bumming of his ships.
La ruta de Cortes: leaving the coast behind them, the Spanish set out across inaccessible mountains and, after the occasional encounter with both friendly and enemy Aztec tribes, they reach the valley of Mexico.
El Encuentro: Montezuma and Cortes meet at the gates of the capital.
La Matanza del Templo Mayor: Taking advantage of the religious ceremonies devoted to the principal god of the Aztecs, the Spanish massacre more than twenty thousand people including friars, dignitaries and citizens.
La Noche Triste: the Aztecs revolt and drive out the Spanish The rebellion is short-lived, Immediately afterwards, Montezurna's successor, Cuauhtemoc, is finally and completely defeated.
Translation: Peter Bromley
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FERRERO: Nueva Espana (La)