Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

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Archive for August 2014

Composer Biography: Francesco Guerrero (1528-1599)

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Also Francisco Guerrero

Francesco Guerrero was often called El Cantor de Maria because his Marian compositions figure prominently among his works. Guerrero’s style is more tender and graceful than that of his teacher, the dour Cristóbal Morales (c1500-1553). His diatonic, singable melodies made his music popular throughout Spain and his works were sung in the New World, along with those of Cristóbal Morales (c1500-1553), Tomas Luis de Victoria (c1548-1611), and the Italian Guillermo Pierluigi da Palestrina (c1525-1594).

Guerrero was born in Seville, Spain, and his first teacher was his older brother Pedro (c1520-after 1560). Pedro was also a composer, but he didn’t gain the same kind of following as his younger brother. Francesco taught himself to play the vihuela (a six stringed guitar-shaped instrument popular in 15th and 16th century Spain, Portugal, and Italy), harp, cornetto, and organ. Francesco was talented enough to earn the attention of Cristóbal Morales, and soon became his student.

When he was 15 years old, Guerrero was a choirboy at Seville Cathedral under Pedro Fernandez de Castilleha (1485-1574), who was a composer himself. In 1545 at the ripe old age of 17, Francesco was appointed maestro de capilla at Jaen Cathedral, about 150 miles northeast of Seville. He stayed until 1549.

Guerrero was much in demand as both a singer and a composer, and established quite a reputation well before his 30th birthday. He returned to Seville Cathedral as vice-maestro in 1551, and in 1554, he succeeded Cristóbal Morales as choirmaster at Malaga Cathedral. When Castilleha retired in 1574, Guerrero became maestro at Seville Cathedral. He held that position until 1590.

At Seville, one of the posts he occupied was master of the boys, succeeding Castilleha in the position. The group of boys was popularly known as the seises (meaning the six), and were officially designated as the boy choristers. This group was organized at Seville in the 15th century, and was sanctioned by Pope Eugene IV in 1439. The sieses were a group of six boys, all under 10 years of age, to be set apart from the main body of choristers, with the duty of reciting and singing certain prayers for the Divine Office. They also performed ceremonial dances on certain feast days, notably that of Corpus Christi.

A master of the boys, including Guerrero, had the responsibility of lodging the children in his home, educating them, instructing them in music, feeding, and clothing them. This last was a rather troublesome and expensive item, because they wore elaborate costumes, which had to be frequently altered for the growing boys. It’s said that Guerrero gave away most of his money to the poor, and there were complaints that he didn’t spend enough to keep the boys dressed properly.

It’s curious that the number of dancers, despite the name, is not known ever to have been only six. At first there were eight, then 11, 12, 16, until in 1565, the number was fixed at ten by Guerrero’s predecessor and mentor Castilleha.

The history of the seises goes back to Visigothic times (5th through 8th centuries), and Toledo probably set the precedent that Seville and other places followed. In the Mozarabic rite, the role of the boys was an active one, including the Song and Dance of the Sybil and the Dance of the Shepherds. In the 15th century, Cardinal Ximenez de Cisneros (1436-1517) revived the old rites, having the dancers perform before communion was taken. The dancing of the seises was reformed by Cardinal Palafox in 1699, suppressed in 1780, and later restored again. A Toledo school for seises was opened by Cardinal Siliceo (1486-1557) in 1545.

But I digress. Despite his responsibilities, Guerrero’s popularity allowed him to do some traveling and he published several collections of music while abroad. He worked for Austrian Maximilian II (1527-1576) and traveled with him, visiting Lisbon in 1556 to present his first book of Masses to John III (1502-1557) of Portugal.

John III was a liberal patron of the arts, and, inspired by Guerrero, a long list of Portuguese composers resulted. Antonio Pinheiro (d. 1617), director of the chapel of the Dukes of Braganza, was one of Guerrero’s students and became one of the most famous. John IV of Portugal (1604-1656) would also be a staunch patron of the arts, writing music himself and defending Palestrina’s artistry in print.

Between 1581 and 1582, Guerrero visited Rome, where he published two books of his own music, returned to Spain for a while, and then went on to Venice and the Holy Land between 1588 and 1589.

During this last trip, he stopped off in Damascus, Bethlehem, and Jerusalem. He was having a pretty good time, but on the return trip, his ship was attacked by pirates twice. They threatened his life, stole his money, and held him for ransom, which must have been paid, because he returned to Spain alive but penniless.

It wasn’t all peaches and cream back in Spain, and he suffered a sequence of unfortunate events that led to doing time in debtor’s prison. Finally, his old mentor from Seville Cathedral, Castilleha, rescued him, and he began to work for the Cathedral again. He published a memoir about his travels in 1590. It was a popular book, and there’s a theory that Cervantes knew it well and perhaps borrowed a detail or two. Guerrero planned another trip to the Holy Land in 1599, but died of the plague before he could go.

Compositions

Guerrero’s style was less intense than that of Morales or Victoria, but he displays a superb mastery of counterpoint with a gentle lyricism that makes him the equal of those great Spanish polyphonists. He created a wide array of moods in his music, from ecstasy to despair, through longing, joy, and devotional stillness. His music remained popular for hundreds of years, especially in cathedrals in Latin America. Happily, the resurgence of interest in early music in the late 20th century brought him to the attention of performers and audiences all over again.

He produced homophonic music (one melodic line with the other voices providing supporting chords rather than their own interesting melodies, as in polyphony), which was the fashion in Spain at the time. His melodies were particularly singable.

Unlike Victoria or Morales, he wrote both sacred and secular music.

He published 18 Masses and about 150 motets in 1555 and 1559 and a collection of spiritual secular songs in 1589. Because of their singable, diatonic lines (using a do-re-mi scale), his works were performed in Spanish and Spanish-American cathedrals for more than two centuries after his death.

Two of his Masses were Requiems, both dedicated to Mary. Their gravity is in sharp contrast with the somber terror of Morales’ Requiem. Two of his Masses are based on secular music (parodies), and five are on Marian chant themes. He inserted the name of Mary into all three sections of the Kyrie (traditionally, Kyrie eleison is repeated three times, then Christe eleison is repeated three times, and the Kyrie eleison is repeated three more times). He dedicated his Book II of Masses (published in 1582) to the Virgin Mary.

He produced four books of motets, several volumes of psalms, a volume of eight Magnificats, music for Vespers, and two Passions, one each to St. John and St. Matthew. He wrote an Office for the Dead that he published in 1589.

His volume of Magnificat settings (1563) contains one in each of the eight modes (for more about the modes, see Musical Modes, Part 1: Church Modes). The even-numbered verses were in four-part polyphony—the mode appears in each of the four voices (soprano, alto, tenor, bass), with a second alto in verse 12 singing the tone in canon with the first alto.

His reputation for writing Marian works is not only because he wrote them, but also because they’re lovely. In his Ave Virgo sanctissima for five voices (printed 1570), he uses familiar melodies from the chant to highlight certain words, such as Ave Maris stella. There’s considerable use of imitation in the piece, and the upper voices form a canon.

A minor but interesting part of Guerrero’s works is somewhat or completely secular. He wrote some spiritual madrigals meant to be used in a secular context, set to Spanish texts that reflect Counter-Reformation fervor. (Luther’s Reformation had taken hold of Northern Europe by the end of the 16th century, and Rome took strong measures to counteract them.) In 1589, he published a collection of canciones and spiritual villancicos to Spanish texts, some of which are religious parodies. They illustrate his ability to be elegant without being pretentious.

Some of his secular compositions were printed in instrumental transcriptions by vihuelists Miguel de Fuenllana (c1500-1579), Esteban Daza (c1537-1596), and Alonso Mudurra (1510-1580), as well as in purely vocal form.

Francesco Guerrero died of the plague in Seville in 1599.

Sources:

“The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979.

“The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music,” edited by Stanley Sadie. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1994.

“A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. W.W> Norton & Co., New York., 2010.

“A Dictionary of Early Music, from the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche. Oxford University Press, New York, 1981.

“Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music,” by Don Michael Randel. Belknap Press of Harvard University, Cambridge, 1978.

“Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton & David Fallows. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1997.

“Music in the Renaissance,” by Gustave Reese. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1959.