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Johannis Cabanilles and Spanish Organ Music as a whole

Martin Cooke

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I happened to come across volume 2 of 'Opera Selecto pro Organo' in a pile of my own music yesterday and I wonder if anyone can tell me a bit about what it's all about. 'Battala Imperial' - for example. What is a Battala meant to be, what registration is expected? Do audiences appreciate this piece? etc! I must admit that I have never really found early Spanish organ music very attractive but I don't know very much! I play the José Lidon piece and a couple of other items from that Silva Iberica volume, and I have just found the Cabanilles, and then there are some sporadic (and rather dull to my mind) movements that CH Trevor popped into his various volumes in the 70's - you know, Organ Book 1-6. Should I be persevering?

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A Batalha/Batalla/Battaglia is a piece of early descriptive keyboard music. It describes a battle, which more or less follows a certain choreography: The two parties are introduced, attack is signalled, much running and other noises occur (cannons being depicted by repeated chords or even clusters in the low range), and a concluding march-like music signals the triumph of one party.


The genre has its roots in renaissance chanson and madrigal composition and was readily adapted by keyboard composers all over Europe. It is therefore much older in origin than the horizontal "trompetas de batalla" that you find in many Spanish organ cases; they were introduced around or after 1700. In Spanish or Portuguese batallas from after that time, the trumpets are expected to be used; which does not mean that they are not of great effect in older music. In fact, on old Iberian organs this music can sound spectacular -- glorious noise is what it is about.


Being descriptive in character, this music needs imaginative playing, ornamentation, and dramatic timing. One famous anonymous Batalla you find recorded, on modern organs, in these two CDs (1, 2, the first sample track in both). One is more straight in approach, the other more fancyful -- I like both very much. (The late Paul Wißkirchen used the piece to portrait the different reed ensembles of the Altenberg Klais; he starts on the Swell, goes on to the Great and, when the battle gets hot, introduces the stunningly arrogant horizontal reeds. In fact, the piece here is all reeds, not a single flue stop is being used.)




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Iberian organs and their music- some random observations


They have several features which, although present in other schools, are idiosyncratic, when put together.


Split manuals: the music itself takes account of this and provides an initial indication of how to register. Batallas/batalhas, for example, can be played convincingly on one-manual instruments, using this capability.


However, very quick stop changes were impossible- even with an assistant- the stops themselves often being hefty and slow. Fortunately, a batalla would usually be in sections (as Friedrich stated above) and marked by a pause in the music; this would allow for a change in registration.


Unequal temperament is often of a non-standard variety, giving a marked difference in tonal perception. The music sounds so ‘right’, then, and endless pleasure can be had playing on just a Flautado.


Multiple low-pressure reeds (battería, orlos)- some, not all, by any means, horizontal. There were horizontal, regal-type stops, too; the trumpets didn’t have a monopoly.


The Spanish organ repertoire is fascinating- as are the organs. What I’ve found most useful is to absorb the various local and international specialists on CD, in addition to playing the organs themselves. I recall a wonderful week spent in Palencia, practising for a recital on an historic instrument and travelling around the Campo, trying out some of the other famous (and recorded) instruments there.


Organ courses are available in the summer schools/festivals at Santiago de Compostela and Daroca- to name just two examples.


There was a wonderful Auvidis Valois series (El Órgano Histórico Español) of CDs in the 1990s, documenting over a dozen instruments, played by both Spanish and international aficionados. Some are still available, albeit at vastly inflated prices.


Many historic instruments have now been restored- with, obviously, varying degrees of success. Goetze & Gwynn have been responsible for a good example. Gerhard Grenzing, resident in Spain, has done dozens- as well as building completely new instruments, hence taking the style forward. There are still, though, many instruments languishing, unplayable, in famous edifices. Of course, this assists in their preservation.


Access to instruments varies from impossible to the ludicrously easy. A modicum of Spanish is desirable. I remember a long, dusty drive from Zaragoza, to a remote village, followed by several hours playing a wonderful organ in a fabulous acoustic. The lady who was the custodian of the keys was only too pleased to help, despite my arriving on spec.


There are ‘new’ organs in the Spanish style in France and the US; it is high time we had one in the UK. This would open up peoples’ perceptions of this repertoire and the highly individual nature of the music- in the same way that French-sounding stops and influence began to be introduced, in the second half of the 20th century.

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Should I be persevering?


Yes, Martin, I should persevere: in addition to your batallas, you might try some Correa de Arauxo (1584-1654). He composed highly idiosyncratic pieces (the tientos)- particularly the solos and duets, in treble or bass, for various stops (e.g. loud or soft reed, corneta). They are marked by their intensity and rambling interludes on the accompanimental stops, with intricate and unusual triplet figuration.


Three free scores are available here: http://imslp.org/wiki/Category:Correa_de_Arauxo,_Francisco


He takes a little bit of getting into, and, to my ears, they sound best reverberating around a huge, gloomy Gothic cathedral, hung with incense and bloodily realistic statuary- perhaps, after a glass of Rioja.

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