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Spanish Renaissance Music

Arab culture was strongly influential in the development of the Spanish “Golden Age” (1492-mid 1600s). Spanish poetry in the vernacular draws on Arab poetic forms. Spanish Renaissance music draws on asymmetrical rhythms (5/8), and also on certain melodic gestures, as well as displaying an affinity for plucked instruments. The music from the early part of this period is preserved in a series of cancioneros. A cancionero is a collection of diverse compositions for use by a court or cathedral, or by an aristocratic house with its own musical chapel.  Many of the pieces are in the form of a villancico. In modern usage, the term villancico refers to a Christmas song. In the early Renaissance period, it referred to vernacular language composition with a folk-like or folk-derived melody (villano means villager), for 1-4 voices. The poetic structure of the villancico consisted of two parts, beginning with the refrain, or estribillo, which alternates with the stanza, or copla. The copla was composed of two, three, four or more verses exhibiting regular or alternating syllabic structures of five to eight syllables each and assonant rhyme structures (i.e. abba, abcb, abbc cdde, etc.).

The largest collection is the Cancionero de Palacio (compiled 1474-1516), which includes 458 pieces, including most of the works of Juan del Encina. Most of the works are in Spanish, though a few are in Latin, French, Portuguese, or a mixture of languages. The collection is a good representation of the polyphonic vocal music that could be heard at the court of the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella.

The Cancionero de Segovia (compiled 1499-1503) is a collection of music by French, Franco-Flemish, and Spanish composers; the majority of the pieces are Franco-Flemish. This reveals the significance of Franco-Flemish influence on the development of polyphonic vocal style in Spain. Franco-Flemish style was dominant in Europe at the time. Composers traveling to and from Spain, which was now part of the Holy Roman Empire, carried the style with them.

The Cancionero de la Colombina (1451-1506) is a shorter anthology. In 1534, Fernando Colón, the second son of Christopher Columbus, bought the manuscript; it received its name from him.

The Cancionero de Uppsala (published 1556) is titled “villancicos by various authors, for 2, 3, 4, and 5 voices.” It was published in Venice and eventually found its way to a library in Sweden, where it was rediscovered almost 100 years ago (and from whence it gets its name). While the term villancico is still used to refer to the secular compositions that make up much of the book, there is also a section of specifically Christmas-themed, religious compositions; thus, we begin to see a shift in the meaning of the term. The compositions also begin to be clearly sectional, with solo and polyphonic sections. This collection is also significant in that it includes the first published Spanish compositions that were clearly conceived for instruments; namely, a set of duets on different pitches, or tonos, that end the collection.

In the late Renaissance a number of Spanish composers spent portions of their careers in other European countries, primarily Italy, where their works were published. A number of significant church music composers arose during this period, writing primarily in the Franco-Flemish polyphonic style.

Zorzal performs many pieces from the Cancioneros in arrangements for voices alone or for voices with instrumental accompaniment. We also perform  several of the instrumental duets from the Cancionero de Uppsala.​


Zorzal repertoire:

Cancionero de Palacio

A los baños del amor (Anonymous)

This anonymous song uses a repeating phrase “Sola m’iré,” which means, “alone I will go,” cleverly set to the musical pitches that are named sol-la-mi-re. The image of water is often used in relationship to the experience of sexual love.

Alegria, alegria (Juan Ponce, 1476-1521)

This is an Easter resurrection song.

Ay que non ay (Anonymous)

This anonymous piece is one of many period songs that address the taking of loved ones into captivity and slavery by the warring Spanish and Arab forces.

Con amores, mi madre (Juan de Anchieta, 1462-1523)

Juan de Anchieta is from an ancient Basque family that also includes Ignatius Loyala, founder of the Society of Jesus. From 1489-1519, he served at the courts of Castile and Aragon. In 1519, he retired to a Franciscan convent in Aspeitia, where he spent the remainder of his life. He was one of the leading Spanish composers of his generation; his polyphonic style influenced the development of the Renaissance style in Spain. The use of 5/4 meter in this piece is a remnant of the Arab influence on early Spanish music.

Con qué la lavaré (Anonymous)

This text was set by many famous composers of that time. Citrus fruits were a symbol of requited, committed love; for this reason, the married women use lemon water to wash their faces, while this abandoned woman cannot.

De Ser Mal Casada (Diego Fernandez)

 This lively piece asserts that a bad marriage is like slavery. Its 5-8 dance meter draws on Arab antecedents. Little is known about Diego Fernandez except that he served as chapelmaster of Malága Cathedral.

Dindirin (attributed to Mateo Flecha the Elder)

“Dindirin” is the morning song of the nightingale. The person listening to the nightingale asks it to do him the favor of telling his lover that he is already married!

Fata la parte (Juan del Encina, 1468-1529)

Poet, dramatist, and musician Juan del Encina was one of the most important composers of the era, and is also considered one of the patriarchs of Spanish theatre. This is a ribald song about a cuckold.

Gaeta nos es sujeta (Juan Alvárez de Almorox)

Juan Alvárez de Almorox was a singer in Ferdinand de Aragon’s chapel and composed very few pieces. This patriotic song was written to celebrate the 1504 Spanish victory over the French and the taking of the fortress city of Gaeta, which initiated over 200 years of Spanish rule over the Kingdom of Naples.

Si habeis dicho, marido (Anonymous)

In this piece the female narrator says to her husband, “If I had told you about the dream I had last night...”

Triste España, sin futuro (Juan del Encina)

Juan del Encina wrote this song upon the death of Queen Isabel.

Cancionero de Uppsala

Dadme albricias, hijos d’Eva (Anonymous)

In this anonymous Christmas villancico you can hear the contrast between solo or duet sections and full choir sections as well as the contrast between sections in which all the voices move together (homophony) and sections in which they enter at different times in imitation of each other (polyphony)


E la don don verges Maria (Anonymous)

This villancico  is written in Catalán, the language spoken in the northeastern part of the Iberian Peninsula, where Spain shares a border with France. There is a play on the sound of the bells “don don,” and the sound of “dona” the honorific title given to ladies.

Oy comamos y bebamos (Juan del Encina)

This is a villancico from a short play for the carnival season written by composer, dramatist and poet Juan del Encina, the most well represented composer in the Cancionero Musical del Palacio. He was a courtier early in life; later in life he became a priest. The antruejo refers to a person who masks themselves during carnival for the sole purpose of having fun while preserving their anonymity.

Que es de ti, desconsolado (Juan del Encina)

Que Todos se Passan en Flores

Riu, riu chiu (Mateo Flecha the elder (1481-1553)

This is one of the most well-known early villancicos. Spanish composer Mateo Flecha was one of the first to compose ensaladas, which are polyphonic pieces that combine several existing songs. “Riu, riu, chiu” imitates the song of the nightingale.

Un niño nos es nascido

In this anonymous Christmas villancico you can hear the contrast between solo or duet sections and full choir sections as well as the contrast between sections in which all the voices move together (homophony) and sections in which they enter at different times in imitation of each other (polyphony).

Verbum caro factum est (Anonymous)

Both the text and the music of this Christmas carol's refrain are based on the responsory verbum caro, which is sung on Christmas day during one of the canonical hours.

Yo me soy la morenica (Anonymous)

This anonymous song is about the Virgin Mary, the rose without thorns about whom Solomon sings.

Tonos 1-8

This set of untexted duets found at the back of the book are among the first published Spanish instrumental music.

Cancionero de la Colombina

Muy crueles voces dan (Anonymous)

This song was written in 1469 after the wedding of Isabel of Castille with Ferdinand of Aragón and describes the joy the Catalans felt at hearing the news as well as their desire for John II, Ferdinand’s father, to step down from power. John II, a cruel and ruthless man who had poisoned his first son, was in the midst of a civil war in Catalonia. The Catalans enlisted aid from the French king and Juan II lost part of northern Catalonia to France. His conflicts with France lasted until his death in 1479, when Ferdinand succeeded him as King of Aragón.

Pinguele, respinguete (Juan de Triana, fl. 1477-1490)

This lively piece  thanks Saint John for being such a good saint that the speaker—a woman whose husband has been away for over a decade—has been blessed with many children.



Daza, Esteban (fl. 1576) A tierras agenas

Fuenllana, Miguel de Paseabase el rey moro

Milán, Luis Toda mi vida hos ame

Millan, Francisco Durandarte

Ortiz, Diego (fl 1553-1558) Recercadas No. 1 and 2

Peñalosa, Francisco de (1470-1528) Por las Sierras de Madrid

Vásquez, Juan (fl 1551) Morenica, dame un beso

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