Cabanilles and me: a journey

For some reason the music of Juan Cabanilles (1644–1712) hit a chord with me, in that strange post/mid-covid opening up of Victoria (Australia) during Lent 2021. I think it was the expressive virtuosity of his music, littered as it is with references to the past mystery of modes, and the deeply personal, that compelled me to share some of the life work of a great, Spanish composer, Cabanilles, with my friends in the parish of St. Peter’s, Toorak.

Sadly, there are not many recordings of Tientos of Cabanilles to accompany my short explanations or reflections. But I encourage you, the reader, to ask your local organist (there will be one) to find and play these greats works.

I have also been saddened by some of the expert and reviewer opinions on the life and work of this much underrated composer. His output was too prolific and varied to be cataloged easily by academics. And it’s not didactic in any way for teachers of organ or church music. This perhaps has led some to say that at Cabanilles life as teacher, composer and performer is not as not as worthy say as that of the Musical Director of the cathedral at Valencia, even describing his music as being ‘from the simplistic to the frankly perverse’.

This has only fueled my passion and love of the man and his music. In the compositions of Cabanilles, I hear the echoes of life outside of the confines of a religious order; dance, popular melody bursts through like rays of light. There are so many nods to the perceived wisdom of the times in terms of modes, patterns of music and attention to the niceties of interval tunings.

But this was a man, a human man, a Spanish man, who loved music and his faith above all else and decided to share all of this with his students and now, so many hundreds of years later, with us. So for the five weeks of Lent 2021 I played five of the Tientos of Cabanilles. These are accompanying notes I wrote for the weekly Bulletin published by St. Peter’s, Tooak.

21 Feb 2021

Concurrently to the series of music by Margaret Rizza during communion, the postlude or recessional music during Lent is a tribute to a composer from Spain’s Golden Age, [which was] the early baroque in the late 1600’s. The Iberian organ tradition blossomed during this period and while no portrait exists of Juan Bautista José Cabanilles (1644-1712), he was a prolific composer, priest and the chief organist of the cathedral at Valencia for 45 years. The textbooks describe him as the Spanish Bach.’

Over the next few weeks I’ll go into a bit more detail about the organ from the cathedral and the musical style of the five Tientos (from the Spanish tentar, which means to touch, to tempt or to attempt), you will hear after mass each week of Lent. The first one, which you will hear after mass on Sunday, is perhaps his most extravagant. During the work you’ll hear some of the characteristic dance rhythms which were so honoured by the people they were considered completely appropriate for church. It’s like a free flowing fantasy or toccata made of several sections.

28 Feb 2021

Last Sunday we started out on a musical journey for Lent with the music of Margaret Rizza and Juan Canbilles, the ‘Spanish Bach’ of the organ.

The first Tientos is definitely the most flamboyant of the collection and can be difficult to navigate at a first hearing. For one thing, there is no set form for this style of composition. If you were in England you’d call it a Fantasy, or in Italy a Toccata. And yes, my Toccata is better than yours.

Cabinelles composes from the centre of Iberian culture. Within the Tientos there are syncopated dance rhythms, melodies which soar over the other parts and (unique to the region) the batalla/batalha which sound literally like the brass band has some to town. The organs from this period in Spain remain some of the most technically complex and historically significant instruments in the world.

In the second Tientos, Cabinelles firmly establishes the collection for ligurical use with this reference to the Psalm tone (or melody) of the same name. In this collection of works Cabinelles uses the modal system, which at this time is the domain of sacred music.

Modes are the precursors of scales and keys used in tonal music. Modal music was on the verge of becoming ‘old fashioned’ during Cabinelles’ lifetime. Replaced completely by the new system of scales and keys (in the Key of D Major, etc) that we are familiar with in tonal music.

The opening of the work sounds to me like a steady march of footsteps in the sand. You really get the sense of the Isrealites plodding their way into the wilderness of the desert. What follows are trials and battles, and a wonderfully reflective section in triple time with a number of ‘false tones’ for dramatic impact.

In the background here you can see the actual organ played by Cabanilles in a pre-war photo. It was destroyed during Spain’s civil war, sadly.

6 March

Moving from Germany back to Valencia, Spain. This week is the  Tiento lleno de segundo tono por Gesolreut as we continue our exploration of the organ music of Juan Cabanilles. The title refers to the key or tone of the work. A very dry title for such an expressive work. So expressive, in fact, that this week I wondered, who was Juan? What do we know of him as a person?

While no portrait, letters or personal effects of the composer remain we know that he led a life of devotion to his faith and craft from a very young age. At the height of his fame, he was in demand across Europe as a performer, giving concerts on organs in Italy and France. Composers in Italy and Germany were influenced by his compositions. It’s interesting that he never composed in the popular idiom, composing sacred music only.

And he composed a lot of sacred music as well as developing the form (or lack of form) of the Tientos.  Over 70 Tientos are  in existence with an equal number of Toccatas, along with over 500 choral works, many still unpublished.  

It’s the praise and affection of his students , however, that give us insight into a man genuinely treasured, both by a church and nation,  and by his colleagues. As the choir master, organist and chief composer of Valencia, he must have taught hundreds of students. Some of these individuals  went on to become famous and successful. The great organist  of Madrid, José Elías (c. 1678 – c. 1755) wrote of his mentor and friend, ‘the world would collapse before a second Cabanilles would arise.’

So why haven’t we heard more of Cabanilles? Academics and musicologists have found the sheer diversity of form or structure in his work to be challenging. It can’t be neatly cataloged or used for teaching purposes. It’s also dramatic and, in every sense of the word, Baroque. It was fashionable, but for a time. And lastly, the Spanish culture is perhaps lesser known to us than other European traditions.

It seems good, then, during this serious  time of Lent, to reflect on the music of a serious man, Cabanilles. 

14 March 

It has been wonderful to take the time this Lent to explore the Tientos of Cabaneiles. I’m looking forward to putting them all together in a concert version outside of mass later on in the year.

And while the fourth Tientos for this Sunday has no name or designation, it does have a variety of emotion, drama, and just plain fun. Music imitating life, si?

Part of the challenge in presenting these historic works is how to make our technologically advanced organ sound like something Cabanilles might recognise. And it’s not just as a result of today’s electric motors and micro computers; the sheer number of pipes and ability to combine sounds, puts today’s organs far ahead of those in the mid 16th century,

Yes, Spanish organs were small. An instrument as large as the one at St. Peter’s was not technologically possible at that time. Where most of Europe favoured a flute or blown sound, in Spain reeds and trumpets ruled supreme. ‘Firey and strident,’ as one music critic describes them. ‘Medieval in tone,’ another academic describing the sound.

A unique feature of Spainish organs was the split keyboard, or register divide. Where we have the luxury of a full rank of pipes, effectively seven or eight octaves of the same consistent sound, in Cabanilles day it was a common practice to split the keyboard in half down the middle. This way the right hand might play a melody using a bright clear sounding reed, like an Oboe, while the left would play a softer accompaniment on the Flutes.

I know that we can’t recreate the sound of Cabanilles’ organ. But I will give you the best imitation of a Spanish organ of this period.

21 March 

Sometimes writing comes easily, while other times it can feel like a challenge to find something to say and the words to say it with. 

I was blessed today to have a flying visit from my younger sister, my two nephews and my nephew’s new carer, a lady I hadn’t met before. They had taken the train from Geelong as the youngest nephew at 4 years had been wanting a train ‘adventure’ for a while now. 

During the conversation with the new carer, she let me know that she had been living in Spain. “Where? “, I asked. “Valencia.” I was gobsmacked. We traded stories; hers of experience of place and mine about the music and person of Cabanilles. 

As Lent draws to a close, I hope that you too have felt the companionship of two composers of great faith: Margaret Rizza and Juan Cabanilles. Their music might be some hundreds of years apart, but their voices are unique and resounding. 

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