Performance Saturday, March 17, 2012 | 7:30 PM


Los Impossibles: Spanish and Neapolitan Music from the 17th Century

Weill Recital Hall
In planning Los Impossibles, Christina Pluhar—artistic director of L’Arpeggiata—traveled to Mexico to find folk music that forms the connective thread between the 17th-century Spanish and Neapolitan music at the heart of this concert. Pluhar says this program recounts her continuing search “all over the world for what we are calling the living Baroque.”
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Mexico is the multicultural country par excellence, a mosaic whose varying colors are reflected in its music. Before the Spaniards came, the Toltecs occupied the northern part of the Valley of Mexico, and the Olmecs the coast of the Gulf of Mexico; the Maya were based in the Yucatán Peninsula, and their civilization had spread as far as Guatemala and Honduras. When the Europeans reached the southern plateau in the center of the country, they marveled at the great city of Tenochtitlan (modern Mexico City), the capital of the Mexica Empire, characterized by its extensive urban complex studded with imposing edifices, pyramids, and temples. The indigenous songs of the different ethnic groups are still preserved today by oral tradition.

The first Spaniards arrived on Mexican territory in 1511; in 1521, the Mexica Empire was overthrown in the Spanish Conquest, and in 1535 it became “New Spain.” The musical heritages of the two cultures—Spanish and indigenous—gradually blended with one another over the 300 years of the colonial period. The Spaniards brought with them their own music, which was in turn influenced by diverse cultures, including those of African Muslims, Sephardic Jews, and gypsies. They also introduced such musical instruments as the harp, the guitar, and the violin, which are still present in Latin American traditional music of today in the form of instruments like the jarana and the arpa jarocha, directly derived from Baroque models.

In the course of the 16th century, slavery, ill-treatment, and diseases that had never before existed in the region—together with the precarious living conditions of the indigenous people—led to massive loss of life and a demographic decline that had to be compensated by the importation of African labor. This new influence gave birth to a mestizo form of music that was widely diffused throughout the country, the son, which mingled harmoniously with the Spanish traditional music brought to the New World by the conquerors. This African influence was most perceptible on the Pacific and Gulf coasts, two regions with a large black population, and was marked by the appearance of more varied rhythms.


In the year 1767, Casanova wrote: “One cannot describe the fandango: Each couple adopts a thousand attitudes, makes a thousand gestures so lascivious that nothing can compare with them. This dance is the expression of love from beginning to end, from sigh to ecstasy. It seemed to me impossible that after such a dance the girl could refuse her partner anything.”

The fandango is a dance of folk origin that found its way into art music in the early 18th century. The fandango tradition, as it still exists in Mexico nowadays, centers on a ritual celebration where communities get together around a dancing platform to play jaranas (a traditional guitar similar to the Baroque instrument) and sing verses. They celebrate events, such as the birth of a child, a girl’s passage to adulthood, and later on her marriage. The fandango also accompanies burials, rites of worship for saints’ days, or the feast of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary. It is an open ritual celebration where Castilian-Spanish, African Bantu, Arabian-Andalusian and Amerindian cultures come together. This amazing cultural encounter replaced deadly fighting with a battle based on verse compositions (versada), and a struggle expressed by means of zapateado (percussive dancing). The versada takes the form of confrontation with another versador (verse composer and “improviser”), challenging the poetic, metrical, and thematic skills of all the versadores participating in this particular “battle.” It also involves a confrontation between rhythms, and a battle with the strings of the jaranas in order to determine who can most eloquently depict the beauty of a flower, a woman or a child’s smile, or who can best describe a loyal friendship, a beautiful dawn, the pain of betrayal, the colors of a parrot, the taste of sugar cane, or what a morena (mulatto woman) said one afternoon in the port of Veracruz. Fandango took its rhythm from the Bantu peoples of Africa, as can be seen from the dancing platforms and the role of the pandero. The sensuality of African percussive dance met the charm and garbo (elegance) of Arabian-Andalusian taconeo (heel-clicking characteristic of southern Spain).


The jácaras is a theme that one meets in every 17th-century collection for guitar and harp. It is based on the alternation between triple and duple time, which is described in the terminology of Baroque music as a hemiola. However, this rapid alternation between equal and unequal rhythms is at the same time characteristic of all Spanish and Latin American music of the Baroque period, and is also, even today, one of the principal traits of flamenco and of Latin American music in general. The jácaras has the same harmonic basis as the fandango, with the difference lying in the significant rhythmic alternation between triple time and hemiola. In flamenco, a large number of compáses are built on this basis. One of them is the siguiriya. In harmonic terms, the siguiriya can be equated with the Baroque passacaglia and its descending fourth, but the rhythmic distribution of bars of triple and duple time is typical of flamenco. Whereas in Baroque music the hemiola is invariably heavily underlined, in flamenco there is a rhythmic subtlety which consists in decorating the melody when the rhythm changes to achieve flowing continuity.

—Christina Pluhar

Perspectives: L'Arpeggiata

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