A blind musician to dazzle Europe

 “There were grand balls at the palace, and His Highness danced with all of the princesses and many of the noblewomen.”

Raimundo de Tassis, Postmaster General of Spain, in his letters to Cardinal Granvela, secretary to Carlos V, shows a side of Philip II that does not exactly correspond to the image of conservatism and austerity that has been handed down to us. The above quote (dated 1548) was written during the first European tour of the then-still prince. He was a twenty-something hungering to take on the world and to enjoy life, but with a two-fold mission entrusted to him by his father: to get to know the lands and people he would one day govern, and to dazzle Europe.

He would be accompanied by Antonio de Cabezón, a blind organist and one of the people closest to him for the next four decades. Pure cultural diplomacy: Spanish superiority shown through Art. The musician would travel to England for the betrothal of Philip to Mary Tudor, and to the Spanish Netherlands when Philip claimed the crown Carlos V abdicated in his favor. Cabezón, Titian and St. Teresa de Jesús form the basis of the  Philippine cultural universe, together with Juan de Herrera, architect of the Escorial.

It is surprising that in the 16th century a blind illiterate – a visually impaired person who could read and write was inconceivable  – was capable of incorporating the heartbeat of European culture in his music. The printing press,  treasures from the Americas, Copernicus, Servetus, Erasmus, Luther and Calvin among others were changing the world. As it happens, the royal entourage of Prince Philip passed through Trento during the Council meeting that would ratify the schism between Catholics and Protestants. All this, shortly before the publication of the first modern novel, Don Quixote of la Mancha, on the cusp of the 17th century and the appearance of a new form of entertainment, opera, that, with Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, left a gap in the halls of the nobility.

The essence of the 16th century lies within the music of Cabezón, possessed of “a wonderful view of human spirit” that opened “the eyes of understanding”, according to his son Hernando. The Flemish court chapel allowed him to become acquainted with central-European polyphony, while on his travels with the prince he absorbed the dances and popular melodies of the continent.

In his legacy there are parts of Masses, but also tientos that served as much to accompany the liturgy as to amuse in royal salons. Pavanas, glosas, discantes, and diferencias complete a catalogue in which musical imagination overflows. His art surprised those who knew him. His diferencias probably explain the development of the variations in Tallis and Byrd – present at the English court during his visit – and his keyboard technique opened doors for Sweelinck and the German organ school.

The above alone justifies issuing any new recording of his music, but in this specific case, it is also important to examine the chosen instrument and the relationship between the performer and the composer.

Cabezón must have been familiar with more than one claviorgan. Today only about 20 originals remain in various museums, and the only one still in working order and the star of this recording is the Hauslaib in the Museum of Music in Barcelona. The blind composer, on the other hand, had several within his reach. There was one in Tordesillas, where the Infanta Catherine played it to ease the confinement of her mother, Queen Joanna I. Another appears in the records of the Basilica of El Pilar in Zaragoza at the same time that Cabezón passed through on his way to Italy. Claviorgans are also mentioned in the inventories of household goods of Philip II and of Henry VIII, who died just before our musician visited London. The Hauslaib in the Museum of Music was built in 1590 in Nuremberg on the order of Duke Baltasar de Zúñiga, Prime Minister during the reign of Philip IV.

Juan de la Rubia was only 11 years old when he heard Cabezón’s music for the first time. Listening to the Diferencias sobre el Canto del Caballero on the RNE program “El órgano” left him fascinated and, more than two decades later, led him to organize this personal selection, thinking specifically of the courtly instrument on which he would play. The Canto, specifically, is offered in two versions: one on the pipe organ, the other on the spinet harpsichord. The same work and the same player, but with different instruments produces very different results. We were incapable of setting either one aside.

All the elements are in place. Cabezón, Juan de la Rubia and an instrument unique in the world. We are in Hall 4 of L’Auditori in Barcelona, named in honor of Alicia de Larrocha. Our acoustic alchemist, Pere Casulleras, has a quixotic air about him while, assisted by his squire, Gerard Font, he strategically places his wooden sphere, a large head with two openings, the microphone ears, but lacking eyes. Paul Poletti takes care of the spinet, repairing its springs using wild boar bristles due to its reconstruction using period materials. Oscar Laguna adjusts the tuning of the small 400 year-old organ, perfectly assembled without the use of a single screw, continuously activating its bellows. On the recording we have respected its creaks and squeaks; like wrinkles in the skin of an old man, they are part of the instrument’s personality and make it especially distinguished.

We cannot travel back in time and hear with the ears of those who accompanied Antonio de Cabezón on his journeys, but if we close our eyelids and, thus made blind, listen to his music with “the eyes of understanding”, who knows…

Pep Gorgori

Musicologist and journalist

Translation: Beth Krynicki