Sunday morning music


This morning I’d like to tackle a complicated subject, one that attracts a fair amount of controversy to this day.  In an attempt to make it easier to understand, I’m going to focus on the music of one composer/arranger, and use it to demonstrate the point.

Baroque music was almost certainly not exactly as we hear it today.  Modern instruments sound different to how they did back then.  Even when recreations of baroque style instruments are used, there are questions as to whether the materials used, the manufacturing style and techniques, etc. allow them to sound the same as the originals.  Some insist they do, and refer to specific examples of surviving baroque instruments as examples.  Others insist just as hard that they don’t.  There’s no consensus on the topic.

The same extends to the style of play.  Baroque music scores are far less complex and ornate than those of later eras.  In many cases, they lay out the “bare bones” of the piece, and rely on the performer(s) to improvise and elaborate on the theme to produce the work as heard.  Since those improvisations and elaborations could not be recorded at the time, they haven’t come down to us.  We’re left to guess at what they might have been.  Obviously, some modern performers do very well at their own improvisations and elaborations, and the music they give us is very interesting and attractive – but is it what performers three or four centuries ago would have delivered?  It’s impossible to say.

I’d like to use the music of Santiago de Murcia to provide examples. De Murcia was a Spanish composer and/or arranger (we aren’t sure whether the music he left us in three surviving collections was all his own work, or incorporated the work of other composers that he arranged and included with his own).  It’s possible he also spent at least some time in the Spanish colony of Mexico, where much of his work was later rediscovered.  According to The Lute Society:

“Resumen de acompañar”, printed in 1714, is the earliest of three collections of music for five-course [i.e. baroque] guitar composed and arranged by Santiago de Murcia.

Very little is known about Murcia. In “Resumen de acompañar” he is referred to as “Master of the guitar to the queen, our lady, Doña Maria Luisa Gabriela of Savoy.” Maria Luisa was the first wife of the first Bourbon king of Spain, Philip V, who succeeded to the throne on the death of Charles II in 1700 … There are two references to Maria Luisa learning the guitar, neither of which mentions Murcia. In a letter dated 30th September 1704 the Duc de Gramont informed Louis XIV that she was learning to play the guitar and in a letter to her grandmother dated 3rd July, 1705, she herself mentions that she is learning to play the guitar and studying music. Murcia probably obtained his appointment sometime between June, 1702 and September, 1704. After giving birth to several children Maria Luisa’s health deteriorated and she died on 14th February, 1714 before “Resumen de acompañar” had appeared in print. Presumably Murcia’s appointment had terminated by then if not earlier.

No reference to Murcia has yet come to light in any official documents relating to the period in question. It was however an unsettled period in Spanish history … Murcia’s employment may therefore have been occasional rather than continuous and any record of it could have disappeared either at the time or in later upheavals.

. . .

The two later manuscript collections of Murcia’s music, “Codice Saldivar no. 4” (c.1730) and “Passacalles y obras” (1732) both came to light in Mexico in relatively modern times. “Passacalles y obras” is described in the British Library’s “Catalogue of additions to the manuscripts…1876-1881” as “a volume of tablature purchased in Mexico” … “Codice Saldivar no. 4” was purchased in Leon, in the province of Guanajuato by the Mexican musicologist, Gabriel Saldivar in 1943. Because it lacks a title page its connection with Murcia was not recognised until 1980. It is possible that Murcia and the dedicatee of “Passacalles y obras”, Joseph Albarez de Saavedrra, spent their later years in Mexico. However, it is just as likely that the manuscripts were taken there at a later date, by a subsequent owner.

“Resumen de acompañar” includes one of the most comprehensive treatises on accompanying a bass line with the guitar. It was evidently much admired. There are three complete 18th century manuscript copies of it.

There’s more at the link.

To begin, let’s define what the baroque or “five-course” guitar is all about.  Here’s Brandon Acker to tell us about it.

Let’s compare an original baroque guitar with a modern reproduction.  Here’s Norwegian soloist Rolf Lislevand playing a very famous instrument indeed.  It’s the only playable Stradivarius guitar to survive (there are four other non-playable ones in museums).  It’s known as the Sabionari Stradivarius, and was made in 1679.  Here we see Lislevand’s first encounter with the guitar.  He plays a Tarantella (a lively dance) by Santiago de Murcia.  As far as I’m aware, the Stradivarius uses authentic gut strings, for which it was designed and built, rather than modern nylon or steel strings.

I wonder what it must feel like, as a musician, to be playing a guitar (or any instrument, for that matter) that was made centuries before you were born, and has been through the hands of so many other musicians before you?  The sense of history must be palpable.

Now, let’s compare the tone of that Stradivarius to a modern reproduction of a baroque guitar.  Here’s Miguel Rincón, one of my favorite performers, playing a reproduction by Australian luthier Peter Biffin of an early instrument.  As far as I can make out, it uses nylon strings (although they may be gut).  He performs Santiago de Murcia’s Fandango.  Note the similarities, and also the differences, between the sounds of the real and reproduction instruments.  (Obviously, that’s hard to detect over cheap computer speakers.  I’m using a fairly good set of headphones to compare them, which makes the differences stand out.)

So far we’ve heard baroque guitar as a solo instrument.  However, many of the pieces written for it were intended to be played by small groups, a sort of early form of chamber orchestra, if you like.  They were far less formal, of course, and much more approachable;  and, as noted above, while the central line or theme or melody might be written down, the improvisations and elaborations mostly were not.  This can lead to the same piece being played in very different ways by different ensembles, and sound almost unrecognizable unless you’re listening carefully.

Let’s use one of Santiago de Murcia’s Tarantella dances as an example.  Here it’s performed by Italian ensemble I Bassifondi.  The baroque guitar (center) is accompanied by a Chitarra battente, “similar to the 5-course baroque guitar, but larger and typically strung with five double strings, traditionally made of brass, but currently – steel”.  (I’m amazed to see steel strings strummed so vigorously – one wonders how the player keeps his fingernails!)

Here’s the same Tarantella, performed by Rolf Lislevand and his Ensemble Kapsberger.  Note their extensive use of other baroque instruments;  hand-held drums, organ, and a baroque woodwind instrument that I can’t aurally identify, possibly a wooden flute or a recorder.  The ensemble makes use of far more improvisation and elaboration to produce a lovely rendition of the piece.  (Compare this ensemble version to the solo performance of the same piece by Lislevand in the second video clip above.)

One piece, two very attractive renditions.  Which did you prefer?

I’ll close this morning’s musical interlude with the complete Codex No. 4 of Santiago de Murcia, as performed and interpreted by Rolf Lislevand and his Ensemble Kapsberger.  It’s an hour of sheer musical pleasure.  It’s available on Amazon in both MP3 and CD formats, and is one of my favorite modern renderings (or variations on the theme) of baroque music.  Highly recommended.  You can visit that Amazon link or the video’s page on YouTube to read a track listing.

I hope you enjoyed the selections.


EDITED TO ADD:  Since this post went live earlier this morning, I’ve had a couple of inquiries about other composers who wrote their own variations on the Tarantella theme.  There were, of course, a large number of them.  I can’t possibly list them all here, but a search for “Tarantella” on YouTube will bring up several.  (Note that the Italian Tarantella is not necessarily the same as the Spanish Tarantella.)

As one example of the field, here’s guitarist Xavier Díaz-Latorre performing variations on a Tarantella by Gaspar Sanz.  He’s playing at home, not in a professional recording studio, which makes the good-quality sound even more remarkable.

Lovely, isn’t it?


  1. Every Sunday morning on NPR is Sunday Baroque starting at 0700 CST. It's a mix of modern and classical instruments.

    It serves as my de-compression time.


  2. Interesting comparison of the different guitars and their sounds. And the determination to always 'improve' the instrument… or not…

  3. walking down the hall to my room at department head school I heard the most amazing guitar. It was my next door neighbor playing Spanish guitar brilliantly. He was with me, studying to be a department head on a warship but oh, he could play music brilliantly on that 12 string guitar.

  4. One of the things I greatly miss is the music jams. We would get together to party and everybody else would bring their instruments and for a few hours in Newport we could hear the banjo, guitar and piano play together by masters of the art. I can't play but I so appreciate those that can and do. Memorable.

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