Historically informed performance practice

One of the main aims of this group is to recreate the sound of wind bands from the XV century to the XVIII century, with particular emphasis in XVI century. Nowadays, achieving a close recreation of a 16th century wind band (ministriles) is a real challenge for any musician who wants to make the music come alive for contemporary audiences. After over four centuries, there are a large number of unanswered questions regarding many musical matters that seem to be almost impossible to achieve a worthy recreation of a sound world so far in time and culture.

Nowadays, after an extensive research and collaboration with specialized musicologists, we learned about how many “ministriles” there were (when they were connected to church related institutions), the types of instruments they played and even some ceremonial and practical details about where they performed or at what points in the Divine Office they actually played. The research of extant documentary sources and references to musical practices allows us to get a close and fairly think about the musical universe of renaissance wind bands, the role they played and how they worked in specific places.

Ensemble La Danserye in the "Iglesia del antiguo Convento de Santo Domingo de La Guardia" (Jaén) - November, 2012

Instruments and instrumental combinations

The information we have about the instruments they played in the 16th Century can be inferred from two types of documentary sources chiefly: theoretical treatises and cathedral chapter meetings. The most usually instrumental set documented in ecclesiastical institutions includes shawms, cornets, sackbuts and dulcians. There are also references to recorder and crumhorn consorts in some cathedrals (for example, Seville, Toledo and Granada) and muted cornets (for example, Seville and Granada). Our instrumental set includes all of the instruments referenced in documentary sources and their respective consorts. Furthermore, we have other instruments less documented in Spain, but usually played in Europe (tenor cornet or lysarden, serpent, racketts consort, bagpipes, etc.).

The instrumental ensembles are combined as the result of the information we gathered from the sources and our own experience. In this case, we have chosen to use two types of consorts: whole and broken. Whole consorts are used for several ensembles: recorders, crumhorns, racketts and in some cases dulcians. From a practical point of view, it is clear that these consorts are used in whole consorts arranged according to tessitura.

In regards to broken consorts, these included a wide range of mixed ensembles in which cornetts, shawms, sackbuts and dulcians were used, especially if we take into account the existence of different sized instruments in some families (chiefly shawms and dulcians). What is notably absent is the scarcity of direct information in 16th century, although there are references to them in later works, for example, a consort of shawms whose natural bass instrument was the sackbut (vg. Nasarre, Escuela Música, 1723). On the other hand, iconographic sources provide us useful general information in this respect; one must be cautious, however, and make sure the images represent real scenes from real life and are not simply symbolic allegories. Three general instrumental combinations are used, starting from the loudest to the softest: 1) shawms and sackbuts (following Nasarre’s comments); 2) cornetts, shawms and sackbuts and 3) cornetts (or mute cornetts), sackbuts and dulcians. The use of these three varied instrumental combinations with their different variants, each with their own ranges for each member of the family, gives us a wide palette of timbres and colors; the wind bands could use this wide range of possibilities to adapt themselves to each specific performance context.

Ministriles, multifaceted musicians, all-round instrumentalists

Everything we’ve said before would make no sense unless the “ministriles” were trained to play a number of different instruments. On this point there are many, many references concerning to “ministriles” as multifaceted instrumentalists. There is, indeed, an edict by Francisco Guerrero for the Seville Cathedral (1586) in which he asks the musicians to change instruments: “Que en las salves los tres versos que tañen el uno sea con chirimías y el otro con cornetas y el otro con flautas porque siempre un instrumento enfada y ansi lo proveyeron”. (In the three verses for the salves one of them should be played on shawms and the next one on cornetts and the following one on recorders because one instrument always seems to be irritating and so it was decided to remedy this). This fact is of the utmost importance to understand the musical versatility these wind ensembles had. The ability to play several instruments was a highly valued talent if a “ministril” had to take the required official examinations before he could be hired for any church-related post, and was clearly an advantage during the exam.

Bronze medallion by Juan Marin and Bautista Vazquez (cornett, soprano shawm, alto shawm, sackbut, sackbut)  - Seville Cathedral Choir

Performance practice

“...el compás es llamado el gobierno con que se concierta y rige toda la música. así del cantar como del tañer, dándole toda la gracia y ser”. (The measure is called the governor by which everything in music is both ruled and guided, both when we sing and when we play, giving it grace and elegance). Thomas de Santa María (Arte de Tañer Fantasía, 1565).

This extract from Fray Thomas de Santa María’s treatise, is an introduction to the always difficult world of musical performance of this period for musician’s today. The explicit absence of performance marks in the musical sources of this period (mainly tempo indications and indications for nuance) has been the source of many doubts and controversies regarding the character, speed and general direction the music in this period should have, among other things. However, theoretical sources are quite clear and all agree regarding one of the most important topics: how to indicate the measure.

Ensemble La Danserye performs the music directly from facsimile editions of the original sources gaving us a chance to put into practice the theoretical concepts on the measure as they appear in the treatises Arte de Tañer (1565) by Sancta María, and Declaración de Instrumentos Musicales (1555) by Fray Juan Bermudo or El Melopeo y Maestro by Pietro Cerone (1613), for instance. Performance under these circumstances requires tempos to be constant throughout, from beginning to end, no slowing down even in the final cadence. This way, the implicit rhythmic sense of each piece is properly highlighted, and this, in turn, is of vital importance if all the voices have to sing together, especially in those pieces that are more contrapuntal. Performing this music from original sources forces us to keep the measure constant and well-defined (on occasion, using a baton or even slapping the palm of our hands), something which is often alluded to in the theoretical sources: “...lo principal que un sochantre avia de tener: es saber llevar el compas, que sea sabio y honesto [...] el compas no vaya tan precipitado que sea confusion, ni tan despacio que se pierda la devoción. Nunca mude el compas de espacio en priesa, ni al contrario, si no se ofrece particular necesidad.” (...the most important thing a choir director ought to know is: how to beat time, to be wise and honest [...] the measure must not be rushed so that it causes confusion, nor should it be so slow, thus causing a loss in devotion. Never alter the measure from slow to fast, nor vice versa, if there is no particular reason). Chapter II, f.XVIIII. Fray Juan Bermudo, Declaración de Instrumentos Musicales, 1555.

In conclusion, Ensemble La Danserye makes an effort for performance practice from a historically informed perspective, playing the music from original sources as a way to reconstruct the instrumental praxis considering all the available documentary information.


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