Choral Music of the Portuguese Renaissance

By Nicole Baker, PhD

This essay originally appeared in the newsletter of the Southern California Early Music Society (SCEMS).  Reprinted with permission.  Visit the SCEMS website to join the Society and receive regular Southern California early music news and essays.  

The music of the Iberian Renaissance reflects the many forces that shaped its culture: its Moorish and Jewish populations, the Catholic Church, the wandering minstrels and troubadours that criss-crossed Medieval Europe, its links to England, influences from its colonies around the world, and local popular music traditions.  Renaissance music from Spain has long been favored by audiences and performing groups alike for its passion and beauty.  Names like Victoria, Morales, and Guerrero populate concert programs of choirs of all levels. Medieval music specialists like Jordi Savall have allowed us to experience the exotic, Moorish-flavored beauty of such Spanish collections as the Llibre Vermell de Montserrat, the Cantigas de Santa Maria, and the Codex Calixtinus.

Thanks to a paucity of sources, audiences have had fewer opportunities to hear music from Portugal.  But a chance encounter with a Naxos CD titled simply “Portuguese Polyphony” has opened this listener’s ears to this wondrous repertoire.  Jouyssance has already presented a heavily Portuguese Iberian Twelfth Night, and will reprise some of the same music (and add a lot more!) at its April 21 concert at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center in Fullerton.  Music of Portugal will also form the backbone of Jouyssance’s next CD, Cantiga: An Early Music Journey through Iberia

The lack of sources for this music starts at the beginning of Western music history: most Medieval sources of chant are lost, with the earliest preserved at the Cistercian abbey of Alcobaça, and at the convents of Lorvão and Arouca.   The first cathedral music schools – strong indicators of a growing musical tradition – were founded in the 11th century, with Lisbon’s founded a century later in 1150.

 King Dinis and Queen Isabel of Portugal

King Dinis and Queen Isabel of Portugal

Secular minstrel music, sung in a Galician-Portuguese dialect, flourished from the late 12th century well into the early 14th, with the reign of Afonso III (1248-79) being a particular highpoint.  Influenced by the Provençal troubadour tradition, most of the songs were either epic heroic ballads or courtly love songs.  King Dinis (1261-1325) was himself a troubadour and musicologist recently discovered some fragments of his music.

Astonishingly, no polyphonic music survives from the 14th and 15th centuries, despite evidence that much existed.   The earliest surviving works do bear markers of political and cultural links to England, and influence from the music of Henry VI's chapel can be heard.

The first major composer was Pedro do Porto (known in Spain as Pedro de Escobar) who served the court of Queen Isabella of Spain. He served as maestro de capilla at Seville Cathedral from 1507 to 1514 and later mestra de capela to Cardinal Archbishop Afonso of Évora in eastern Portugal.  Évora Cathedral would prove to be a major musical center: some of its most important musicians included Manuel Mendes (c.1547-1605) , Filipe de Magalhães (c1571–1652) and Diogo Dias Melgás (1638–1700).

 Manuel Cardoso

Manuel Cardoso

Perhaps more critical was its cathedral school, which produced musicians who worked throughout Iberia and beyond: Manuel Cardoso (1566–1650) and Duarte Lobo (c1564/9–1646) worked in Lisbon and elsewhere; and the Spaniard Estêvão Lopes Morago (c.1575–after 1630) served Viseu Cathedral.  

Renowned in his time for his music, the devout Carmelite friar Cardoso enjoyed the patronage of King João IV, who kept a portrait of the composer in his music library.  Cardoso had strong ties to the royal families of both Spain and Portugal, with King Philip IV a key later patron. 

Cardoso’s beautiful Magnificat secundi toni will appear on the upcoming CD as well as the Muckenthaler program.  Although he lived well into the Baroque era, Cardoso’s style remained rooted in the stile antico of the late Renaissance polyphonists.  Composed by 1605, and published in Lisbon in 1613, the Magnificat follows the traditional harmonic and rhythmic style of Palestrina, although there’s a surprising amount of chromatic spice and dissonance.  His use of augmented chords show an awareness of the new "crunchy" harmonies of the early Baroque, and creates a particularly expressive language helped by occasional passages of homophony that highlight the text.

Another important cathedral chapel was that of Braga, whose first known mestre de capela was Miguel da Fonseca (fl.1530–1544). His son Manuel was also a skilled composer, and his lovely Natus est nobis appears on Jouyssance’s first CD.

The Augustinian monastery of Santa Cruz at Coimbra served as a major musical center in the 16th and 17th centuries, employing the versatile Pedro de Cristo (c1550–1618).  Although known best in his time for his secular works and sacred villancicos, his motets show his skill at polypohony.   He was also known as a performer at the keyboard, the harp, the flute, and the dulcian, an ancestor to the bassoon.

Jouyssance has performed works that show two distinct styles: his sacred works are expressive and even dark in color.  His bouncy villancicos are full of syncopation, and recall modern Mariachi music!

 Joao IV

Joao IV

João IV (1604–1656), also known as King John IV, was to some extent the Henry VIII of Portugal.  Trained as a musician from childhood, he amassed the largest music collection of his time, which, based on a partial catalogue that survives, included the only copies of numerous Spanish and Portuguese composers.   The collection was sadly destroyed in the Lisbon earthquake of 1755.  A skilled composer himself, and a possible student of Cardoso, only a handful of his works survive.

The political union of Portugal and Spain between 1580 and 1640 created new career opportunities for Portuguese composers both in Spain and in the Spanish New World. Prominent among them were Estêvão de Brito (c.1575–1641), maestro de capilla of Badajoz and Málaga cathedrals, and Jouyssance favorite Gaspar Fernandes (c.1570–1629), who crossed the Atlantic to become maestro de capilla of Puebla Cathedral in Mexico. He often incorporated rhythms from native cultures into his own works, which includes 250 songs and villancicos in Spanish, Portugese, Nahuatl, and various African dialects.

Portuguese polyphony continued to flourish throughout the 17th century. But the dawning of the Baroque brought about a major shift in patronage from the Church to courts throughout Europe, but particularly in Italy and France. Opera and new instrumental forms gained supremacy, and the glory of Iberian sacred music faded into obscurity.

In keeping with its mission of presenting gems as yet unknown, Jouyssance will present a concert of this beautiful music Thursday, April 21, at 7:30 p.m., at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center, 1201 W. Malvern Ave., in Fullerton.