La Nef,
Music for Joan the Mad:
Spain 1479-1555

(Dorian, 1995)

The life of Queen Joan of Spain, nicknamed "the Mad," straddles two eras: medieval and modern. She herself connects two generations of Spanish royalty that were of tremendous -- truly world-changing -- importance. Her parents were Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabelle of Castile, the couple that commissioned Columbus on his fateful journey to the Americas; her son, Charles V, would rule most of the known world as King of Spain and Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. In between stands Joan, who as a child had seen the last remnants of Spain being wrestled from the Muslims and returned to the rule of Christianity. A few years later she was betrothed to Philip the Handsome, monarch of the Netherlands and related to both the House of Burgundy and Habsburg.

These were amazing and unsettling times for the Old World, and obviously this had its repercussions for cultural life as well. The Quebec group La Nef has made it its task to document this era's musical heritage, hinging the multifarious music of that epoch on the person of Joan, a woman supposedly driven to insanity, first by her husband's unfaithfulness and then by his untimely death in 1506. For the rest of her days Joan was condemned to a life in the shadows, supposedly chased by the demons of perpetual melancholia or maybe even schizophrenia. Choosing Joan seems appropriate, because during her lonely stay of almost half a century, locked away in the Castle of Tordesillas, music was the queen's only consolation. It was during the stay in her husband's Lower Countries that Joan first became seriously acquainted with the musical traditions of her time. It appears that -- at least until the 1520s -- she managed to retain the services of a small group of French, Flemish and Spanish singers and musicians.

With Music for Joan the Mad, La Nef is not trying to give an exact re-enactment of the music performed of that era, nor do they pretend that these particular compositions were indeed performed for Joan personally. Their intention is to give an impression of the musical scene of that time. What was the music, which was then composed and played, like?

Despite the CD's length of just over an hour, the album contains a whopping 26 tracks. Quite a number of them are less than two minutes long and should be considered fragments of integral pieces composed at the time. The collection has been divided in five sections, each referring to an aspect of political and cultural life in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, the juncture between the Middle Ages and early Modernity. Under each section, performers have grouped a number of compositions that can be considered as appropriate music expressions of the respective themes.

The first selection of 10 tracks is presented under the title "Los Cantos del Exilio (Songs of Exile)," a reference to the eviction of Spain's substantial Jewish community in the wake of the final collapse of Muslim Spain, or Andalusia. Until the fall of Granada in 1492, the Sephardic or Oriental Jews had thrived in the Moorish Empire, a prosperous civilization composed of Muslim and Jewish elements. For this section, La Nef has depended on recent efforts by specialist musicologists to salvage this unique musical heritage. What makes this ancient Andalusian music so interesting is that in it we may detect elements of "oriental" music that seeped through to the minstrel ballads of the late Middle Ages, showing that some sort of cultural exchange between two civilizations did take place.

The scene then shifts to the Sephardic Jews' nemesis: the Spanish monarchy. With five mainly religious compositions, "At Toledo: Seat of the Catholic Kings" celebrates the victory of the Cross over the Crescent. The opening number "La Canela," a sample of Burgundy court music, contrasts already starkly with the Moorish temperment of the previous section. The new "sterner" atmosphere of Iberian Catholicism is further underscored with three distinctly medieval choir chants. However, Spanish royalty was not entirely submersed in mystical piety. Their more vigorous and valiant side is exemplified by the next four compositions, grouped under the heading "Reconquista," a reference to the military success against the Moors in the south.

But then there is again another mood swing, perhaps equally symbolic of the turbulence of the times and the tribulations of Joan's personal life. The five musical pieces performed under "Love and Death" exude the melancholy and loneliness that must have tormented Joan's soul as she wandered the empty corridors of Tordesillas, in particular Juan Vasques' (1510-1560) desperate song "Con que la lavaré?" Here we finally encounter the tragic woman in her double captivity: jailed by her relatives and at the same time imprisoned in her own depressed mind. A last single number makes up the section, named "The New World." Presented under the double title "L'Homme armé/Credo in unum deum," it is a musical rendition of the Roman Catholic confession of faith. During the reign of Joan's son, Charles, the Spaniards set out to conquer the Americas, adding huge tracts of newly colonized land to the sprawling empire, supposedly all to the glory of God. The haunting chant, however, leaves us to contemplate the eerie abandonment that Joan suffered, with her son having no qualms about leaving his mother to wither away in total desolation. Ironically, the emperor died rather lonely himself in 1558 in the monastery of Yuste, to which he had retreated following his abdication in 1555, the same year in which Joan the Mad had died....

For Music for Joan the Mad, La Nef has quarried the musical legacy of what was than considered the civilized world. Their excavations have resulted in an album that is a musical testimony of a time in which Europe wrested itself free from the Middle Ages and entered a new amd exciting era. The group's excellent command of epoch instruments and vocal performance give the album an authentic character.

- Rambles
written by Carool Kersten
published 4 January 2003

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