Narvaez was a famous Spanish virtuoso of the vihuela. He was an early master of polyphony. He composed in two, three, and four part voices. In other words, he wove two or more lines of music together into a homogenous whole, a precursor to the fugues of the Baroque period.
I chose to open the album with his famous Conde Claros, because of the happy, virtuosic nature of this piece. This piece, and the Dowland fantasia, were the most technically challenging pieces on this album. To me it sounds like a 'bluegrass tune' from the Renaissance. I picture somebody playing it on their porch. With a few teeth missing. The next piece, Mille Regretz, (a thousand regrets), is an arrangement of a popular song about the sad regrets of a travelling man having to leave his love behind. ('Leaving On A Jet Plane'? And rock musicians invented this theme?) Fantasie XIV is a more cerebral study of polyphony. Listen to how motifs in different voices are echoed, repeated, and intertwine with one another. There is a lot going on in this piece. Guardame Las Vacas (guardian of the cows, or in other words 'shepherd'), is an ostinato harmony. Ostinato means 'obstinate' in Italian. Listen to how phrases and motif's in this piece persistently (obstinately) repeat again and again. And again.
Francesco Canova da Milano (1497-1543)
Otherwise known as 'Il Divino', Francesco Canova was a very famous and influential Italian lutenist and composer. He worked in the papal court (thus 'Il Divino'). More of his works survive than any other lutenist. Luis De Narvaez was heavily influenced by this man. (Like Eric Clapton and Albert King?) I chose to play two of his ricercars because I love this free-flowing form. 'Ricercar' means 'to search' in Italian. Like a 'fantasia', a ricercar can ramble, usually without repeated motifs and phrases - sort of a musical stream of consciousness. And like 'fantasias', ricercars often don't adhere to musical rules and regulations. I love Ricercar XIV for it's 'divine' purity. I included Ricercar 51 because it is a particularly free-flowing, 'searching' piece. Is this five hundred year old music? I think it sounds very much alive, and even modern.
John Dowland (1563-1626)
Dowland was a London born Elizabethan era composer who Sting refers to as "Europe's first pop star." He truly was! Dowland was a master on the lute. He wrote songs, with lyrics. And he sang! His songs were hugely popular, and he toured and performed like a modern pop star. Yet as a serious composer he was truly a genius. Early in his career Dowland worked in France, where he converted to Catholicism. Back in England, he claimed he was eschewed by the court of Elizabeth I because of his conversion. He ended up in Denmark, working for King Christian I. Christian was a huge fan, and paid Dowland lots of money. Nevertheless, Dowland longed for England, and wrote many a melancholy song lamenting his exile. Eventually he took a pay cut to return to England. Fortunately for Dowland, 'melancholy' was very popular in his day, (blues musicians weren't the only ones). I chose a jauntier Alemain for this album, which Dowland wrote for Baroness Hunsdon, appointed by Elizabeth as the caretaker of Somerset House, where Dowland likely had some gigs. Lady Hunsdon was a patron of Dowland, and quite attractive, so perhaps it's not surprising that this is one of his cheerier tunes. Dowland's famous fantasia is the masterpiece composition on this album. I love the way keys and time signatures shift freely in this piece. Future composers were lithe to break such rules. Dowland would have played it on a lute of more than six courses. I broke my 'six string only' rule for this piece, but I had to have a go at it. It is the most technically demanding piece on my album. Note my bizarre facial grimaces as I struggle through it on youtube. More strings please!
Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643)
OK, just one more rule broken: Frescobaldi was a keyboard player. This Italian prodigy virtuoso and composer was hugely influential with later composers, including J.S. Bach. I included a piece by Frescobaldi because he forms a bridge between the late Renaissance and early Baroque. I also wanted to include a transcription by Andres Segovia, father of the modern classical guitar. Segovia transcribed a huge amount of music for the classical guitar in an effort to elevate the instrument to the world concert stage. He had a unique way of fingering his transcriptions to bring a sometimes 'cheesy' flare to otherwise stiff classical compositions. His fingerings force you to slide, slur, strum and express yourself. One wonders why he chose to transcribe a keyboard piece from the late Renaissance when so many lute and vihuela pieces exist. But the result, with it's chord strumming and slurring, make this piece sound slightly contemporary Spanish. This may not be a sophisticated transcription, but I like it. I think it's charming.
Robert de Visee (1655-1733)
Yes, the French can play guitar too. In fact, France has a close affinity with the lute and guitar. Many of the finest guitar builders of our day are French! Like most composers of his day, De Visee was a court musician. In this era you had to suck up to somebody rich! (These days you won't get anywhere without major record label, so not much has changed…) De Visee was a lutenist, guitarist, therbboist (a huge lute), and singer in the court of Louis XIV. He tutored Louis' son, who later became king. I play De Visee's suite in Dm on this album. This is music written for the Baroque guitar, and plays very naturally on a modern guitar. We're starting to see more structure now in the Baroque era, as the rules take shape and composers follow accepted forms. 'Suites' in the Baroque era followed a well-defined structure based on dances of the day. Polyphony is less cerebral, and motifs are simple and lyrical. And they repeat, making life easier for a player! I've played this suite for many years, and I enjoy it very much. I particularly like the sarabande, which is normally a slow, stately dance. I took some license here in slowing down even more, to a tempo nobody could dance to because, well, nobody's dancing.
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Enough has been said about this man, so I'm just going to tell you about his relation to the guitar (or I should say the other way around). I couldn't make an album with 'Baroque' in the title without including at least one piece by Bach. Whatever instrument a composer may have played, ultimately they transcend the instrument when they compose. Well, Bach really transcended the lute when he wrote his four lute suites. Likely this music was only inspired by the lute, but played on a lute-harpsichord, a small gut-strung keyboard instrument that replicated the sound of the lute. It's a fact that Bach had lute-player friends, but obviously he didn't pick up the instrument to see what worked when he wrote his lute suites. They sound beautiful on the instrument, but they are awkward to play. This is why I chose not to play more Bach on this album of guitar music. However, there are exceptions, and Bach seems to have tailored this lovely little prelude particularly well for the instrument.
Santiago de Murcia (1673-1739)
Santiago was as Madrid-based guitarist, in the royal court. He was the guitar teacher of Maria Louisa, queen of Spain. He studied various forms of the instrument, and did a good job of melding them together in his work. Prelude and Allegro, which I recorded here, really works on the modern guitar. The prelude is a good example of how the instrument shines in a simple form, written by somebody who understood it well.
Gasper Sanz (1640-1710)
Sanz was a well educated, and well rounded Spaniard from Aragon. Philosopher, theologian, poet, and guitar-playing priest! I'm not sure how travelling around with a guitar contributed to his priesthood, but he was definitely a really good guitarist. Sanz wrote an instruction manual for guitar that forms one of our only records of how the instrument was played back in the day. It includes fingerings, suggested hand positions, etc. He wrote music for both plucking, and strumming styles (rasgueado). More than any other composer on my album, his guitar music has filtered through the ages to form a major contribution to the guitar repertoire. This is not cerebral polyphony like the other composers on this album, but it is really nice music, lyrical and romantic. And it really conjures up the Spanish colonial era. In the 1960's the spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo used Sanz's music as the basis for two guitar concertos, which are now very famous - Concierto de Aranjuez, and Fantasia Para Un Gentilhombre. You can even hear influences of Sanz's music on the sound tracks of the 'Pirates of the Caribbean' movies. Sanz kept his guitar music simple. He wrote music that worked and sounded nice. The pavane I play on this album is a beautiful example of simple guitar composition, utilizing some interesting techniques to create atmosphere. I play Sanz's famous 'Canarios' on this album. A Canario was a popular dance, with fiery wooing, leaping, and stomping. True to form, this guitar piece gets you hopping two note chords up and down the fretboard with open bass strings, not unlike the type of playing Jimmy Page does. It sounds impressive, but it's not that hard!