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American music of the early 17th century: the Cancionero de Gaspar Fernández

The Cancionero de Gaspar Fernández is a compilation that brings together around 300 polyphonic works from the early 17th century. It is currently preserved in the Historical Archive of the Archdiocese of Antequera-Oaxaca but was written in Puebla by Gaspar Fernández for Puebla Cathedral.

The compositions preserved in Fernández’s Cancionero, as well as others in polyphony books of the Guatemala and Puebla cathedrals, are even more relevant with recent findings that correct his biography. Contrary to the erroneous assumption that he was a Portuguese musician active in Évora at the end of the 16th century who later emigrated to the New World, we now know that the composer Gaspar Fernández was born and trained on the American continent. So, his sound references were not exactly European, but those of the local environment.

The Portuguese Gaspar Fernandez (with a ‘z’ and without an accent mark, modernised to ‘Fernandes’ today) did indeed exist, but bears no relation to our composer. In 1590, he was the musician with the most privileges and the highest salary at Évora Cathedral. We know that he received the degree of Bachelor of Arts from the University of Évora on 13 March 1594 and that he was still serving at Évora Cathedral in 1599.

At the same time, but on the other side of the Atlantic, a young Gaspar Fernández had been teaching children since the end of 1595 while serving at Guatemala Cathedral. He was then only a cleric, the lowest of the ecclesiastical orders that could be acquired by a boy intending to pursue a religious career. In 1597 he obtained the rank of subdeacon; and in 1598, as a deacon, he entered the recently founded Seminary College of the Assumption, created expressly for the ecclesiastical training of the sons of provincial settlers in Guatemala. According to College records, he would have been about 25 years old at the time of his admission. There, he received music lessons from Andrés López Pellejeros, a native of Guatemala City, who was then the chapel master of the cathedral. He began working as a cantor and bass player in 1601. At the beginning of 1603, he was appointed rector of the College and on 8 May of the same year, chapel master of Guatemala Cathedral. From this pre-eminent position, news of his merits would have reached the chapter of Puebla Cathedral. On Assumption Day in 1603, an edict was posted on the door of Guatemala Cathedral calling for candidates for the organist position at Puebla Cathedral; Fernández decided to apply. He would have sent his examination registration documents to Puebla around the last quarter of 1603 or the first quarter of 1604. In the end, he declined his candidacy and did not take the competitive examination. However, references to his musical aptitudes must have been considered by the Puebla town council, because in mid-1606, they offered him the post of chapel master, with an attractive salary of more than double than that of Guatemala Cathedral. Gaspar Fernández accepted. His teaching in Guatemala Cathedral came to an end on 5 July 1606. He left for Puebla on 12 August 1606 and was received as chapel master of the town’s cathedral on 19 September. A few days later he was also appointed to replace the organist. Except for an unsuccessful attempt in early 1612 to return to teaching in the Guatemala chapel, and for a brief temporary dismissal in mid-1618, Gaspar Fernández remained in his position in Puebla until he died shortly before 18 September 1629. During those 23 years in Puebla, he was in charge of the composition and direction of the polyphonic music for the main celebrations of the cathedral, as well as teaching music to the choir. In addition, he accompanied on the organ for the plainchant in minor festivities.

Fernández developed a parallel profession as a copyist of polyphony books. Between 1602 and 1606, he wrote at least four books of polyphony for Guatemala Cathedral, and at least four others for Puebla Cathedral between 1616 and 1619. Thanks to Gaspar Fernández's dual role as chapel master and professional music amanuensis, the oldest liturgical-musical repertoire of the cathedrals of Guatemala and Puebla can now be recognised. But the most relevant aspect of the union of these two skills is undoubtedly the creation of the now-called Cancionero de Gaspar Fernández, which preserves many of his own musical compositions based on poetic texts. Unlike most musical sources at the time, this thick, bound volume was not a document for performers’ use, but a working notebook for the composer, in which he himself compiled his detailed works between 1609 and 1616. It contains drafts and personal notes, made with little more care than is necessary for the writer to understand his own annotations. For this reason, it is difficult to establish with certainty the number of compositions it contains. There are pieces with incomplete or frankly, lyricless literary texts. There are fragments of music and poetry that clearly would have been part of a work that was not copied in its entirety, and so on. After an interdisciplinary examination, Margit Frenk and Omar Morales Abril consider that the Cancionero de Gaspar Fernández contains 297 pieces of music. Of these, 11 lack lyrics, 14 correspond to liturgical texts in Latin, and 272 were written on poetry in vernacular languages, mainly Castilian, but also literary languages that mimic subaltern cultural groups, identified as ‘Indian’, or ‘Indian and Multiracial’, ‘Guinean’ or ‘Black’, ‘Vizcayan’, ‘Portuguese’, etc. There are three poems that have two musical versions and one that was split into two, for two compositions. Several dozen of the literary texts set to music by Gaspar Fernández correspond to texts published in Spain, Portugal, and New Spain by great poets, precisely around the years in which he wrote his Cancionero. Among these texts are three by Juan de Luque (published in his Auto tercero del Sacramento, 1608), one by Luis de Góngora (No son todos ruiseñores, 1609), one by Fernán González de Eslava (Coloquios espirituales y sacramentales, 1610), fifteen by Lope de Vega (Pastores de Belén, 1612), fourteen by Alonso de Ledesma (Conceptos espirituales, 3rd part, 1612), nine by José de Valdivielso (Romancero espiritual, 1612; Fénix de amor, 1622), two by Gaspar de los Reyes (Tesoro de conceptos divinos, 1613), nineteen by Alonso de Bonilla (Peregrinos pensamientos, 1614), as well as several anonymous poems found in Spanish manuscripts from the late 16th and early 17th centuries.

Guatemalan musicologist and musical director, Omar Morales Abril has a doctorate in musicology from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and is a full-time researcher at the Carlos Chavez National Centre for Music Research, Documentation and Information (CENIDIM) at the National Institute of Fine Arts and Literature in Mexico City. He was awarded the Casa de las Américas Musicology Prize in 2022. He is the founder and director of the Ensamble Prosodia, an ensemble dedicated to the recovery and dissemination of Ibero-American historical-musical heritage from the 16th to 18th centuries. He has carried out historical research projects, cataloguing, palaeographic transcription, and analysis of 16th to 18th-century music from the cathedrals of Guatemala, Oaxaca, Puebla, and Mexico City, as well as from the Convent of the Holy Trinity in Puebla. He is the author of several articles and book chapters published in Guatemala, Mexico, Spain, Portugal, and Germany, as well as the book Los villancicos de Tomás de Torrejón y Velasco. Study and Transcription (2005), as well as co-author of the books Humor, pericia y devoción: Villancicos en la Nueva España (2013) and Colección Sánchez Garza. Documentary study and catalogue of a Novo-Hispanic musical collection (2018). He has written notes for concert programmes and recordings by international ensembles and musicians, such as Ars Longa de la Habana, the Coro Barroco de Andalucía, The Hilliard Ensemble, Ensemble La Chimera, the Portuguese group Sete Lágrimas, and the Italian lutenist and vihuela player Massimo Marchese.


Translated from Spanish by Karin Rockstad, USA

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