Friday, July 25


Infanta Juana la Loca with the funeral cortege of her dead husband,
the Archduke Philip, from a painting by Pradilla, 1877

Una locura musical
CD Review: Music for Joan the Mad: Spain, 1479-1555. La Nef.

Whenever you listen to something by the offbeat Quebecois early-music/performance-art group La Nef, you're guaranteed something...well, something interesting, to say the least. This is the only recording I've heard by them but I understand they've done albums on everything from the Holy Grail, which sounds fascinating, to a rather tenuous reconstruction of the music of the Cathar heretics, an idea which frankly repulses me. Music for Joan the Mad is, I believe, the scoring for a stage-show they perform about the title character, Juana la Loca, an unfortunate child of the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabel. Strictly speaking, very little of the music has to do with her, but rather attempts to recreate the atmosphere of the era, with sections on the expulsion of the Jews, the fall of Granada, and the New World. It's fun in parts, but I think neither successful nor really accurate.

The CD starts out with some rather fanciful renditions of the now-fashionable Sephardic Jewish "cantos del exilio," which are vigorous, exotic and enjoyable to listen too, though, from a musicological perspective tend towards unwarranted and over-theatrical Moorishness. It's very difficult to say what they sounded like in Juana's time, especially since they were not, in most cases, written down until the nineteenth century by ethnographers studying the exiled Jews of Turkey. After this section, there's surprisingly little of interest. There's a sprightly song, Levanta Pascual, about the fall of Granada to the Catholic Monarchs, which seems very appropriate to listen to today on the feast of Spain's great Santiago. That's about it.

On the whole, though, the CD seems to dominated by monologues in Spanish from their stage-play or unremarkable paraliturgical-sounding pieces such as Dios te salve Maria (i.e., the Hail Mary in Spanish) and O Gloriosa Domina, which don't seem to be period settings at all. Even more strange is the final track which consists of a recited exortation in Spanish for the noble knights of Spain to bring the Cross to the New World, which is immediately followed by an obviously modern setting of the song (not one of the masses by that name, sadly) L'Homme Arme advising us to fear this Armed Man, which in turn morphs into a very menacing and weirdly truncated Credo that ends with passus et sepultus est. On the whole, this transposition sounds almost anti-Catholic upon reflection. This particularly annoyed me because the packaging on the CD made it seem as if it would be much more "authentic" than it was.

I'd say Music for Joan the Mad was worth checking out of the library (what I did), and if you like some fun "exotic" Sephardic-inspired tunes, go crazy and, hey, buy it. Track no. 6 is particularly fun to drive to if you have a CD player in your car: makes you feel like you're chasing someone through a souk in Istanbul (which, of course, has nothing to do with Spain). However, it's really not, strictly speaking, the real deal when it comes to early music, and if you're going to go pop anyway and want something with a bit of history, I'd sooner go for Steeleye Span or Fairport Convention. There's certainly no really interesting early Church music to hold your interest, none of the melancholic sadness of Victoria or Guerrero which is the key to the Spanish soul, or even the Sephardic soul which ultimately springs from it. If you want something a bit more accurate and with more value-for-money, go for one of Jordi Savall's better (and cheaper) CDs such as Music from Jewish and Christian Spain or Music for the Spanish Kings. But with Joan, don't expect either accuracy or much else interesting after the first seven or so tracks.

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