Composer Biography: Juan del Encina (1468-c1529)
Also Juan del Enzina. His name at birth was Juan de Fermoselle, according to one source.
In late 15th century Spain, Juan del Encina was among the four big names of music, along with Juan de Anchieta (1462-1523), Pedro Escobar (d. 1514), and Francisco de Penalosa (c1470-1528). With the other three, Encina cultivated the Spanish counterpart of the Italian frottola called the villancico, which is a type of vernacular secular song. His églogas (pastoral poems), said to have been performed for the first time in 1492, all end with villancicos that were sung and danced by all the characters together.
Encina was possibly the earliest Spanish dramatist, and he’s often called the founder of Spanish drama, along with Gil Vicente (c1465-c1536).
He was probably born in Encina de San Silvestre, which is roughly 40 miles west of Salamanca, Spain. He was one of at least seven children of Juan de Fermoselle, a shoemaker, and was of Jewish converso descent.
During the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, Jews were forced to flee Spain or convert to Catholicism. Those who converted were never completely accepted into Spanish society, and some of them secretly continued to practice Judaism. Sadly, both the expunging of Jews and their forced conversion spread throughout Europe (although it was less popular in some places, such as Italy), and lasted several centuries. (See Composer Biography: Solomon Rossi for more on the expulsion.)
In 1484, young Encina joined the Salamanca Cathedral choir. He became chaplain there in the early 1490s. That’s when he changed his name from Fermoselle to Encina. (Fun fact: encina means holly oak, which is a large evergreen found in the Mediterranean.)
It’s possible that his first post was as a Corregidor (chief magistrate of a town) in northern Spain. In 1492, when he was forced to resign as chaplain because he wasn’t ordained, he became a member of the household of Don Fadrique de Toledo (c1460-1531), the second Duke of Alba, although some sources say he didn’t begin working there until 1495. Regardless of the timeline, he was master of ceremonies for the Duke, writing both text and music for plays that were performed at court.
He applied for a post at Salamanca Cathedra but didn’t get it, so he headed out for Rome in 1498 to seek the aid of the Spanish Pope Alexander VI (1431-1503), who gave him a benefice. He served there during the next two pope’s tenure, Pope Julius II (1445-1513), and the Medici Pope Leon X (1475-1521).
While he was at the Vatican, he met Pierre de la Rue (c1452-1518), who was a Netherlandish composer and singer. De la Rue traveled to Rome with the Archduke Philip (1478-1506), son-in-law of Ferdinand and Isabella and husband to the future (mad) Queen Juana. Encina would have been part of the unison-singing Spanish royal choir, and he would have heard what de la Rue was doing with polyphony and solo voices.
Encina’s ambition led to promotion, and in 1508 he was appointed to the Archdeaconate of Malaga Cathedral by the second pope he served, Pope Julius II (1445-1513). He made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem the following year, where he sang a Mass.
He held the Archdeaconate post until resigning in 1518, when he went to Moron for a simple benefice. In 1519, Pope Leon appointed him prior of Leon Cathedral. This was his final job, and he’s thought to have died there toward the end of 1529.
It’s interesting to note that despite his many posts and participation in important musical events, he wrote most of his music and plays before he was 30.
He was the principal contributor to the Cancionero de Palacio, a c1500 songbook containing courtly love songs in villancico form. Some of his pieces were for use on particular occasions, and others were intended to be sung at theatrical productions. By uniting popular and artistic elements, he broke new ground in Spanish secular drama.
Encina wrote Triunto de la fama to commemorate the fall of Grenada in 1492. In 1496, he published Cancionero, a collection of dramatic and lyrical poems. Then he applied for the cantor post at Salamanca Cathedral, but the position went to three singers instead, including his rival dramatist, Lucas Fernandez (c1474-1542).
He wrote a prose treatise called Arte de trobar on the condition of poetry in Spain. His lyrical poems are remarkable for their intense sincerity and devout grace. His 14 dramatic pieces mark the transition from the purely ecclesiastical to secular theater. The story lines of Encina’s plays are hardly innovative, but they are important from the historical point of view as a departure for lay pieces. His more devout eclogues prepare the way for those of the 17th century.
Even though his works were dedicated to royal families, he never served as a member of a royal chapel. And although he worked in several Cathedrals and was eventually ordained as a priest, no sacred works are attributed to him.
His plays, published in 1496, include eclogues and pastorals that begin and end with a short motet. He wrote 60 or more songs and there are another nine texts settings, to which music could be added. Many of the surviving pieces are villancicos.
He wrote three- and four-voice settings with a variety of styles depending on the kind of text, and with very limited movement in the voices as they head for cadence points. To make the text heard clearly, Encina used varied and flexible rhythms that are patterned on the accents of the verse, and used simple yet strong harmonic progressions. His works feature a transparent polyphonic texture, expressive harmonies, syllabic word setting, and smooth melodies.
He wrote in Castillian Spanish, with Leonese influences, and in his pastoral eclogues, he wrote in Leonese. (His home in Salamanca was a Leonese-speaking region.)
His villancico Oy comamos y bebamos is typical of the genre. In rather crude language, the text exhorts listeners to eat, drink, and sing, because tomorrow brings the first day of Lent, the season of fasting. The music is simple in melody and harmony, with dancelike rhythms marked by frequent hemiolas (a series of two-counts in a three-count rhythm. It’s a kind of syncopation).
Encina’s will asked that he be buried beneath the choir of Salamanca Cathedral, and in 1534, that request was granted.
“The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979.
“The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music,” edited by Stanley Sadie. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1994.
“A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. W.W> Norton & Co., New York., 2010.
“The Pelican History of Music, Part 2: Renaissance and Baroque,” edited by Alec Robertson and Denis Stevens. Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1973.
“A Dictionary of Early Music, from the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche. Oxford University Press, New York, 1981.
“Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music,” by Don Michael Randel. Belknap Press of Harvard University, Cambridge, 1978.
“Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton & David Fallows. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1997.