Composer Biography: Juan de Anchieta (c1462-1523)
Spanish music developed a great deal during the reign of Queen Isabella (1451-1504) and King Ferdinand (1452-1516). Isabella, in particular, was a great supporter of music and the other arts, and it was a love she fostered in her children, Prince Juan of Asturias (1478-1497), who played the flute, viol, and clavichord, and sang with a clear tenor voice, and the future (Mad) Queen Juana (1479-1555).
Ferdinand and Isabella had a very stable reign, as evidenced by their ability to fund Columbus’ journey to the New World and by the conquest of Grenada, through which they drove the last of the Moors from Spanish soil. (They also spent some time driving Jews out of Spain and out of their allies’ lands. Repercussions lasted and were still strongly felt during the time of Solomon Rossi (c1570-c1630) in Italy.) Isabella in particular supported music, employing 40 singers at a time, plus instrumentalists. Her son Juan enjoyed singing so much that instead of taking a siesta, he’d meet Anchieta and four or five choirboys at the palace to sing with them for a couple of hours. Juan was apparently a fine tenor.
The age was so good for music that, until the death of Ferdinand in 1516 (Isabella died in 1504), historians called it a Golden Age.
The royal court was at Aragon and was closely linked with Avignon (now part of France), site of the anti-popes and a lot of musical innovation during the later Middle Ages. Aragon and Catalan shared a common European-style musical culture as a result. The court at Barcelona, like those in Italy, was mostly served by Franco-Flemish musicians with only a few native Spaniards.
Castile had fewer foreigners holding court positions than did Barcelona, Aragon, Catalan, and Toledo, and four of the outstanding Spanish composers who thrived under the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, were Pedro Escobar (d. 1514), Francisco de Penalosa (c1470-1528), Juan del Encina (1468-1529, biography to come) and Juan de Anchieta.
Of the four, Anchieta was the least enterprising. He was a native Castilian and primarily a church composer. Along with the other three Castilians, he cultivated the Spanish counterpart of the frottola, called a villancico. This was a form of vernacular secular song frequently associated with rustic themes, akin to what we call a “carol” in modern times. Sacred versions were sung at Matins, a Divine Office held at midnight in monasteries. Most of Anchieta’s secular villancicos are lost. We only have four that can be positively attributed.
Anchieta was born in Urrestilla Spain, smack in the middle of Basque country, about 60 miles northwest of Pamplona and 230 miles south of Castile. Some sources say that he was born in Azpeitia, about a mile and a half north of Urrestilla. Either way, he was a nobleman’s son.
His mother was also of noble birth and was the great-aunt of St. Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556), who became the founder of the Society of Jesus, otherwise known as the Jesuits. Loyola was beatified in 1609.
Anchieto worked as a royal musician for Ferdinand and Isabella as part of the a capilla flamenco. This group consisted of 14 singers and a few instrumentalists; their style contrasted strongly with the unison singing of the larger Spanish Royal Choir.
In 1506, during a state visit from Juana and her husband the Archduke Philip (1478-1506), Anchieto met Pierre de la Rue (c1452-1518, Netherlandish). The future Queen Juana was particularly fond of de la Rue’s music, and he hung around to entertain her even after she was locked away in a convent. Anchieta was exposed to the new Netherland/Flemish polyphony both by de la Rue visiting Spain and when he traveled to Flanders himself in the service of Queen Juana.
Anchieta became chaplain and cantor to Ferdinand and Isabella in 1489. He sang in the Castilian royal chapel for most of his working life, becoming maestro de capilla to Prince Juan in 1493. He returned to the Queen’s service when Juan died in 1497. When Isabella died in 1504, Anchieto kept the post, working for Queen Juana (the Mad).
From 1500, Anchieta was also rector of the parish church at Azpeitia. In 1519, he retired from court to become the parish priest there. He became abbot of Arbos monastery in 1518, about 320 miles southeast from Azpeitia, on the Mediterranean Sea. He was also chaplain at Grenada Cathedral, nearly 600 miles distant from Arbos and 530 miles from Azpeitia. (I only found these posts listed in one source, so perhaps, because of the distances, they are suspect.)
In 1519, he was pensioned and excused from service at court by Charles V (1500-1558) because he was considered already old at 57. Anchieta retired to his native town of Azpeitia, where he died in 1523, spending his final years in a Franciscan convent that he founded himself.
It’s likely that much is lost, but what survives from Anchieta are two complete Masses, two Magnificats, one Salve Regina, four Passion settings, and a few motets, all for large choirs. They sound graceful and sonorous, with only a few clever or innovative devices. His sacred works are largely free of the complex counterpuntal devices favored by Franco-Flemish composers, instead, using plainsong and chordal writing (as opposed to polyphony).
His sacred music makes considerable use of Gregorian melodies. The Gloria of one Mass is based on the Gloria of Gregorian Mass XV. His Salve Regina breaks up into ten sections; the odd-numbered verses are chant, the even-numbered ones are polyphony, and all polyphonic verses are in four voices except the last, which is in five. In the polyphonic sections, the highest voice (the superius) paraphrases the chant rather than leaving it to the tenor voice. At the close of the first and last polyphonic sections, Anchieta introduces new voices, much like the Franco-Flemish masters did. There are sustained chordal sections in his work occasionally, interspersed with imitative passages and free polyphony. Like his northern contemporaries, he favored two voices where the voices are ten notes (an octave plus a third) apart, in parallels.
He also wrote four villancicos, one of which, Dos anades, was very popular during his lifetime.
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“Music in the Renaissance,” by Gustave Reese. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1959.