The Spanish lute quartet is a group created in 1923 by the Aguilar brothers (Elisa, Paco, Pepe and Ezequiel), who built a whole family of plectrum instruments of various sizes (lute or bandurria, laudete or contralto lute, tenor lute and laudón), generating a wide repertoire of original works and transcriptions by many composers who were interested in this formation, probably being Joaquín Turina's The Bullfighter's Prayer the most important work of those originally composed for the quartet.
Ezequiel, Paco, Elisa and Pepe Aguilar, in 1931
Versión original de La oración del torero by Joaquín Turina, performed by the Aguilar Quartet (2015)
The concert activity of the Aguilar Quartet ended in 1940, as a result of the exile forced by the Spanish Civil War, and the instruments and scores slept a prolonged lethargy until in 1986 a group of four young plectrum players (Antonio Navarro, Esther Casado, Luis Miguel Lara and Pilar Barón) rescued them to refound the group, which for a few years adopted the name "Cuarteto Paco Aguilar" to later recover the original "Cuarteto Aguilar".
El actual Cuarteto Aguilar: Esther Casado, Luis Miguel Lara, Antonio Navarro y Pilar Barón
Moved by the same impulse as this one, they did not take long to obtain from some composers the composition of new works for the lute quartet, and in this sense they asked me in 1993 for a work originally written for them, which with the title of Five studies (d 'après Valéry) was premiered at the Conde Duque Center Auditorium in Madrid on December 10, 1995, as part of the I Biennial of Plectrum Music.
The composition of the studies during the months of June and July 1993 coincides with a reading of Le cimetière marin, by Paul Valéry, and each of them has a title taken from the poems, a title that in turn inspires the character of the piece and introduces its atmosphere. And like real studies that they pretend to be, each one presents a specific difficulty that has to be solved, both by the performers and by the composer.
Detail of the beginning of the first edition of Le cimetière marin (1920)
Thus, the first of them, La naissance du vent, poses dynamic and rhythmic aspects, alternating in slow and fast sections respectively.
First page of the first of the Five studies (d'après Valéry)
I. Paul Valèry: 22nd stanza of Le cimetière marin (Translation: Cecil Day Lewis)
Non, non!... Debout! Dans l'ère successive!
Brisez, mon corps, cette forme pensive!
Buvez, mon sein, la naissance du vent!
Une fraîcheur, de la mer exhalée,
Me rend mon âme... O puissance salée!
Courons à l'onde en rejaillir vivant.
No, no! Arise! The future years unfold.
Shatter, O body, meditation's mould!
And, O my breast, drink in the wind's reviving!
A freshness, exhalation of the sea,
Restores my soul . . . Salt-breathing potency!
Let's run at the waves and be hurled back to living!
Recording: Aguilar Quartet
I. La naissance du vent
Le secret changement, of a harmonic character, hidden, in outstanding notes that go from one instrument to another always in a high/low direction, one of the many variants of the melody of the Romance de Don Boyso (o don Bueso), from the fifteenth century, which will be elaborated in the fourth study.
Fragment of the variant of the romance of Don Bueso used in the Five studies (d'après Valéry)
First page of the second of the Five studies (d'après Valéry)
II. Paul Valèry: 13rd stanza of Le cimetière marin (Translation: Cecil Day Lewis)
Les morts cachés sont bien dans cette terre
Qui les réchauffe et sèche leur mystère.
Midi là-haut, Midi sans mouvement
En soi se pense et convient à soi-même...
Tête complète et parfait diadème,
Je suis en toi le secret changement.
The dead lie easy, hidden in earth where they
Are warmed and have their mysteries burnt away.
Motionless noon, noon aloft in the blue
Broods on itself -- a self-sufficient theme.
O rounded dome and perfect diadem,
I am what's changing secretly in you.
Recording: II. Le secret changement
The third, La vague en poudre, is of a purely timbre nature, using instrumental techniques in which the plectrum is not used, in which it constitutes the most advanced, aesthetically, of the studies.
First page of the third of the Five studies (d'après Valéry)
III. Paul Valèry: 24th stanza of Le cimetière marin (Translation: Cecil Day Lewis)
Le vent se lève!... Il faut tenter de vivre!
L'air immense ouvre et referme mon livre, La vague en poudre ose jaillir des rocs!
Envolez-vous, pages tout éblouies!
Rompez, vagues! Rompez d'eaux réjouies
Ce toit tranquille où picoraient des focs!
The wind is rising! . . . We must try to live!
The huge air opens and shuts my book: the wave
Dares to explode out of the rocks in reeking
Spray. Fly away, my sun-bewildered pages!
Break, waves! Break up with your rejoicing surges
This quiet roof where sails like doves were pecking.
Recording: III. La vague en poudre
In strong contrast, the contrapuntal aspect is treated in depth in the fourth, Chanterez-vous quand vous serez vapoureuse?, in which the melody of the romance is treated in progressively narrowing canonical imitations, always within a modal/tonal framework.
First page of the fourth of the Five studies (d'après Valéry)
IV. Paul Valèry: 17th stanza of Le cimetière marin (Translation: Cecil Day Lewis)
Et vous, grande âme, espérez-vous un songe
Qui n'aura plus ces couleurs de mensonge
Qu'aux yeux de chair l'onde et l'or font ici? Chanterez-vous quand serez vaporeuse?
Allez ! Tout fuit ! Ma présence est poreuse,
La sainte impatience meurt aussi!
And you, great soul, is there yet hope in you
To find some dream without the lying hue
That gold or wave offers to fleshly eyes?
Will you be singing still when you're thin air?
All perishes. A thing of flesh and pore
Am I. Divine impatience also dies.
Recording: IV. Chanterez vous quand vous serez vaoureuse?
Finally, the fifth study, Toujours recommencée, focuses on metric aspects based on the same idea that, like the surface of the sea, returns again and again and always in a different way.
First page of the first of the Five studies (d'après Valéry)
V. Paul Valèry: 1st stanza of Le cimetière marin (Translation: Cecil Day Lewis)
Ce toit tranquille, où marchent des colombes,
Entre les pins palpite, entre les tombes;
Midi le juste y compose de feux
La mer, la mer, toujours recommencée!
O récompense après une pensée
Qu'un long regard sur le calme des dieux!
This quiet roof, where dove-sails saunter by,
Between the pines, the tombs, throbs visibly.
Impartial noon patterns the sea in flame --
That sea forever starting and re-starting.
When thought has had its hour, oh how rewarding
Are the long vistas of celestial calm!
Recording: V. Toujours recommencée
At the request of the harpsichordist María Teresa Chenlo and the Aguilar Quartet, I made a version of this work for harpsichord and lute quartet in October 2019, given the kinship that the use of the plectrum implies in such apparently disparate instruments. Two of the movements transcribed in this way (Le secret changement and Chanterez-vous, quand vous serez vaporeuse?) were premiered by these performers in the "Dialogo entre Púas" concert, held in the Assembly Hall of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando of Madrid on April 23, 2022.