A particular splendid period of Spanish keyboard music closed with the death of Juan Cabanilles in Valencia in 1712. When he was born in Algemesi near Valencia in 1664, Sebastián Aguilera de Heredia had already been dead for seventeen years. When he was only ten years old, Francisco Correa de Arauxo died. Pablo Bruna and Jusepe Ximénez were respectively 33 and 40 years older than he. In spite of the age differences, Cabanilles remains the last representative of an art that would die with him.
Cabanilles was without a doubt an infantillo at the Cathedral in Valencia. Choirboys who received a musical education and eventually participated in the chapel music, the infantillos remained in the charge of the choirmaster who had to provide them with both physical and spiritual nourishment. The young Cabanilles was in all likehood placed into the care of two famous Aragonese musicians who successively occupied the post of choirmaster at Valencia Cathedral: Diego Pontac and Urbán de Vargas. He most certainly received lessons from the main organist at Valencia Cathedral, Jerónimo de la Torre from Aragon, as well as from the second organist, Andrés Peris, "the blind man of Valencia", who was compared in both dexterity and mastery of the organ with the "blind man from Daroca", Pablo Bruna. Cabanilles' skill must have been such that when de la Torre was forced to retire in 1665 because of having lost the use of one hand in an accident, his young student, though only 21 years of age, suceeded him, with the obligation to become ordained as priest. Cabanilles retained this post until his death in 1712, the Chapter's esteem assuring him a smooth career without any pitfalls.
Lacking more biographical details, we mention the legend originated by Josep Elfas, who attained the rank of organist to the Chapel Royal and was also probably Cabanilles’ disciple. According to the story, transmitted and undoubtedly embellished by Teixidor and Soriano Fuertes y Eslava, Cabanilles was organist in Seu d’Urgel and made himself known at different French cathedrals where he played many times. One could even compare him to the Catalan organist who was offered a post at court by Louis XIV but refused the invitation so as not to abandon his family. Similar stories circulate about Pablo Bruna and Jusepe Ximénez, the court of the Sun-King having in their cases been replaced by that of the Planet-King, Philip IV of Spain.
Cabanilles had a special interest in the modernisation of his organ at Valencia Cathedral, built in 1693 by the organbuilder Roque Blasco. Under the impulse of the Basque-Navarre organbuilders, Spain had become enamoured with reed stops, and enriched all its instruments with powerful trumpet stops. Though the Catalans remained quite hesitant to adapt this mode, Cabanilles obtained for his organ the addition of an interior trumpet and an upper half register of a trumpet stop, no doubt en chamade.
He showed himself equally receptive to certain foreign novelties, especially those from Flanders. The contacts between Italian, Flemish and English musicians were numerous in the 17th century, not only at the Madrid Court and in certain particularly favoured cities, but also at the Austrian Court in the Spanish territories of Flanders, etc. In the last decades of the 17th century, foreign influence intensified with a veritable invasion of musicians, coming above all from Italy. During this period, the attachment to tradition and a taste for novelty lived together side by side in Spanish musical practice. Cabanilles borrowed some elements from Italian music, introducing them into his own works, whose technique (Corrente italiana, Tiento en tersion a modo de Italia, or Toccata de mano izquierda).
No other 17th century Spaniard has left such a quantity of keyboard works. On the other hand, Cabanilles’ extant vocal output is very small. The organist had no obligation in this matter, and was not constrained to leave copies of his works for the church, which was different from the choirmasters.
To simplify matters, we can retain three characteristic elements of his music. First of all the contrapuntal possibilities: imitation, contrary, canon, fugue, etc. Most of his works have a playing time far superior to those works by earlier organists. Secondly, a certain taste for strangeness shows itself in very expressive dissonances, suddenly interrupted phrases and surprising rhythms, none of these perturbing the proper course and independence of voices. Finally, no other Iberian composer of his era attained such a degree of instrumental virtuosity.
Through very developed forms of an extreme contrapuntal density, he gave birth to a learned style that was compact, granitelike and monumental, though very ornamented. Exploiting to the fullest all the resources of 17th century Spanish organ art, he was guiding that art towards a completion that was also a culmination.
He showed himself to be much more direct in certain vocal works. i.e. the duo entitled El gala que ronda las calles. Destined for the procession on the Feast Day of the Holy Sacrament, this work adopts the structure of a traditional villancico (refrain and five verses) with its characteristic rhythm and parallel third harmonies. More surprising, and yet none the less traditional, was the use of a text with a double meaning in which Christ as sacrament in the monstrance was carried in a procession through the city and was also described with the traits of a “gallant lover”. The use of double meaning and oaths (“Cuerpo de Cristo”, “Voto a Cristo!”), the simplistic play on words of “divine” and “wine” are indeed to be found frequently in the mid 17th century works destined for this procession.
The relationship of the opening motif of Mortales que amáis with the beginning of the first choir in the Passion according to Saint Matthew by J. S. Bach has given rise to numerous speculations. The fact that this imitative motif, in other works (a Villancico by Cererols, a Lamentation by Sebastián Duròn), confirms that it is just a simple coincidence, even a traditional common practice which would merit study. Concerning the tono (a song with a refrain and verses) Mortales que amáis, it is interesting to note the audacity of Cabanilles’ contrapuntal writing, notably the tremendous dissonance (D sharp-B-D-F) on the words “weeps over his Passion”, an audacity justified by the affecto of the text. Moreover, one finds similar passages in the keyboard works that have no literary base. This very Baroque desire to surprise many other examples in European music, especially in Italian music.
Cabanilles was an active witness to this cohabitation of tradition and novelty that Spanish music experimented with during the second half of the 17th century and the beginning of the 18th century. No doubt he was a precursor of a new style with no other composer of value to continue in his path. Fortunately preserved in large number, his works are sufficient to make one appreciate the greatness of his art.
Luis Antonio González