Matheo Flecha «the elder» (1481?-1553?) might have been unknown today if his nephew had not the excellent idea of publishing in a musical anthology printed in Prague in 1581 by Jorge Negrino, eight of the total of nine Ensaladas composed by his uncle. This anthology, of which only one incomplete copy survives, was entitled
LAS ENSALADAS DE FLECHA MAESTRO DE CAPILLA QVE FVE DE
las Serenissimas Infantas de Castilla
Recopiladas por F. Matheo Flecha su sobrino, Abad de Tyhan
y Capellan de las Magestades Caesareas
con algunas suyas y de otros authores
por el mesmo corregidas y echas estampar...
(The Ensaladas of Flecha, former chapel-master to her Serene Highness the Infanta of Castille. Collected by F. Matheo Flecha his nephew, Abbot of Tyhan and Chaplain to their Imperial Magesties with some more of his and those of other authors, corrected and set in print by himself...). As well as the Ensaladas by Matheo Flecha the elder, the anthology contains two other Ensaladas by Pere Albrech Vila (1517-1582), one Ensalada by Chacón and one by Cárceres, who flourished as composers in sixteenth century Spain, as well as two Ensaladas and a madrigal by the editor himself, Brother Matheo Flecha (c.1530-1604).
The idea of publishing a book of works by the elder Flecha had already appeared in a document written in Valladolid and dated 16 August 1557. This involved a royal authorization on behalf of the Valencian priest Pedro Pujol, who claimed to have acquired the rights to publish the works of Matheo Flecha, on the pretext that he was responsible for the collection and its completion. His project did not however seem to have been completed due to technical difficulties – the precariousness of music printing in Spain – to which the younger Flecha alluded indirectly in the prologue to his edition of the Ensaladas.
In the words of Brother Matheo, the reason for his publishing his uncle’s Ensaladas so many years after his death stems from the fact that still in his time «many were trying to procure them and since they were copied by hand, they could only be very costly and incorrect».
Brother Matheo, a chaplain in the service of the Austrian Court, dedicated the book of Ensaladas to the Spanish Ambassador don Juan de Borja. In the very year of publication, he travelled throughout Spain in the retinue of the Empress Maria, widow of Maximilian II of Austria and daughter of Charles V. He no doubt took advantage of this to spread the new collection whose particular contents must have been intended for a Spanish distribution.
In his Biographie Universelles des Musiciens (Brussels, 1834-1844), Fétis claimed that the elder Matheo Flecha was born in Prades (Tarragona) in 1481 and that he studied at Barcelona with Jean Castelló: but these claims have not been substantiated by more recent research. In 1523 Flecha was appointed choirmaster in the Cathedral of Lerida where he had earlier been singer. Ten years later, his name appeared among the witnesses to the Synodal Constitutions of the Bishopric of Sigüenza where, it may be supposed, he held the position of chapel-master between 1537 e 1539. We find him turning up again in May 1544 in the castle of Arevalo (Avila), in the service of the Infantas of Castille, Maria and Juana, as singer and choirmaster, although he seems to have occupied this position only in a temporary capacity. Following the marriage of the Infanta Maria to Maximilian of Austria in 1548, Flecha must have left the Court service and no further trace of him is found. According to Fétis he died at the age of seventy-two in the monastery of Poblet, close to his native town.
The slim information that we have on the elder Matheo Flecha is supplemented, to a certain extent, by the supposedly autobiographical text of his Ensalada entitled La Viuda (The Widow), which links him with several of the families of the Spanish nobility. It is possible that Flecha had been in the service of the Duke of Infantado, don Diego Hurtado de Mendoza (who died in 1531) before moving to the Cathedral of Sigüenza. At one time or another during his lifetime, he might have also links with the house of Ferdinand of Aragon, Duke of Calabra, who died in Valencia. Whatever the case, the musical form that made him famous, the Ensalada had something to do with the specific taste of certain circles of the Spanish nobility in the sixteenth century, for whom it was probably intended.
In his Arte Poética Española (Salamanca, 1592), Juan Diaz Rengifo defined the Ensalada as «a composition with four-line stanzas in which all sorts of metres are mixed, not only Spanish but some derived from other languages, with no fixed order from one to the other, following the poet’s whim; and according to the variety of words, so the music is changed...». The term Ensalada therefore had its origins in the mixing of metres and the sonades which framed the work. Like every other musical form, it underwent a certain evolution in the course of time. The oldest examples seem to go back to Juan Triana (1478-83): they consist essentially of a superimposition of tune over different texts which, to a certain extent, recalls that of certain French motets in the late Middle Ages. The elder Fletcha was the creator of the classic Ensalada as defined by Diaz Rengifo, based, from the musical viewpoint, on the alteration of sequences written in madrigalian style with other more homophonic ones, generally including quotations from romances and well-known tunes of the time. With the younger Flecha, the Ensalada became almost identical with the madrigal, although the thematic basis remained nevertheless a traditional theme.
The Ensaladas of the elder Flecha occupy a midway position between art and folk music. This was perhaps the reason for their success. With great skill, the composer combined several different tunes, personal or borrowed, which were set alongside one another without ever failing to form a coherent and original work. Here and there araise elements of surprise, contrast between one musical fragment and the next, which – we would imagine – must have interested and entertained the sixteenth century listener capable of recognizing the different tunes – sometimes amounting to a half of dozen or more – from the traditional Hispanic repertoire which occurred in succession in the course of an Ensalada. The text, partly allegorical, partly descriptive, was generally based upon the story of the Nativity. Castilian and Latin alternate but Catalan was sometimes added to. Onomatopoeia was frequently used, nearly always in the quest for comic effects.
Evidence of the success enjoyed by Matheo Flecha’s Ensaladas in their time is diverse. We should first cite the 1581 edition, by his nephew, who did not hesitate to include his own arrangement for vocal quartet of an Ensalada for five voices by his uncle entitle Las Cañas (The Reeds), which he also published in its original form. If, as Brother Matheo suggests, the Ensaladas by the elder Flecha were circulating in manuscript copies before 1581, the same was true after their publication. The only difference was that the copies could have been based on the printed version, as was the case with two manuscripts in the Biblioteca de Catalunya in Barcelona, one of them being dated 1591. Three famous vihuelistas, contemporaries of Flecha, Enriquez de Valderrábano, Diego Pisador (who died after 1568) each arranged one of his Ensaladas for one voice and vihuela. Finally three masses from the sixteenth century Cancionero de Medinaceli – two anonymous and one by Cristóbal de Morales (c.1500-1553) are parodies of Ensaladas by the old composer.
Despite its success, the distribution of Matheo Flecha’s work – which includes a few famous villancicos as well as the Ensaladas – remained confirmed to Spanish territory. The very particular aesthetic of the Ensaladas, whose texts are not always easy to comprehend, must have been largely responsible for this restriction. There was however one exception; La Justa appears under the title La Bataille en Spagnol in a collection of French chansons, Le Difficile des Chansons, published by Jacques Moderne in Lyon in 1544, no doubt so-called because of its similarity to works like La Bataille de Marignan or La Bataille de Metz by Clément Janequin, whose influence on the work of Matheo Flecha was notorious.
If Matheo Flecha’s music was able in the sixteenth century to delight music-lovers in Spain, no doubt it can still today captivate a much larger audience, generally unfamiliar with Spanish music of the past.