Arpas y arpistas de la península

Interview: Manuel Vilas, the Spanish Baroque cross-strung harp and the Manuscrito Guerra (ENGLISH VERSION)

(Translated by Isabel Abal) To mark the occasion of the release of the second volume of Manuscrito Guerra (GUERRA MANUSCRIPT (The), Vol. 2 (Sancho, Ars Atlántica), ed. NAXOS), we have interviewed Manuel Vilas. He is one of the very few Spanish Baroque harp players, as well as the director and interpreter of this extremely appealing project.


1) How did you become one of the very few Baroque harp players from our country? What’s your educational background (and where did you study)?

It all began because this musical instrument (the Spanish Baroque cross-strung harp) crossed my path by chance. I liked classical music, but I was still trying my hand at it, experimenting with it and looking for something that not even I knew what it was. I had a classical music background from my piano career in the conservatory, but I was sure that wasn’t to be my path. From that moment on, I started dabbling in this and that, looking forward to discover, learn and see new musical worlds.

After all this search I decided on musicology -an specialty that still holds an special interest to me- and when it seemed like everything was starting to fall into place and I was about to go to Lisbon to study, suddenly, in a course I took part of as a musicologist student, I was introduced and listened to the cross-strung harp. It was then that my entire previous search finally ended, because when I listened to the Baroque harp, I realised that that was what I was looking for. There are few moments in life when something seems so clear, and that was one of those moments. From then onwards it began the hard road ahead: I had to start from scratch, classes, trips, many hours of study, economical hardship, etc.

My cross-strung harp education started and ended with Nuria Llopis in the Daroca early music courses, and in some private lessons in Madrid. After that, I went to Milán and took part in the Urbino courses with Mara Galassi, my arpa doppia Italian teacher.

I can now proudly say that, looking at it with the eyes of years of experience, I had the best teachers and the best education. They were groundbreaking women each in their own specialty in the study of ancient harps. Their work has been –and still is huge. Without all their work we would still be in diapers when it comes to the recovery of the Baroque harp. They’ve taught several generations of harpists and, nowadays, we have a career and a name in the world of the ancient harp. This is just a small detail of the profound generosity and professionalism of these two great harpists and people.

2) In your career you’ve played with a multitude of instrumentalists and groups from an enormous amount of countries and with a broadly varied repertoire. Which experience do you consider most noteworthy regarding your evolution as a musician? 

In that regard, I consider myself quite lucky. To have played with groups from several countries and with a repertoire so different -even if all of them came from the early music world-, has given me so many positive experiences, so much knowledge –and not only musically speaking– that I can only be grateful to all these groups, musicians and singers with whom I’ve collaborated. Just imagine the difference of playing with groups from Cuba, Switzerland, Bolivia and Argentina or from Spain, Germany and France… Their way of doing things and their understanding of music is so different that, if you’re not flexible, malleable and have the ability to adjust and be resourceful, you’re out. This is the best school: experience and a very open mind.

As an example, in the recitals I’ve taken part along with singers –one of my most revered facets-, can you imagine how much you learn and the richness of playing the same piece with different soloists? Each singer sees the same musical work differently: tempos, articulations, expressiveness, a same text seen from different perspectives, etc. The variations are almost endless, and all of them are worth it and compelling. In the end, you have to accompany that in the way that better fits the singer’s personality, because in a voice recital, if you don’t empower the singer’s point of view, if you don’t help him show the world he wants to transmit, even if my contribution is very important, things won’t work out. If both of us are convinced about the interpretation of a piece, everything falls into place… this is a tremendous amount of open mindedness.

3) How did the restoration process of the ancient harp come to be in Spain? Were there any preserved models from that time used as reference?

It is a slow process, but a lot has been done. Even in the 50’s of last century, the great Nicanor Zabaleta spoke in some of his writings about the existence of cross-strung harps in the Spanish Baroque. He even recorded Renaissance pieces about the Treaty of Benegas form the 16th century with a modern harp; but the people who really started the recuperation process of the instrument itself, who made possible we could listen to it, know about its repertoire and studied the original harps… all of this was thanks to a team which, in the 70’s started to investigate about the glorious past of the harp in Spain: Perez Arroyo and Cristina Bordas with their articles about the cross-strung harp; Nuria Llopis, who was my teacher, in the practical interpretation; Pedro Llopis with the building of the instruments, drawing blueprints and making exhaustive inspections of the original harps. All of them will, without a doubt, go into history books about the restoration of the cross-strung harp, and we, the new generations will keep up this work, trying to learn more and broaden the way.

In Spain, around 12 original harps have been preserved in museums and private collections. For me, the most remarkable ones are two big harps form the 12th and 13th century that are kept in Ávila thanks to luthiers Pere Elias and Domingo Pescador.

4) Which are the options in order to get an education in this instrument in our country nowadays? What’s the state of the Baroque harp in Spain at this moment? Do you think it has a wide diffusion? How about the music circuit for this music genre, do you think it’s enough?

The opportunities to get an instruction in cross-strung harp at an official level in Spain are nearly non-existent. The course given by Nuria Llopis in Daroca during August still works really well; it’s a referent in the cross-strung harp world, for its quality, as well as the number of participants and its longevity. And that’s pretty much it. Aside from that, there are private lectures that some specialist can give. There are some education centres such as Musikene in San Sebastian or the ESMUC from Barcelona that offers some curses of ancient harp, but they don’t show much interest in the cross-strung harps, even though it is the kind of harp from which there’s more information and repertoire available from the 17th century. Regarding the situation of the Baroque harp in Spain, there are very few of us interested in it. Luckily, I work regularly with groups form Spain and also from abroad, but the thing is that if the few of us interested in the instrument don’t come together, get involved and proactive, things will only change for the worst.

I’ve recently decided to create my own course about Medieval harp, something that I believe will be quite a novelty. I’m really interested in the Medieval harp, and I hope this initiative will be successful!

5) Which are the main differences between the Spanish Baroque harp model and the ones from the rest of Europe?

The Spanish Baroque harp (the cross-strung one) is a unique instrument that was born and developed in the Iberian Peninsula. We don’t have conclusive data about Portugal, even though considering the complexity of the harp music from the Portuguese Baroque, I’m quite sure the cross-strung harp was also used there. In Latin America, we have a small reference about a cross-strung harp being present during the missions in Paraguay; and in Naples, it was most probably known as well. There aren’t any more countries which knew a similar instrument, with both rows of strings crossed, so very different from the Italian Baroque harp, made with two or three sets of strings in parallel. It’s a native instrument, purely Spaniard, and even though there were cross-strung harps in other countries (Denmark, German, England), all of them followed the Italian model, not the Spanish one.

6) Do you consider difficult the transition from a pedal harp to a Baroque model?

Yes, I do. But this is a personal opinion, based on the fact that I don’t play the pedal harp. I say this based on my experience while teaching. Strangely, modern harpists have a harder time learning than students that play guitar or piano, because these ones don’t need to un-learn something that they don’t know to begin with. The technics of the modern harp and that from the Baroque harp are so very different that, if you don’t forget one, it’s practically impossible for you to learn the other. You have to begin from scratch in every case. But, with this I don’t mean to say it is impossible, not at all, there you have the example of Nuria and Mara, both of them modern harpists.

7) Which person would you consider to be your biggest reference in the world of the early music? How many harps do you currently have and who made them?

That’s difficult. There are many who are my referents when it comes to early music. I’m very fond of the pioneers, the ones that paved the way, those who are now considered old fashioned but who have done wonderful things in a time in which they had a lot less information than we have today. Esther Lamandier fascinates me to this day when it comes to medieval music; the English folks from the 70’s and 80’s with their impeccable vision of the Italian madrigalism; the revolutionary Hanoncourt from the 70’s and 80’s with those stunning Four Seasons which keep inspiring many groups; if we talk about voices, I really like Marilyn Horne, an opera star who recorded Haendel and Vivaldi’s arias in a revolutionary way for her time; also, it’s impossible not to mention Leonhardt, Hopkinson Smith, the first recordings form Savall, etc. There are many more I could mention, and of course there are groups and young musicians from our time that I also admire, but I prefer not to name names…some of them are friends of mine, and I would prefer not to get my feet wet!

The harps with which I usually work are accurate reproductions of the originals. Replications constructed by Pedro Llopis, a pioneer in the recovery of the cross-strung harp, and a man who has worked copiously and very thoughtfully with the original instruments. His works are the most accurate reproductions of the original harps that you will find. I have four harps made by him: two reproductions of harps made by Pere Elías, from 1704; a copy of and Aragonese harp from the end of the 17th century; and a magnificent missionary harp form the Chiquitos Missions, instruments he also worked on in Bolivia.

Javier Reyes de León is nowadays another referent in the world of the cross-strung harp. His job is so thoughtful and thorough that makes him, currently, one of the best constructers of ancient harps. But, Javier has opened up the range of his harp reconstruction. I’ve got a magnificent instrument that he made: a reproduction of a Medieval Catalonian-Aragonese harp, and I’ve been very exited about it lately. I’ve just recently finished a few series of videos where I play this instrument, and I hope you can watch them soon.

My double-strung harp (arpa doppia) was made by Dario Pontiggia, a luthierfrom Milan who builds wonderful harps based on his investigations, precisely in the investigation of the Barberini harp from Rome.

I’ve also have to mention Ramón Casal, a fellow countryman who has made a magnificent cross-strung harp, built as a result from his study of Domingo Pescador’s harp. Ramón can boast about the fact that he’s the only person who had the original harp in his workshop, and from that came the harp that I own today.

And certainly, I cannot help but mention the person who has built for me which I consider to be the best Medieval harp of the Romanesque variety in the universe, and I’m not exaggerating: Francisco Luengo, a man who for many years has worked on the instruments depicted in the Pórtico de la Gloria of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, and who is the person with the vastest knowledge about building Medieval harps: the result are there to be seen. In Youtube, there are a couple of videos where I play this harp and where you can appreciate its quality.

I also have a Renaissance harp made by Rainer Thurau, a German luthier who makes wonderful harps of many different kinds!

9) How was the study process of the tonos humanos? How much time has it taken you and which were the main difficulties? Where and how did you record them? 

I’ve always been fascinated by the tonos humanos. Even when I was a student and I began working the continuous with the tonos humanos. My interest in this genre has done nothing but grow. Sometimes, strangely enough, difficulties arise from within us. There are musicians and singers who consider them easy, very little inspired, reiterative, not very flashy and lacking in popularity with the audience. Anyhow, in my experience, after having performed a few concerts and having made a few records about tonos humanos, I have to say that it is quite the contrary: they are extremely difficult. They can ask this to any singer who has participated in a recital of tonos humanos with me. “This is more difficult than a concert with arias from Haendel!” People have told me. Very little inspired? Only a 10% of this kind of music is widely known! Many of these tonos are hand-written and haven’t been transcribed or interpreted. In any case, it is just as with any other genre: there are good things, great things, bad things, and terrible ones, and even works of genius, just as it happens with everything. Repetitive, you say? That depends on the interpreter, if the public or even the musician himself gets bored, that’s not the piece’s fault; even if the stanzas have the same melody, the different ways in which that stanza can be interpreted are huge. The text says everything we need to know, but, if we play stanza after stanza without the least bit of meditation and reflection about the meaning of those words, without knowing what we want to convey, then not only the tonos are boring, even the most sublime aria from Bach could turn insufferable!

And, with regard to the tonos not being very flashy, I disagree. Making a recital of tonos humanos is an acid test for any singer. They must be great artists, because they have to control the expression, the voice pitch, their textual and gesture capacity, etc. I can affirm that the public loves this. It’s a kind of music very familiar to us; its rhythms and melodies are terribly homely. Even in a country as culturally different from ours as it is The Czech Republic, where María Infante and I gave a recital of tonos, the public was left in awe and they were delighted, it was an incredible experience!

Anyhow, due to my passion about the tonos, I decided to go forward with the recording project of the 100 tonos humanos included in the Guerra manuscript, maybe the most important collection of tonos of this particular genre. It wasn’t easy, because I had been trying to get this project to fruition from many years, but finally, that combination of factors and people that made this “crazy thing” possible happened. For this, it was of vital importance the collaboration of Via Stellae festival and its director Jose Victor Carou, of Radio Gallega along with Pablo Barreiro, and also Naxos record. With this joint effort, this dream is becoming possible, and I’m delighted to be able to contribute a little to the awareness and diffusion of the tonos humanos.

Up until now, two of the six records that make the series have been published. In 2011 was published the 1st Volume, with the soprano from Valencia, Isabel Monar; and last month was published the 2nd Volume, with the tenor Juan Sancho, from Seville. Each one of them was recorded in a different place. The first one was recorded in the auditorium of Valga (Pontevedra) and the second one in the Salón Theatre of Santiago de Compostela.

10) How was it to work with Isabel Monar and Juan Sancho, the singers from the first two records? How did you get in contact and how did you approach the work as a whole?

It has been extremely easy to work with both of them. Isabel and I have known each other for years, and we had previously given concerts with some tonos from the Guerra manuscript, so when we recorded them, nothing took us by surprise. We even finished ahead of schedule, everything went so smoothly and it was so easy that we didn’t have the feeling of making a great effort. It was the same with Juan, with the exception that in this 2nd volume, we added a new instrument to the mix, the Baroque guitar of Eligio Luis Quinteiro. I choose the singers, and I pick the more suitable tonos for everyone. When you work with musicians of this calibre, and when things are so clear in your mind, everything ends up falling into place. Both of them were really excited with the tonos I chose for each of them. There you have the results to see for yourself. With the first volume we had really good reviews, and an award from Ritmo magazine; and with the second one, we had a great reception in the U.S, where it has become one of the best selling records of the Naxos label. Usually, I’m the one who says how things must be done on the interpretative level, and then, the singers and I make a joint analysis. But, most of the time, we all agree. We never have big disagreements.

11) How would you describe the musical repertoire we can find in the Guerra manuscript? Which are its main influences and its context?

In the Guerra manuscript, we can find the best tonos that we could have heard in Madrid during the second half of the 17th century. It’s an actual manuscript, reproduced at the time by José Miguel de Guerra, musical copyist from the Royal Chapel of Madrid. A manuscript of this calibre and importance could only include the best examples…

Regarding the influences…the thing is that tonos are a very peculiar genre, they have a lot of personality. There’s nothing similar in any other country, except maybe Portugal and, logically, America. Neither the French, nor the Italian or German Baroque had anything similar. It’s a kind of music that existed only in Spain during that time (17th and 18th centuries)

12) When will be out the next volume of “Tonos humanos”?

Well, the idea is to publish a volume per year, until we finish the 6 volume series. I hope the next one can be published in 2012, and it will feature Cuban soprano Yetzabel Arias.

13) Which place would you consider the harp to hold in the world of the Spanish Baroque music? Were there really a significant number of interpreters, instrument builders and composers who have left us a noteworthy legacy?

In Spain, during the Baroque period, the harp had a magnitude that we can’t even imagine. Of all the European countries, Spain was the one in which the harp became almost indispensable, both in the religious and the secular spheres. The existing data is huge: competitive examinations in Cathedrals, actor-harpists in the theatre companies, harpists in the court and in nobleman palaces, in the streets, etc. It came to be a king instrument in accompaniment, along with the organ and the guitar. There are many literary references, the repertoire that has made it to our time is huge, and there are a good number of original harps that have remained to this day. If we compare all of this with France, where harps don’t even appear in the musical practice during the Baroque period; Italy (5 or 6 original pieces still remain, and only a few original harps); Germany and England (very little information)… then, nothing more can be said. The sources have said it all.

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