Writings and essays about flamenco

Category — Flamenco History – Early Report (1850)

Early Press Coverage of Flamenco in Madrid of the 1850’s – from the blog of Faustino Núñez – translated by Brook Zern

Translator’s note:  Faustino Núñez is probably the most important flamenco expert in Spain.  He is a diligent researcher who has unearthed countless old archival and press mentions of flamenco and of “preflamenco” or “protofamenco” – early songs and dances that may be precursors of actual flamenco.

His fascinating blog, called “El Afinador de Noticias”, offers hundreds of them.  Here are segments from the entry of June 25th, 2011, titled “Flamenco Music, Madrid, 1853 and 1854″.  The original entry is seen at:


Faustino Nüñez writes: 

We head this entry with a press clip from March 31, 1854, headlined “Musica Flamenca” that reads:

“In some cafés it has become the fashion to entertain the public with Andalusian singers (“cantares andaluces”) instead of pianists.  It’s a new fruit that’s growing in the establishments of montañeses [people from the mountain regions] , and that’s drawing the attention of the Madrid public, which distracts itself by listening to the lamentations, sighs and tender “playeras” that are intoned by the gente flamenco – the flamenco people – who by means of interminable kyries [referring to a section of the Mass] and the “ayes” that shake  [levantan] the banquettes and make the women who come to hear them pirrarse de amor [crazy with love].”

(Some things never change.)

This flavorsome entry is an early reference.  It has substance [“Tiene miga”].  The establishments of the montañeses from Andalucía are appearing again as places where a good part of flamenco music took shape [gestated].

The item appeared a year before the arrival in Madrid of the most important figures in the flamenco of Andalucía.  It was brought to light by the Dutch investigator Arie C. Sneeuw in an article published in the flamenco magazine “El Candil” under the title “Some new data for the history of flamenco”.  That information was published later in a small book titled “Flamenco en el Madrid del XIX”, Virgilio Márquez editor, Cordoba, 1989.

I’ve put the originals here, from the Madrid daily La Nación, though many know them from other sources, due to the interest they have generated in the blog.  I recommend reading them for what they reveal about this “new music”, as it was called, that was replacing pianists in the cafés.    They appear in this order:  Gacetilla (“Little Gazette”) of February 18, 1853.  The next day the writer, Eduardo Velaz de Medrano, gave further comments about the flamenco fiestas celebrated in the salon of Vensano.  The reporter places the event on the 24th.  José Blas Vega [the late, great Madrid flamenco expert] brings us another report titles “Concierto Gitanesco” from February 19th in La Nación.

“Flamenco Music:  The Andalusian cantores who shined in the concerts in the salons of Señor Vensano over the last few nights, and whom we described in this column, appeared again on Sunday in a private home, in the presence of noted artists of the Italian theater, once more making an excellent impression.

There’s such a vogue for these “flamencos” that now an impresario has launched a campaign to take advantage of such a good occasion.  The talk is of nothing less than the coming arrival of El Planeta and María la Borrico, celebrities who are well known in Seville’s barrio de Triana.   The plan is to bring back the good times of the Café de Malta, and to that end we’ll see extensive changes in one of Madrid’s cafés that, due to its central location next to the Principe Theater, offers clear advantages over all the other cafés.  Once the singers have been installed there, it only remains to bring back the classic pomadas (commonly called sorbets) of Señor Romo, celebrated among all the dessert shops past and future, not just for their proverbial cleanliness but also for their special gracia (charm) in providing the most capricious varieties of sorbets (commonly called pomadas), served by his white hand that passes again and again over the confectionery choices before placing them in the cup.  What hands they are!

We don’t know if the impresario’s plans will be realized, and if we’ll indeed have Gypsy concerts [“conciertos de gitanos”] in the Café del Principe, with the corresponding “juegos de manos” ["hand games?"] as in earlier times, but we can be sure that we’ve seen the flamencos “muy metidos en harina”  ["deep in the flour?"] with the most influential parroquianos [parishioners – i.e. regulars?] of the establishment.”

Flamenco has been frequently denostado [translator's note: I don't know if this word means denigrated or avidly followed] by “good” Andalusian society, used as a pastime and almost never appreciated for its artistic quality.  The references we have from, say, 1853, La Nación of Cadiz mention the successes of the proto-dancers Josefa Vargas and Concha Ruíz, who arrived from Madrid to delight the people of Cadiz with their singular dances; El Comercio (see this blog) speaks of the tenor Buenaventura Belart singing in “El majo de rumbo” the caña, the malagueña, the “soledad” [soleá?] etc. and  triumphs of the guitarist Trinidad Huertas.

[A source refers to]… a spectacle of flamenco music, not the music of Tinctoris or [Josquin] Deprez (masters of polyphonic music from Flanders) [that word in Spanish is “flamenco”] but that of [the early flamenco singers] Juan de Dios, Santa María, Villegas, Farfán or Luís Alonso (also announced were El Planeta and María la Borrica).  A jewel of flamencology that we owe to Señor Sneeuw and reproduce here due to its great importance in the science of flamenco.  For more on this subject, see the indispensable monograph by Jose Blas Vega, “Los cafés cantantes de Madrid”, pages 39 to 46 and the entire book).

Those flamenco artists created the basis of Madrid’s flamenco, a court that would later be headed by Antonio Chacón, Manolo Caracol and Enrique Morente.  If only Madrid’s flamenco lineup today could boast of artists like these….

End of blog entry by Faustino Nüñez.

Translator’s note:  In the mid-1990’s I translated the above-cited article by Arie C. Sneeuw for this blog.  It appears as one of the first entries at:


It’s interesting that in these earliest clear descriptions of flamenco events, someone is already nostalgic for the good old days:  ”The plan is to bring back the good times of the Café de Malta…”  (It’s not clear that this refers to prior flamenco performances; I doubt it.)

Recently in my blog I translated an extensive study by Manuel Bohórquez who seems to have shown with old documents that El Planeta, the formerly mysterious early Gypsy singer who had always been presumed to epitomize the art of Triana, was in fact born in Cadiz and evidently chose to live most of his life in Malaga.  (He is described in an early written account, “Un baile en Triana”.)

(I believe there was a subtle subtext — that while El Planeta was undeniably a Gypsy, the Gypsy neighborhood of Triana (across the river from Seville) was not as important in the creation of flamenco as had been assumed; and that Cádiz, sometimes seen as secondary in the generation of heavy-duty allegedly Gypsy songs, and Malaga, not even associated with heavy-duty profound songs, were more important and more welcoming than the Gypsyphile authorities had insisted.  That’s despite the fact that  those cities were not as Gypsy as was the barrio of Triana.)

Well, a passage above shows the deep link between El Planeta and Triana:  ”The talk is of nothing less than the coming arrival of El Planeta and María la Borrico, celebrities who are well known in Seville’s barrio de Triana.”

Faustino Núñez does not allow the word “Gypsy” — he calls it “the G-word” — in his extensive and highly influential discussions and textbooks about flamenco and its origins.  But when  crucial early events like those above are described by writers as “conciertos de gitanos”, for example, he does not omit the otherwise inadmissible word.  He also may permit the use of Gypsy names that are given to versions of certain songs crucial “deep” songs — e.g., the siguiriyas del Planeta —  and are far more common that names of evidently non-Gypsy creators — e.g., the siguiriyas de Silverio [Franconetti].


March 19, 2014   No Comments

Flamenco History — Article on Early Flamenco (1850) by Arie C. Sneeuw – Translated by Brook Zern

Belgian Musicologist Francois A. Gevaert’s Description of Flamenco Song as Performed in 1850 in Madrid

Translator’s Note: This article describes a very important discovery in the documentation of flamenco history. Written by Dutch flamencologist Arie C. Sneeuw, it appeared in Spanish in the flamenco magazine Candil #74 of March-April 1991, titled “Flamenco described in 1850 by Francois A. Gevaert”.

Any early description of flamenco should be seen as potentially crucial to flamenco studies, given the acute lack of such documentary materials. Also note that Gevaert actually encountered the legendary flamenco singer called El Planeta, who is remembered as one of the very earliest creators of flamenco song – Planeta was a very old man at the time. This article, for all its heavy going, seems to justify Sneeuw’s claim about its importance.

I translated it in the mid-1990′s for an internet discussion group.  It’s interesting, at least to me, that Gevaert, after a stint as director of the Paris Opera, wrote an orchestral work using Spanish themes that was very well received in Spain and led to his being awarded the “coveted Cruz de Isabel la Católica”.

(I forgot about that prize, at least until 2008, when I received it.  It is generally given to people — not necessarily foreigners — for work done outside of Spain.  Gevaert is the earliest recipient I’ve heard of):

(Sneeuw begins): “In 1852, the then-celebrated Belgian composer and musicologist Francois Auguste Gevaert (1828-1908) published a brief study of Spanish music of that time, in which he also gave considerable space to popular music — particularly that of Andalucía — in some pages that are barely known today and that are of great interest for the history and the theory of flamenco. The writing, published in the “Royal Belgian Academy Bulletin of Sciences, Letters and Beaux Arts”, contains information that the young composer presented to his country’s government following a study trip he had taken through various European countries with an official grant. The part that concerns us here reveals the results of his musical travels in Spain in 1850.

First, though, let’s look at the author himself:

In 1847, at just nineteen, Gevaert had won the national Composer’s Contest of his country, including the travel grant which he used from 1849 to 1851. A few years later he settled in Paris, where in 1867 he was named musical director of the Opera. Most of his published music to date has been comic opera, though it also included cantatas, organ music and some orchestral works. Among the latter, one was composed in Spain: Fantasia Sobre Motivos Españoles, which led the Spanish Government to award him the coveted Cruz de Isabel la Católica and earned him a reputation on the Iberian peninsula.

The Spanish musicologist Rafael Mitjana called the work “A brilliant piece, of rich coloration and picturesque orchestration, which remained in the repertoire of the great concerts for a long time.”   Afterwards, Gevaert dedicated himself more to musicology than composition and became a major authority in the field. He was the director of the Brussels Conservatory and published harmony textbooks and cante llano (plainsong?) books, as well as monographs on ancient secular and religious music.

His 1852 report has gone completely unnoticed as a source of flamenco information, to such an extent that it figures in no bibliographies on the topic.   Nonetheless, a few writers have cited it — almost all of them foreign authors, as would seem logical in the circumstances.

To my knowledge, the only Spanish publication that mention’s Gevaert’s writing is “El Flamenco En Su Raíz” by Arcadio Larrea (Editora Nacional, Madrid, 1974) , though it doesn’t directly cite the original; or so we deduce from a clarification made a few pages before. Instead, it refers to some references the author found in a projected book by Luis Lavaur which evidently didn’t actually mention the work. Larrea’s citings are brief and unrepresentative of Gevaert’s actual text. In fact, Larrea certainly wouldn’t have used these narrow examples if he had seen the full text.

More substantial are two other references, both by foreign authors and hard to obtain. “Die Cantes Flamencos” an article in “Zeitschrift fur Romische Philologie” of 1881 by Hugh Schuchardt who was a friend of the flamencologist Antonio Machado y Álvarez “Demófilo”; and much more recently, “Art Flamenco” by Louis Quievreux (Brussels, 1959), a Belgian like Gevaert.

As I propose to show in this work, the text deserves much greater attention. It is not only, with respect to the obscure first half of the Eighteenth Century, one of the few ample contemporary testimonies that we have; it’s also probably one that commands the greatest interest, due to its primarily documentary rather than literary character, and for its unequivocal reference to primitive flamenco — though this word had not yet appeared yet — ; and for its placing of the flamenco of that time into its context (vertiente musical).

And even if its general importance is evident in view of the scarce documentation that we all lament, there is a double interest here due to its dating from the “presonora” (pre-sonorous — not documented clearly with surviving music) period of flamenco history. Lacking documented sounds, the only thing that can give us an idea — however remote — of how flamenco sounded in that epoch is the writing and musical notations of contemporary experts in music. Other texts, like that of Serafín Estebañez Calderon “El Solitario”, may reveal interesting details of the flamenco of that time, but hardly its musical physiognomy. And because flamenco is above all a musical phenomenon — though it seems we sometimes forget this fact –any concrete musical data from its early epoch is of special interest.

Francois Gevaert wasn’t the first musician to attempt to transcribe Andalucía’s popular music. A few years before, the Russian composer Mikhail I. Glinka had come to Spain and we find his experiences described in his autobiography, his letters and his written musical notations of some songs (cantares) that he heard. Nonetheless, we find little there that seems relevant to flamenco. The most noteworthy are two musical notations: “Copla del fandango” and “Punto de la Habana”, the latter cited by the musicologist Manuel García Matos as a possible antecedent of the guajira flamenca. In all his descriptive writings, the only one that we can relate directly to flamenco refers to his stay in Sevilla. We transcribe it here because it still seems to be virtually unknown:

“We soon had the opportunity to attend an appearance (actuación) of the best bailarinas, among them one named Anita of singular beauty and enchantment, above all in the danza gitana and the olé. We spent the winter of 1846-47 most agreeably, going to each of the bailes that Felix and Miguel organized in their homes. Here the best popular singers (cantores) sang in an oriental style to the excellent executions of the bailarinas, such that one had the sensation of listening to three rhythms at once: that of the canto and the guitar — each on in its fashion (a su aire) — and that of the palmoteo (handclaps) and zapateo (heelwork) of the bailarina, which seemed to be completely independent of the music (la que al parecer no se guiaba en absoluto por la musica).

We visited the celebrated but now very old popular cantor Planeta and he sang for us. Also, his nephew Lazaro came on some occasions.”

Compared to these notes by Glinka, Gevaert’s references to flamenco are much broader and quite distinct. They center completely on the flamenco music of those times, briefly describing its principal characteristics in terms of compas, melody, tonalities, etc. Accordingly, the pages of Gevaert’s 1852 report constitute, for all their brevity, the first attempt at musical analysis of flamenco and also, for many years thereafter — until de Falla’s writings of 1922 — the only one we have.

The surprising aspect of Gevaert’s case is that he, unlike Glinka, probably never set foot in Andalucía itself, according to his itinerary as presented in the beginning of his report. In fact, Andalucía is almost surely one of the regions referred to when he says: “I had to omit some very interesting provinces, and settle for the information given to be by artists from those provinces who live in Madrid”.

From this, we may consider the possibility that Gevaert’s account of flamenco is based on accounts he may have obtained from an Andalucian colleague living in Madrid. That’s difficult to prove, of course, but a clue may be found in a reference he makes to a certain “Sr. Gil, from Cádiz, a very promising youth” whom he knew in Madrid — surely the musicologist Francisco de Asis Gil (1829-61) who in that same year translated into Spanish a book on harmony by F.J. Fetis, a Belgian like Gevaert and director of the Brussels Conservatory where Gevaert had studied.

If we take with a certain latitude the author’s reference to “information” from “artists” residing in Madrid, we can further suppose that while in Madrid Gevaert would have heard the Andalucian music he describes — not such a daring hypothesis given the clearly documented presence of flamenco artists in Madrid around 1850. Gevaert’s text seemingly corroborates this, in its descriptions and in its noting of small details that would only be expected if he had been present at actual performances.

Whoever the observer may have been, there is no doubt that his obeservations on primitive flamenco are based on an effective and direct knowledge of it. And this should justify a full study of this early document. In view of the fact that it is unknown, and is virtually inaccessible, I will cite it almost entirely in my writings here.

As I implied earlier, Gevaert’s work gives little data beyond the strictly musical. Nonetheless, his initial paragraphs on the music of meridional (Southern) Spain are interesting:

“One can even affirm that these pieces are the only ones that merit a serious examination because, despite the innumerable alterations that time and changing customs and the ignorance of singers and above all contact with music of the North have wrought, even a brief analysis of their melodic forms will convince us that they are not European, and that they come directly from Arabic music (“y que provienen directamente de la música árabe“)

This singular type of airs has been conserved in all the regions where the Moorish domination took deep root, such as in Andalucia; we find it among the Gypsies, with their quarter-tone and third-tone intervals, with the infinitude of (melodic) adornments in which their song is enveloped; with their vague tonality; etc.

The airs of Arab origin can be divided into two principal classes: 1) those properly called cantos, designated with the name of “cañas” or of “playeras” (considered an old name for siguiriyas); 2) the danceable airs (los aires de danza), named after their locality (of origin): “fandangos“; “malagueñas“; or “rondeñas“.”

(Sneeuw continues): Leaving for later the musical details and the Arab origins attributed to them, Gevaert’s examples from the repertoire merit attention. Those he specifies — cañas, playeras, fandangos, malagueñas, rondeñas — are the same ones we see mentioned with greatest frequency in the documents we have that are prior to 1850. But if it seems representative of the repertoire, it nonetheless is narrow when contrasted to the fifteen or more forms that Calderon “El Solitario” mentioned some years before. But bear two things in mind:

1) Gevaert later notes that he left some Andalucian airs out of his account, considering them fundamentally different from those noted above. He wrote:

“I omit various Spanish danzas that have little interest, due to the fact that their isolated melodies (melodias aisladas) do not form series like the others — of which they are simply variants.

Among these are “la cachucha“, “el zapateado“, “el vito“, “el ole“, “el polo“, “los panaderos” and a multitude of others which are performed (al uso) in distinct Andalucian localities, whose enumeration here would be too lengthy (resultaría demasiado prolija).”

(Sneeuw continues): Of interest here, of course, are the criteria the musicologist uses, since right up our own time we continue to make a critical distinction between simple songs (canciones) which he calls “isolated melodies” and “cantes“, whose successive coplas demand varying melodies (van variando en lo melodico) or “forman series“. The paragraph, beyond revealing a fine capacity for observation and discrimination, further details the fine points.

We see that some of those named, and perhaps some others (a pity that the author, fearing prolixity, didn’t leave us the names of that multitude of forms he mentions) do not meet the fundamental requirements for being considered actual flamenco.

The only case that may be surprising is that of the polo, since we know that this form — unlike the others that Gevaert dismisses — forms part of the flamenco repertoire to this day, and was mentioned by Calderón “Solitario” as an important modality. On the other hand, so many doubts have been raised about this cante and its identiy, that we shouldn’t be surprised to see it included among the “isolated melodies” of Andalucia converted into national dances.

2) It’s unclear how we should interpet the designations of “cañas” and “playeras” as used by the author. With “playeras“, there arise the same doubts as ever; whether it was a form of referring to all songs of powerful feeling (cantes de sentimiento), or whether it was a synonym for siguiriyas (“seguidillas gitanas”), as suggested in two distinct theories in two 1879 articles by José María Sbarbi and Demófilo. In Gevaert’s text, not only “playeras” but also “cañas” seem to allude not just to individual cantes but rather to a whole sector of airs properly termed songs (“cantos propiamente dichos“) — or even, as synonymous terms which is how Schuchardt interpreted them in his commentary, to this entire part of the repertoire (a este subrepertorio en su totalidad).

Of course, the plural “cañas” could be seen simply as referring to a number of variants which the form may have had back in those days but which were later lost. But later textual references don’t fit this obvious interpretation, instead implying that with “cañas” the author is alluding, whether by an error in nomenclature or not, to a variety of “cantos propiamente dichos” (airs properly termed songs), and perhaps to all of them.

Or perhaps the truly flamenco repertoire of around 1850 wasn’t much broader than the few forms listed by Gevaert, and those two plural forms, cañas and playeras, cover a number of distinct cantes.

It is also interesting in terms of repertoire to spend a moment on the classification Gevaert uses, not so much to confirm that in that epoch the fandangos, malagueñas and rondeñas were danceable aires and the others weren’t, but rather for the fundamentally musical nature of this demarcation (deslinde), which despite being apparently obvious emerges as quite exceptional. All other classifications of the repertoire that have been proposed are, as we know, based on non-musical criteria. The only one prior to Gevaert’s, that of “Solitario”, is geographic-historical, distinguishing between “Spanish”, “Moorish” and “(Latin) American”. Later classifications are based on ethnicity: Gypsy cantes as opposed to non-Gypsy ones (sometimes using a curious distinction between “Gypsy” and “flamenco”); or else a kind of amalgam between ethnicity and evaluation, such as today’s notion of basic cantes “cantes básicos“, which are equivalent to Gypsy cantes, and cantes that are not basic, equivalent to non-Gypsy cantes. We know too that it has not been possible to arrive at a real consensus on any of them, as is inevitable since these distinctions are based on non-verifiable or not-yet-verified criteria. Gevaert’s much more objective classification (or at least the one transmitted to us by Gevaert) may hardly be serviceable as written, but it could serve as a novel starting point worthy of our attention.

It’s noteworthy that Gevaert, despite introducing one of the two major aspects of the repertoire as “aires de danzas“, doesn’t devote a single word of his texts to the choreographic elements of these airs. In this his text varies radically from that of other foreign visitors of the Nineteenth Century (decimononicos), for whom the dance — and the female dancers! — were usually the primary focus of attention: a priority which, most certainly, continues to be the norm outside of Spain, although lately it has been joined by an almost equally great interest in the solo guitar (guitarra solítica).

Another extramusical datum which emerges from the cited paragraphs is the special mention that the author makes of Gypsies, although without giving us any concrete sense of the place they may have occupied in primitive flamenco. In any case, the passage is notable. Unlike others from before 1850, it doesn’t refer to individual Gypsies performing a specific song or dance that isn’t always clearly flamenco; instead, it explicitly assigns to the Gypsies AS SUCH an important role (un lugar destacable) in flamenco AS SUCH — being probably the oldest reference of this nature that we have found to date.

The brief description and analysis of the music of primitive flamenco which gives Gevaert’s writing its singular interest centers on the melodic aspect, which is probably, even given the general scarcity of musical studies of flamenco, the least studied aspect of all — endlessly surprising, given the pre-eminent place that the vocal element holds within the art.

With respect to the “cantos properly so-called”, which will remain completely identified with the “canas” in everything the author says, the description of their melodies begins thusly, making it quite clear, if there was any doubt remaining, that we are dealing with full-fledged cante flamenco (que de lo que tratan estas páginas es a todas luces del cante flamenco):

“They always begin with an elevated note, which the cantor sustains and embroiders according to his own inclination (va bordando a su albedrio); all the phrases are descending, and the melody remains flooded (añegada) by a rain of small notes and of trills (trinos) or, more properly, of jipíos (o de hipidos, mas bien). These elements make notation very difficult.

(Sneeuw continues): If the passages we’ll see later seem to allude to “cañas” as a number (pluralidad) of diverse songs, this passage, though it also speaks in the plural, at first glance, seems to describe the caña as we know it even today.

The introduction of the cante as described in the first sentence, though it could also apply to some modalities of the siguiriyas, seems quite clearly appropriate to the intonation that starts the caña today. That which most concretely evokes the form is the reference to descending passages (tercios), with the highest note at the beginning and the lowest at the end, a notable characteristic of the caña as we still know it, though it may be found in greater or lesser degree in many other cantes.

The descending melodic profile that is noted by Gevaert and that is so different from the prototypical Western melody is one of the most distinctive attributes of the cante, above all in its oldest modalities among which is the cana. Another example may be the soleares of Paquirri, which, by fortuitous coincidence or not, have become as infrequently cultivated (han dejado de cultivarse) as the caña.

The melodic aspect occupies a less central position in what Gevaert says later about the fandangos, malagueñas and rondeñas, which he looks at in terms of their literary-musical structure:

“The aires de danza are customarily composed of two distinct musical parts: 1) the instrumental ritornello; 2) the verse (copla).

The first part is not variable — at least in terms of its melodic foundation — for all the airs of the same genre. The copla varies each time, whether in its poetic aspect or its music. Its forms are simpler and less vague than that of the caña. The copla part usually consists of six symmetrical phrases of three or four measures (compases); which correspond to four versos (lines), the first of which is repeated twice at the beginning and once again at the end. Its words (letras), in accord with the character of the land, are full of hyperbolic images, and the canto can usually be distinguished by a fundamentally African originalidad (origin).

What the author calls an “instrumental ritornello” — we’ll soon see that he refers exclusively to the guitar — may be (deja entreoir) the characteristic introduction of the fandangos, malagueñas, etc., each one with its fixed sequence of tones, as we still find today.

The most notable aspect of the paragraph is the description of the normal way of linking melody and words in the cantes. It’s the only one we have from that time — other commentators simply reduced the verses to their literary component — and it reveals a notable discrepancy with respect to more recent times. Assuming an identical number of tercios (lines), they vary in their order of use or appearance: Today, as we know, the normal verse is a five line quintilla — or rather, a copla with a repeated line added to the end for a total of six lines, so that it may be sung as either 1-2-1-3-4-5 or 2-1-3-3-4-5. In the form Gevaert describes, and also in the fandango transcribed by Glinka, as well as in earlier collections of music, the common four-line copla was used, with the first line sung a total of three times in the scheme of 1-1-2-3-4-1. This primitive scheme is found in later creations, like the malagueñas of el Canario (“De tu pelo/ Por las trenzas de tu pelo/Un canario etc.) and in some interpretations of the malaguena of El Mellizo.

Perhaps the most interesting paragraphs on the melodies of primitive flamenco are those referring to the tonality on which it is based — where I have added some clarifications.

Regarding the “cañas“, which in the following passage are called “piezas” (pieces), illustrating the marked plural usage implicit in several references to this modality, he says:

“The tonality of these pieces has no relation with our major or minor modes; its final cadences are like those of the third and fourth modes of plainsong (canto llano).”

(Sneeuw adds): And regarding the fandangos, malagueñas and rondeñas, Gevaert writes

“The tonality is the same as that of all the Spanish airs of Arab origin; that is to say, it is based on a scale that corresponds to the third ecclesiastical mode.”

(Sneeuw says): Then, while already talking of the repertoire in its totality, the writer notes this other characteristic:

“Some intervals are frequently affected by accidentals, since these give very brusque transitions to the tones of “do”, of “sol” or of “fa”. The entrada (entrance) of the copla (verse), for example, is always done through a modulation that results in a very exact (certero) effect if it is undertaken cleanly (que resulta de un efecto certero si es abordada limpiamente).”

Chronologically, these three brief paragraphs constitute the first X-ray pictures (radiografía) of flamenco’s tonal material. Glinka in his writings alludes only briefly to the tonal aspect of popular Andalucian melodies, noting that they are “mostly based on an oriental scale which does not resemble ours in any way.” In his last (first?) paragraph, Gevaert agrees with his predecessor (antecesor), though he more precisely identifies the characteristic modes of modern Western music that are alien to flamenco. Regarding the flamenco tonality, Gevaert finds a closer point of reference than did his Russian colleague. Flamenco’s melodies, Gevaert says, are based on a scale that corresponds to or approximates — note the caution of his words — to one of those used in Medieval European music, the third ecclesiastical mode or (that) of plainsong. (The reference to plainsong is simply one of the conventional ways of designating these ancient scales; it does not necessarily imply that Gregorian chant may be an antecedent to flamenco cante.) It is the mode also termed doric or, more simply, the mode of E (“modo de mi” — that derived by starting the scale on E rather than on C, which produces the major key, or on A, which gives the minor). Together with this, Gevaert also mentions when speaking of the cañas, the fourth mode, but this is nothing more than a variant of the doric mode called the hypodoric (hipodórico).

This is the second and final part of my translation of Arie Sneeuw’s article in Candil number 74, in which he analyzes in detail an 1852 report by Belgian musicologist and composer Francois A. Gevaert on flamenco as he found it in Madrid in 1850:

(Sneeuw writes): It’s interesting to note that the “cantos properly so-called” (i.e., the “cañas“), and the “aires de danza” mentioned later as having simpler and less vague melodies than those of the “canas“, do not differ in terms of their fundamental tonality. Both of these sub-repertoires are based on the same mode, the E mode.

Now, as Gevaert indicates, in flamenco we are dealing with an E mode that has certain peculiarities. We’ve seen how, in his initial paragraphs, the author not only note the appearance of quarter-tones and third-tones, but also spoke of a “vague tonality”. And in the last of the paragraphs we’ve noted, he mentions frequent alterations (“accidentes“) (accidentals) of the melodic configuration foretold by the doric scale.

The type of alteration Gevaert describes presents the peculiarity that the notes he indicates — do, fa and so — are not altered (sharpened or flattened), but are natural, as befits the E modality as such. The few experts who subsequently analyzed flamenco tonality did indeed note the appearance of appropriately altered notes (notas propiamente alteradas) –but these notes turn out to be different for each expert; the result is a proliferation of distinct scales to discourage anyone who, like this writer, is not a professional musicologist…

The only thing Gevaert describes are frequent transitional passages to another mode — that is, modulations — which is how he classifies what happens in the entrada (entrance) to the sung part of a malagueña or fandango. Judging by the indicated notes, he refers to a modulation to the major which simultaneously sets up the change of the tonal center or tonic. This is distinct from what happens when a song undergoes a “cambio“, in which the tonal center or tonic remains the same.

(Translator’s note: It seems clear that Sneeuw is referring first to the odd modulation in the malagueñas and fandangos when the E-modal guitar introduction (typically using A minor, G major, F major and the tonic E major) suddenly transitions — in what seems like an abrupt, brute-force modulation — to the major key of C major which characterizes the first five lines of a typical six-line copla (i.e.: G7 to C; C to F; G7 to C; C to G7; G7 to C); the sixth line, starting in C, abruptly modulates back to the modal by passing through F to E. Some malagueñas, incidentally, inject a more modal A minor into the verse. The author distinguishes this from a “cambio“, which usually connotes a simpler transition from the modal to the major scale without changing the key — an example being that of the siguiriyas de cambio.)

(Sneeuw says): As far as I can determine — and I say this with the reservations incumbent on me as a non-musicologist — it seems that the doric/major bitonality cited by Gevaert is indeed found in flamenco, though other types of tonal variation are also possible. This may not be enough to show that the tonality of cante flamenco in 1850 was essentially the same as it is today. But Gevaert’s allusion to the impact produced by the tonal shift in the first line of a fandango or malagueña certainly evokes something familiar to us. It also serves to indicate that Gevaert actually witnessed the music he describes. The only obvious discrepancy between current and described practice is his exclusion of any strictly major-key forms, such as those represented by a few forms today — notably the alegrías and the cantiñas.

Regarding harmony, the fundamentally Western musical component which is represented in flamenco exclusively by the chords played on the guitar, Gevaert says absolutely nothing. In referring separately to the “cantos properly so-called”, his silence should not be surprising, since he notes the following melodic characteristic of these “cañas“:

“With regard to their melodic sequences, the majority of these songs have no type of harmony… (no comportan ningún género de armonía)…”

That is to say, the melodies in question are in fact incompatible with harmony, since the principal tones of any melodic segment do not blend (no se encuentran juntos) with any of the conventional chords as established by the rules of harmony. This, as we see, refers exclusively to the majority of the songs termed “cañas“. (We may note in passing the “contundente” (conclusive) reference in this passage to a “majority” of these songs, clearly indicating that the writer is using the term canas to refer to multiple cantes.) Gevaert’s reference here, for all its brevity, is enormously significant. First, it offers nothing less than musicological proof of something we have already intuitively sensed: that a large portion of the forms in this early repertoire which were not modalities of the fandango must have been sung without any instrumental accompaniment, “a palo seco“. The author himself corroborates this when he continues the above sentence as follows:

“…and all those who have conserved the authentic tradition sing them while limiting themselves to marking the rhythm with little blows, either on the body (caja) of the guitar or on the hollows of the hand.”

The passage, beyond dispelling all doubt about the flamenco character of the music at hand, must be the earliest known reference to the unaccompanied antecedents to a whole sector of the flamenco repertoire. It’s noteworthy, though it may not be clear how to interpret it, that in the almost contemporaneous texts by Calderón “El Solitario” we don’t get even the slightest reference to this (unaccompanied nature of some songs). Not only do all of the modalities described by “Solitario” have instrumental accompaniment, but that author seems to assume that this is obvious, that it’s a given.

The incompatibility with harmony that Gevaert detected in the “cantos properly so-called” may be given another inference that is no less logical though perhaps a bit more surprising. This sub-repertory as we know it today, with its fully incorporated guitar harmonies — except for those few aforementioned relics that even back in Gevaert’s time were considered “the authentic tradition” — must be the product of a “musical experiment”, which consisted of putting harmony to earlier melodies which were alien to it.

It’s clear that the specific character of this sub-repertoire has always commanded special attention from everyone. This, in fact, represents the starting point of all the classifications of the flamenco repertoire — since they all agreed in circumscribing and singling out this group of songs above all, and only varied in the labels that were applied to this cante: “jondo“, or “gitano“, or “básico“. This unanimity may have its musical explanation in the singular genesis which these cantes must have had as a popular music experiment, if we consider the implicit consequences of Gevaert’s paragraph cited above.

Regarding compases and rhythms, Gevaert’s texts give little data. Regarding the “cañas“, the only observations he makes can be deceptive at first glance:

“The “cañas” are melodies of a not-very-well-defined rhythm (de un ritmo muy poco determinado).”

Was this musicologist simply incapable of hearing and appreciating the rhythm of these cantes? In Glinka’s case, we can only speculate about this because he doesn’t mention cañas, or playeras, or other cantes of the type Gevaert called “cantos properly so-called”. But Glinka’s description of what he heard in Seville seems disconcerting. We do have the somewhat later reference of the Cádiz musicologist José María Sbarbi, the first expert on Spanish music to discuss flamenco, in a single brief article. Regarding the playera, Sbarbi notes “the vagueness or almost complete absence of a rhythm”. And even today, the discord among analysts about the compás (rhythm) of forms like the siguiriyas and the soleá and its offspring is almost as total as that surrounding their tonality.

The surprising thing in Gevaert’s case is that in speaking of the unusual (insólito) rhythms he found in Basque popular music which he also described briefly, he notes precisely those rhythms and meters which underpin the siguiriyas, cañas, soleá, etc. as we know them today; he even uses the metric analysis we consider the most appropriate, combining measures of 3/4 with others of 6/8.

Here the author, after describing the peculiar rhythm of the Basque national dance called “el zorzico”, says “There are other airs with an even more complex rhythm; I remember a melody which alternated measures of 3/4 and 6/8.” This, of course, is the same mixed compás that is heard in flamenco, as underlined by Manuel García Matos who would later note this match between some Basque airs and some flamenco forms. In view of all this, we may say that while other interpretations can’t be eliminated, it is certainly possible that in the time Gevaert wrote, the songs in question really did display a very ill-defined or indeterminate compas (un compás “muy poco determinado)”.

Much more explicit is what Gevaert says about the compas of the fandangos, malagueñas and rondeñas:

“The airs of this species generally have a compas of 3/4 that is quite lively (bastante vivaz).”

This reference, together with that found in Glinka’s transcription of a fandango, tends to strongly confirm what we have intuited: that in that time these fandango forms had not yet acquired their “ad libitum” or free-rhythm form which they would later develop and which is today considered the only truly flamenco approach. This applies to the malagueña and the fandango — because the rondeña, on those rare occasions where it is still interpreted, remains in a lively 3/4 time even today. I refer, of course, to the rondena properly so-called, and not to the taranta or minera which is sometimes interpreted, above all in the dance and on the solo guitar, under the basically erroneous name of “rondeña“. And in the case of the fandango as well, we must add that the modern form of interpretation still reveals something of a fixed measure — and that in the renditions by fandangueriles (fandango singers) of the first half of this century, these songs were often squared off perfectly with “lively 3/4 time” describing their compás. In the case of the malagueñas, yes, its later modalities differ from those described in 1850.

The malagueña evoked by this description, even in terms of its accompaniment as will be noted below, is the one which was recorded by Juan Breva at the beginning of this century, and which, in view of his advanced age at that time, can be closely associated with that described by the Belgian musicologist; indeed, it would have coincided with Breva’s youth.  And what he recorded a half-century later has been re-baptized with a series of new names, from the “verdiales” to the newer appellation of “bandolás“. Gevaert’s testimony offers another reason to give Breva’s cante its original name. Another fact to remember in this regard is that three years after Gevaert’s account, the term malagueña was listed, along with the rondena, as an explicit form of cante flamenco (as noted in Sneeuw’s previous Candil article on early flamenco in Madrid). The proximity of dates leaves no doubt that this later report also referred to the same malagueña with compas (acompasada). Everything seems to indicate, then, that it’s worth considering the reincorporation of this form into the realm of the malagueña, perhaps as a “malagueña primitiva” or “malagueña ligera“, or, since Juan Breva’s is the oldest version we actually know, the “malagueña de Juan Breva” — as it was in fact called by some singers until recently.

Beyond this brief analysis that can properly be termed musical, Gevaert’s text also offers some interesting observations on how the cante flamenco was performed in that epoch. For example, the reference to a norm which dictates the proper interpretation of a form, as when he describes the manner of rendering the lines of a “caña“:

“…the cantor prolongs them indefinitely for as long as his breath lasts, since the tradition demands that he not breathe (que no respire) until the end of each phrase.”

Calderón “El Solitario” was probably referring to the same tradition a few years earlier when he wrote, in describing the caña, that the singers were obliged (sometidos al imperativo) to “apurar el canto” (drain it to the last drop). In any case, Gevaert’s observation — as concrete and precise as would be expected from a music professional — certifies that in those days it was a fundamental requisite for the singer not to breathe until the end of a line (tercio).

Referring to the execution of fandangos, malagueñas, etc., Gevaert speaks of the role of improvisation as well as its sometimes shocking consequences:

“The song and the words of the copla are often improvised by the interpreter, and some of them reveal an extraordinary imagination and talent. It is above all among the Gypsies where we encounter these improvisers, and at times the most renowned of these singers vie among themselves, challenging one another. This singular contests frequently lead to the bloodiest disputes, where the knife takes on the leading role, and they often end with the death of one of the singers.”

Regarding this last sentence, we would have to discard the possibility that the author actually witnessed what he describes. Returning to the essence of the passage, at first glance we can say that we have one more example of the false impression of being improvised which the cante can give to outsiders (foraneos). Nonetheless, at the time when Gevaert was writing, while the repertoire was still in the process of taking firm shape, we cannot automatically exclude the possibility that improvisation may have been a factor of some importance, as opposed to what happened after the repertoire became canonized as “classic” in the beginning of this century.

Finally, we have the brief description, already referred to the repertoire in totality, of the use of the voice and the tesitura characteristic of cante flamenco:

“What also testifies to the Arab origin of these cantos is the guttural and cut-off, interrupted (entrecortada) way of singing — a way that seems to be compulsory (de rigor) for all of them. All of this music is sung in the highest registers of the voice, and it is not uncommon to hear the entrada (entrance passage) of a cana or of a fandango done with a C-note from the chest (realizada con un do de pecho).”

(Sneeuw adds): Since starting a phrase with a C from the chest is probably the most difficult way of doing any type of singing, this passage, together with the one above which refers to breathing, gives us an idea of the demands that were placed on singers in those days — or that they imposed upon themselves, since one would customarily implicate the other.

On the other hand, the somewhat forced tesitura which the cante demanded — and which to a greater or lesser degree it still demands today — seems to be a natural corollary of the descending melodic line, as commented on earlier.

Regarding the accompaniment of the cante, the images left by Gevaert’s few observations are worthy of attention. The only accompanying instrument to appear is the guitar, in contrast with the texts of Calderon “El Solitario” from about the same time. But we should remember that “El Solitario” describes a complete “rondalla” — an “orquesta” (orchestra) in the textual phrase — in which the guitar is joined by lutes (laudes) and bandurrias. In Gevaert’s text, even the danceable modalities which originally had the kind of accompaniment that “El Solitario” describes are performed here accompanied exclusively by the guitar.

The most notable aspect of Gevaert’s text is the considerable difference in the role of the guitar according to the repertoire being performed. We’ve already seen that the guitar accompaniment of the “cantos properly so-called”, or “cañas“, is shown as still rather precarious — a novelty of relatively recent appearance, confined to some melodies which excluded harmony (como novedad relativamente reciente, amen de problemática tratandose de unas melodías que excluían la armonía). This is quite distinct from the guitar’s role as it appears in accompanying the danceable airs, in the following passage, where the author speaks of the “ritornelo instrumental” of the fandangos, malagueñas, etc.:

“In this part the skillful guitarists show off the agility of their fingers and their facility at improvising variations. As a result, they customarily prolong the duration of the ritornelo so it lasts longer than the sung copla.”

This sounds much closer to the practice of our own time. At first glance it may be surprising that it’s in the danceable airs that the guitar in those days appears most highly developed and most prominent. Nonetheless, it has its logic, considering the fact that these songs, as opposed to the others, had always had instrumental accompaniment.

Throughout this voyage through Gevaert’s pages, we have repeatedly seen that beyond describing flamenco music he also presents a theory about its origins, which he considers decidedly Arabic. As we know, this was a common view at that time. It would later lose much ground, at least as a theory that applied to the entire repertoire of flamenco, since Demofilo would attribute Gypsy origin to that portion which Gevaert terms “cantos properly so-called”. This dualistic theory, propounded a few decades ago in a new version by Ricardo Molina and Antonio Mairena in “Mundo y Formas del Flamenco”, seems to be the most prevalent even today.

According to Gevaert, not only the fandangos and malagueñas are of Arabic origin; so are the “cantos properly so-called” — a perfectly logical vision given his perception that these two groups share a single tonality. Less convincing is the fact that according to the author, on one hand this particular tonality corresponds to some of the ancient scales of European derivation, and on the other hand, this tonality somehow indicates that the Andalucian music which employs it is actually based on Arabic music — in which he fails to specify any particular scale which corresponds to flamenco more than do the European scales he cites.

It seems that everything said about the possible origins of flamenco up to today remains to be proved. What we lack is a detailed comparison of flamenco music with Arabic-Andalucian music prior to (the expulsion of Arabs in) 1492; and with Gypsy music; and with Byzantine music, whose importance by way of the Mozarabic liturgy was pointed out by Manuel de Falla. An interesting fact in this respect is that the doric mode mentioned by Gevaert was the fundamental scale found in the origins of Byzantine music — the Greek music of Antiquity, as noted by flamencologist Hipolito Rossy in naming this as the flamenco scale. But it seems that we still don’t have the necessary sources to make such a comparison of flamenco with any of the three musics mentioned. If this is indeed the case, we have no choice but to postpone indefinitely a definitive discussion of the possible origins of flamenco.

Among the many interesting facts that we’ve discovered in Gevaert’s brief 1850 study of flamenco, two stand out: those related to the tonality of flamenco melodies and the character of those melodies with regard to harmony.

We see that the tonal basis of cante flamenco, as Gevaert noted, is the doric mode, with a marked tendency to a specific type of doric/major tonality. On this level there is no difference between the cañas and the playeras on one side, and the fandangos, malagueñas and rondeñas on the other side. On the other hand, Gevaert’s description of each one of these sub-repertoires reveals considerable discrepancies between them. The most important, since only this can explain all the rest, is the inherent incompatibility with harmony that the author detects in the cañas and playeras — an incompatibility which is directly related to the originally unaccompanied character of those songs.

The musical physiognomy of flamenco, as espoused by Gevaert in 1850, thus presents a double picture: unity of the repertoire on the most basic level of its tonality, and duality in its characteristics relative to harmony. Naturally, these interesting musicological characteristics must be contrasted more carefully and deliberately (detenidamente) (and by others more expert in musicology than the present commentator), particularly Gevaert’s references to harmony since this is a facet of the cante that is still completely unexplored.

In any case, it would seem that Francois August Gevaert’s pioneering study, in terms of both for its historical aspects and its structural insights, represents a valuable addition to our knowledge of this singular Andalucian art.”

End of tranlation of an article by Arie C. Sneeuw which appeared in Candil #74 of March-April, 1991.

Brook Zern

October 7, 2011   1 Comment