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Guerrero, Francisco (1528-1599)

Francisco Guerrero

born: 4 October 1528
died: 8 November 1599
country: Spain

Of the three great composers of sacred music to have emerged from Spain in the sixteenth century, Francisco Guerrero (1528-1599) is describedby the scholar Robert Stevenson as ‘the most purely Spanish’. That he is also the least internationally famous is no coincidence: both of the other two, Cristóbal de Morales (c1500-1553) and Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611), spent considerably more time outside their homeland than Guerrero, in particular in Rome, and in consequence came to the attention of a broader clientele. Their contemporary fame was certainly boosted by the more developed state of the music-printing industry in Italy as compared with Spain at that time: Guerrero in fact found it expedient to travel to Italy more than once in order to have his works printed. Alongside variations in such stylistic matters as dissonance treatment and scoring, Guerrero’s choice of motet subjects differed from those of composers based outside Iberia. Stevenson points out that fewer than half of the texts set by Guerrero are duplicated in the much larger output of either of his contemporaries Palestrina (1525/6-1594) or Lassus (1530/32-1594), and in this regard he may certainly be viewed as embodying a peculiarly Spanish sensibility.

Francisco Guerrero’s first music teacher seems to have been his elder brother Pedro, who also went on to make his living as a singer and composer. This instruction was of a rudimentary nature; the teacher who developed Francisco’s musicianship to higher levels was none other than the above-mentioned Morales, who had returned to Spain in 1545 following a ten-year stint in the Sistine Chapel choir. After several months’ instruction from Morales, Guerrero was said to be ready to take on a chapelmaster’s role, and indeed he did so on Morales’s recommendation in 1546, at the cathedral of Jaén, some 140 miles east of Seville. This proved a relatively short sojourn: having been granted a leave of absence in August 1549 to visit his family, he returned to Seville as a singer. In 1551 he was offered another maestro de capilla position, this time at Málaga. The chapter at Seville took steps to prevent Guerrero from leaving, however, engaging him immediately to teach the choristers and promising him the chapelmastership upon its renunciation by the already rather aged Pedro Fernández. Unfortunately for the younger man, Fernández, who had been in post since 1514 and was thus certainly over sixty at this point, survived another twenty-three years. Guerrero stayed the course, though, finally becoming maestro de capilla on 9 March 1574. In the meantime he had begun to publish his compositions, with volumes appearing in Venice, Seville (one of the earliest music prints in Spain), Leuven and Paris during these years. No other domestically based Iberian composer of the time managed such wide distribution of his work.

Guerrero’s accession to the chapelmastership did not result in an entirely quiet life for the remainder of his career. In 1579 he was granted a year’s leave in order to travel to Rome; he took a great deal more time than this, but eventually arrived in October 1581 and while there arranged to have a book of Masses and another of Vesper music printed. The Mass book would include Missa Ecce sacerdos magnus, even though its use of an external text (see discussion below) sat uneasily with the prescriptions of the new (Tridentine) Roman Use, which had been adopted in Seville in 1575—despite this, the practice persisted across the Iberian peninsula for several decades more. This Mass was dedicated to Pope Gregory XIII (r1572-85), to whom Guerrero was able to present the book during his visit. He reported in a letter to the chapter back home that the Pope had asked him detailed questions concerning the cathedral foundation at Seville, and in particular its finances.

Guerrero also made one highly significant voyage in the later part of his life, namely a pilgrimage to Jerusalem (an account of which he published in a book which continued to be reprinted well into the seventeenth century, and to which we owe much of our knowledge of his life). In 1588 he successfully petitioned the Seville chapter to accompany the Archbishop, Cardinal Rodrigo de Castro (1523-1600), on a trip to Rome. Guerrero thence travelled to Venice where he arranged publication of more compositions: a book of motets and another of Canciones y villanescas espirituales, which were printed there by Giacomo Vincenti the following year. Leaving Venice on 14 August 1588, he reached the Holy Land and visited many Biblical sites, returning on 9 January 1589, but only after having been ambushed twice by pirates, and forced to pay large ransoms. Whether as a result of these depredations, the financial risks of printing his music, or both, Guerrero found himself in a debtor’s prison by 1591, from which he was rescued by the chapter, who paid 280 ducats (nearly a year’s salary) to his creditors. Meanwhile the cathedral had appointed the composer Alonso Lobo (1555-1617) as master of the choristers, a duty which Guerrero had held alongside that of maestro de capilla, but had struggled to fulfil even before his financial problems became overwhelming. After Guerrero’s death, Lobo was to return to Seville in 1604 to take up the more senior role, having been chapelmaster at the primatial cathedral of Toledo from 1593.

Perhaps surprisingly given the unwelcome turn of events during his first voyage, Guerrero was hoping to return to the Holy Land in 1599, but instead fell victim to a plague that swept through Seville that summer. He was buried in the Antigua chapel of the cathedral, with the honours of a prebendary on account of his lengthy service.

from notes by Stephen Rice © 2023


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