Musical conquistador

Dallas' Grover Wilkins uncovers the lost music of old Spain

There wasn't a full orchestra score in the Seville files, so Wilkins couldn't use it for the concert. But he was convinced one existed somewhere, perhaps in Madrid. He photocopied the priceless Seville parts and went back to the Royal Palace in Madrid, asked for the piece by name, and, lo and behold, it was there--in score version.

Wilkins suspected that there might also be music by other important composers there, and he discovered manuscripts by Francisco Courcelle, maestro de capilla at the Royal Palace for 40 years, and another composer, Jose de Nebra. Wilkins chose several pieces to copy and bring back, along with some pieces he found at El Escorial, the autumn palace of the royal family located about 30 minutes outside Madrid. There he found a number of villancicos--Spanish Christmas carols--and works by the keyboard composer Antonio Soler.

Back in Dallas, Wilkins hired 40 early-music instrumentalists from a local pool of musicians, and the first cathedral concert took place on September 10, 1989, during the Meyerson opening festivities. The cathedral, Wilkins recalls, was standing-room-only. The music was successful, but "the important thing is that the hunches I had were correct," Wilkins says. "I knew there had to be something there. Spain just didn't drop off the map at the end of the 16th century.

"When I looked at those pieces--especially the music of Courcelle and Soler--it was obvious this was important stuff," Wilkins continues. "But until you actually play it, you don't know what the public's going to think; what the musicians are going to think. The response all the way around was very, very positive."

Why hadn't anybody played this music in 200 years? Why was it just sitting there? Wilkins points out that musicology didn't become a respectable science until this century. While the discipline was coming into its own in other parts of Europe, Spain was under the rule of Franco; many scholars fled his dictatorship. It wasn't until Franco died in 1975 that musicologists in Spain--mostly priests--began to feel comfortable doing their work. They had a new generation to educate, so the Spanish early-music movement is only now starting to take shape.

However, Wilkins says, there's nobody else doing what he's doing. "There are in Spain and France today some efforts to work on some repertory, but we are really attacking the masterworks of the 18th century in Spain that have lain dormant for 250 years like nobody else in the world...These works represent perhaps the last major musical discovery of the 20th century, a discovery that adds significantly to the repertory of Western music and has most timely social and cultural implications in the U.S."

After the success of that first concert back in 1989, Wilkins made a commitment to do four more during the following four years while obtaining, editing, and for the first time publishing major orchestral-choral works from his Spanish manuscripts. The Orchestra of New Spain was formed in 1989 to perform these works with period instrumentalists and choir, and its 1996-'97 season--which opens November 21--consists of seven concerts.

In addition to the Guadalupe Cathedral, the orchestra performs at various other venues, including churches, art galleries, and private homes, where it performs music intended for small salons. This season includes a four-concert series at the Santa Clara Church in Oak Cliff. "For the first time," Wilkins says, "a North Dallas-based operation is going to Oak Cliff not just for a run-in, run-out concert, but we're actually establishing a presence and a second home in Oak Cliff, where we think this music has a real tradition and cultural affinity for the people who are part of that community."

Concertgoers at Orchestra of New Spain performances also hear familiar pieces from composers of around the same time; the November 21 concert will include Mozart's "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik." A concert in the spring will feature Nebra, Courcelle, and Haydn, placing the music in its historical context. "By playing Courcelle and Haydn, you're playing composers who were writing pieces at exactly the same time for exactly the same size orchestra and--excuse me--Courcelle was doing things in 1750 that Haydn didn't do until 1770!"

Was Courcelle as good a composer as Haydn? "There is some possibility that the operas of Courcelle are better than the operas of Haydn," Wilkins says. "We don't know that, because we haven't played them yet, but the masses are lyrical in a way the Haydn masses never will be. We haven't found any Courcelle symphonies. I don't think he did any, because the Spanish court was so church-oriented that its composers wrote only for the necessities of the liturgy and the spectacle of opera. There weren't many occasions to use symphonic things. I can't say that definitively, because we're still exploring."

It's still an uphill struggle. "In the U.S., let's face it, universities are very conservative places," Wilkins says. "Professors who have spent their lifetime working on Bach want their students to beef up their own fields of interest, so it's self-perpetuating. Meanwhile, there are literally thousands of manuscripts in Spain--including hundreds of first-class works--waiting to be discovered. I've also got 19th-century things that beg to be played, and we're working on ways to do that."

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