Ensemble Constantinople

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Program: #21-22   Air Date: May 24, 2021

It has been a while since we heard from the Montreal-based early music and middle eastern music ensemble; this week, the middle ages, and two from the New World.

Note: All of the music on this program is from the ensemble Constantinople. For more information about this group: https://constantinople.ca/en/home/the-ensemble/


I. Premiers Songes—Early Dreams. Analekta CD AN 2 9989.

Constantinople, Francois Atlan - Early Dreams - Amazon.com Music

The Early Dreams project represents both a return to the source and a rebirth for Constantinople. It is the start of a new cycle.

The group was born ten years ago around a meeting of the sonorous, musical and cultural worlds of two instruments—the setar and the European lute—the first, monodic and drawing melodic contours around the latter’s bass lines and harmonic patterns. This dialogue was complemented by the virtuoso percussion work of Ziya Tabassian and the rich sound of the viola da gamba, which can take on the roles of both bass instrument and solo voice. Since its inception, the ensemble has travelled the world to explore new projects arising out of unique musical encounters between old manuscripts and living musical traditions. Driven by a constant desire to renew itself through creation, the group’s projects draw from existing material while leaving room for informed improvisation.

This new cycle begins with Early Dreams, in which the setar, the Baroque guitar, percussion instruments and the viola da gamba mingle with the voice of our long-time collaborator Françoise Atlan over the ostinato bass lines of Spanish and Mexican diferencias from the Baroque era. We used these bass lines, drawn primarily from the works of Lucas Ruis de Ribayaz (c.1626–c.1667) and Santiago de Murcia (c.1682–c.1740), two Spanish instrumentalists and composers whose works were widely played in 17th- and 18th-century Mexico, as a starting point to recreate both instrumental and vocal works.

As part of this re-creation process, we immersed ourselves in the cultural essence of this promising New World and went to the heart of Baroque-era Mexico in search of what had fashioned the spirit of composers from the period: the fabric of the music, some written works, the grandeur of its cathedrals, and the treasures of its libraries.

The cultural context of Mexico of that time is fascinating. There is clearly a strong Spanish influence on the society and as a result on the repertoire. Yet, Baroque Mexican culture stands out from its Spanish cousin by its religious and cultural syncretism. A major intellectual figure symbolizes the spirit of the entire period for both Mexico and Spain: Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648–1695), the first great Latin American poetess.

We were overwhelmed by her impassioned poetry and texts, and the musicality of her writing made us want to bring it to life again. A highly intellectual figure, Sor (sister) Juana Inés de la Cruz also composed music and was an undisputedly talented singer. However, her scores and compositions have not survived. To remedy this situation, we selected some of her poems and set them to music over known bass lines of the period. As part of this (re)creation project, we teamed up with Canadian composer Michael Oesterle and invited him to write a piece. Sharing our fascination for the poetry and time of Sor Juana, he composed Tres sonetos, a very personal reading of this famous scholar’s work.

Throughout this creative process, we kept an image of Sor Juana playing and singing her poems over these ostinato bass lines in our hearts. Françoise Atlan, performing Baroque repertoire for the first time, lends her warm and unique voice to the project. Actively involved in the creative process and a veritable restorer of a flamboyant past, she devoted her remarkable talent to the service of this key literary and intellectual figure’s poems. The virtuosic dialogues between the Baroque guitar, the Persian setar, the viola da gamba and the percussion instruments also recreate a unique sound, one that is characteristic of our group. It’s a sound that is both ancient and modern, tinged with Mediterranean and Middle-eastern sonorities, this time with a daring gaze toward the New World, nourished with respect and admiration for one of the most celebrated women scholars of New Spain, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

The life of Sor Juana is relatively well known in spite of the normal uncertainties given the three centuries and the geographical distance separating her time and place from our own. Our modern fascination with Sor Juana could be explained by the uniqueness of her personality – an indispensable source of information is her biography written by the Mexican man of letters and diplomat Octavio Paz (1941–1998), winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1990. However, the primary source remains Sor Inés’ own autobiography, entitled Respuesta a Sor Filotea (Reply to Sister Filotea), published in 1691, and virulently criticized in intellectual circles. Juana Inés de Asbaje y Ramírez de Santillana, who was born in San Miguel Nepantla, in Mexico (New Spain at the time), in 1651 (some researchers say 1648) and died in Mexico City in 1695, seems to have been the illegitimate daughter of an adventurer who never admitted his paternity and a landed woman who never married. In a world where women were not allowed access to knowledge, and in particular a formal education, the young Inés demonstrated spectacularly precocious intellectual gifts (she wrote her first text at the age of seven) and rose up against prejudice by devising a scheme to disguise herself as a man in order to attend university. Although her plan failed, her mother sent her to Mexico City in 1664, and her remarkable talents eventually drew the attention of the court of Marquis de Mancera, Viceroy of Mexico, who was charmed by this) rare instance, for the time, of a female poet, and one with such a sweet and likable nature. She soon became a lady-in-waiting of the viceroy’s wife and proved to be just as brilliant in philosophy, theology, mathematics and astronomy, not to mention music, as she was in literature. She wrote with great relish, setting down poems, plays and texts to be sung at church—the popular villancicos so typical of Spanish music and essential components of the Empire’s great religious feasts. Her only interest being in the arts and sciences, Juana knew full well that the monastic world would allow her to dedicate herself entirely to these pursuits. Her first attempt to enter a Carmelite convent failed, but in 1669, she was successful and turned her back on the lavish court life and took the veil, becoming Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz at the monastery of Jeronimas de Puebla, where she continued to write and fascinate her compatriots throughout the world. At the monastery, Sor Inés was free to develop her immense intelligence and devote herself to her love of literature.

What makes her œuvre so interesting is undoubtedly the numerous perspectives under which she is considered. Some see her as the ultimate expression of a certain Spanish classicism, others as incarnating the first expression of a true American identity. There are convincing justifications for either interpretation. Hence, her poem “Primer Sueño” (Early Dream), which describes the dreamlike voyages of the human soul, falls into a tradition of Spanish literature whose most obvious representative is Luis de Góngora (1561–1627), while her plays cannot but display her admiration for Calderón. But as Octavio Paz writes, numerous works, including “Primer Sueño,” are influenced by the Hermetic, mystical tradition of the Jesuit Athanasius Kircher. The polemics arising from her Reply to Sister Filotea clearly illustrate the problems raised by the existence of such a brilliant woman. A response to a letter attacking her for her focus on literature and the sciences and suggesting that she instead concentrate on theology, Sor Inés’ Reply is a remarkable text on the recognition of women in society of the day. It also takes a run at the inordinate power of the Inquisition, a sign that her personality, so highly appreciated by her contemporaries, also had an opinionated and determined side. Defending the place of women in society, Sor Inés was also a fervent advocate of other victims of social prejudice: She viewed prostitutes with a sympathetic regard and was also among the voices standing up for black slaves and aboriginals in Spanish territories. However, the Reply attracted the wrath of the Archbishop of Mexico, who condemned Sor Juana’s “waywardness.” She resolved to stop writing rather than submit to censure.

In the end, only a small portion of Sor Inés’ œuvre, collected today under the title Complete Works, has survived, a quarter of it consisting of religious songs. Legend has it that her writings were saved by the Mexican viceroy’s wife herself, evidence that Sor Inés’ unique voice had echoed deeply among her entourage. Similarly, we now know that her texts were set to music for over a century (until the 1780s) by the most important composers of South America, though her poetry was “adapted” to local practices. It is moving to hear a voice in the struggle for liberty—a voice snuffed out by its suffocating era—sing out once again over the span of the centuries.

  1. Marionas, 3:57
  2. Premiers songes, 3:08
  3. Detente, sombra de mi bien esquivo, 4:05
  4. Traigo conmigo un cuidado, 4:16
  5. Pabanas, 2:32
  6. Las fuentes mi voz socorran, 4:20
  7. La Petenera / La Serena, 3:03
  8. Tres Sonetos: En que satisface un recelo con la retórica del Ilanto (Soneto 164), 3:10
  9. Tres Sonetos: Escoge antes el morir que exponerse a los ultrajes de la vejez (Soneto 148), 3:46
  10. Tres Sonetos: Que contiene una fantasía contenta con amor decente (Soneto 165), 3:22
  11. Afuera, afuera, ansias mias, 6:00
  12. Canarios, 3:35
  13. Fandango, 5:07
  14. Paradetas, 1:38
  15. Prolija memoria, 4:12
  16. Las vacas, 2:21

II. Li tans nouveaus. Atma CD ACD 2 2290.

The present recording proposes a repertoire of songs whose poetry and music are the work of troubadours and trouvères active in 12th- and 13th-century France. This repertoire represents the earliest surviving medieval examples of song written in the vernacular. The troubadour (trobador) and the trouvère (troveor) were literally seekers, finders, inventers, composers of music and words. The troubadour was the first to appear; he was like the trouvère, at once poet, musician, singer, and composer. He wrote in the langue d’oc (an old language from Occitanie). He could be found as of the late 11th century in the courts of south-ern France and he was well acquainted with poetry of the highest order. He could be from any social class: the nobility, the clergy, the great merchant families; he could as well have been a knight as of humble origins. Some were great travellers, accompanying the crusaders to free the Holy Land, or visiting various European courts, especially those of Spain, Italy, and Hungary. Nearly forty manuscripts contain the poems of the troubadours, but there are principally two that have pre-served the music. Half of all these documents come from Italy, a land both of exchange and of exile for the troubadours. Unfortunately, these manuscripts rep-resent only a fraction of the works of these great poet–musicians. Their trace is lost at the outset of the 14th century. The art of the troubadours was at its peak when in the north of France, toward the end of the 12th century, there resonated for the first time the words and music of the trouvères. To a certain extent, they imitated the poetry and music of the troubadours, but they also boasted their own, distinct forms. The manuscripts of the trouvères have come down to us in much greater number than those of their southern cousins. In these documents, not only does the music almost always accompany texts written in langue d’oïl (Old French), but also the same music is often found associated with different poems and vice versa. The trouvères disappeared during the course of the 14th century

These two musical civilizations came into contact in various manners. It is not easy to pinpoint the precise reasons that favoured their meeting, but we know that Éléonore of Aquitaine was surrounded by artists and troubadours at her court of Poitiers. Éléonore’s two daughters, Marie and Aelis—one of whom was married to Henri 1st of Champagne and the other to Thibaut de Blois—must certainly have inspired the love of courtly poetry in their entourage, and they took several trouvères under their wing in addition to welcoming travelling troubadours. The estampie is one of the earliest recorded examples of dance music performed on instruments during the Middle Ages. The etymology of the term is uncertain. Several hypotheses have been proposed: it may stem from the Latin stampare, which refers to the movement of the foot when it marks the downbeat of a dance; or from the verb estampir (Old Provençal), which means “to resound”; or again from the Germanic stamphor stampon, which describes the striking sound of apestle in a mortar. What imagination! According to an early 14th-century theorist, the estampieis made up of several sections (punctum). A section is a melodic phrase of varying length consisting of ascending and descending lines that com-bine harmoniously. Each section is repeated, with two different melodic endings. The fist is known as the overt oraperto, the second as the clausumorchiuso. Sixteen estampies have come down to us: eight from a late 13th-centuryFrench manuscript and eight from a late 14th-century Italian manuscript. In the present recording, the royal estampies are associated with the repertoire of the trouvères, on account of their designation, their style, and the manuscript from which they come. Several of the written elements in the source point to a possible origin in the north of France. And although the dances and estampies that come from Italian manuscripts date from after the time of the troubadours, their character and melodic beauty harmonize marvellously with this repertoire.


Danca Amorosa
Istanpitta In Pro
La Septime Estampie
La quinte estampie real

Couci, Le Chastelain de

Li noviaus tens

Dijon, Guiot de

Chanterai por mon coraige

Ross, Guy

Magdalena, Hermins

Soignies, Gontier de

Li tans nouveaus

Vidal, Peire

Pois tornatz sui em Proensa


III. Terra Nostra. Atma CD ACD 2 2567.

Terra nostra 1

Continuing its explorations of Mediterranean music, after recording Que le Yable les emporte!!!, a CD of the music of Nouvelle France, Constantinople now returns to the Americas and, once again, infiltrates a zone of culture shock. This time it’s the Gulf of Mexico, the ‘new Mediterranean’, a Caribbean space in which Indian, European, Mediterranean, and African influences have openly mixed and fused. 

Terra nostra! With Terra nostra we set off again in a quest for deep links between the world of early written sources and that of living oral traditions. The combination of the rich heritage of 17th-century Mexico with the effervescence of Mexico today has given birth to a new music in which traditional monophony mixes with improvised polyphony. The tradition of son Jarocho is anchored in the instrumental forms that one can find in the Spanish and Mexican manuscripts of the 17th and 18th centuries. 

 An example of these sources is Luz y norte, a collection of some 100 instrumental pieces played in the New World that the Spaniard Lucas Ruiz de Ribayaz (1650 - ?) published after spending several years in Mexico. Jarocho is, in fact, an art form that expresses responses in both music and poetry to a multitude of shocks, of which the first was the arrival of Cortez in Veracruz. This region of what later became known as Mexico was then home to Indians with a strong, thousand-year-old culture. The music that the Spanish brought (with gypsy, European art, and Portuguese fado influences) began to mix not only with the traditional music of the local natives, but also with African influences from the Caribbean.

It was during one of our many trips to Mexico that an archival recording entitled Son de Veracruz fell into our hands. We fell completely in love with this music the very first time we heard this old record. We set out to learn more about son Jarocho and soon, in the virtual reality of email, met José Angel Gutierrez, one of the pillars of this musical tradition. After discussing our project Terra nostra with him, we went to meet him at his home in Lerdo de Tejada, a village in Veracruz.

I feel that this meeting was the result of both chance and destiny. Chance, because no one every really introduced us to each other; it was the unexpected discovery of some texts on the music of José Angel Gutierrez and some audio tracks that spurred me to get in touch with him, and thus began our dialogue. Destiny, because when we played together for the first time, José Angel said that he had been waiting for almost 40 years for such an encounter! The Terra nostra project was born from our desire to go off and meet others in the New World, to get lost in their rich musical tradition and to feel linked byt his music to their land. For years, José Angel had been trying to do the same thing, but in the opposite direction: to go looking for the roots of his music in Andalusia, the Mediterranean, and the East. One can thus think of our meeting and the music that comes from it as having being planned in the mysterious universal labyrinth of chance.

  1. LUCAS RUIZ DE RIBAYAZ Xaracas El Cascabel (SON JAROCHO), 9:03
  1. La Petenera (SON JAROCHO), 7:27 
  1. LUCAS RUIZ DE RIBAYAZ Españoletas, 5:08
  1. El fandanguito (SON JAROCHO), 6:38
  1. GASPAR SANZ (1640-1710) Folia (1674) LUCAS RUIZ DE RIBAYAZ Folia, 2:48
  1. Jota (ANONYME, 1705) El pájaro cú (SON JAROCHO), 6:56

Composer Info

Lucas Ruis de Ribayaz (c.1626–c.1667), Santiago de Murcia (c.1682–c.1740), Michael Oesterle, Le Chastelain de Couci, Guiot de Dijon, Guy Ross, Gontier de Soignies, Paul-Antoine Vidal, GASPAR SANZ (1640-1710), JOSÉ ANGEL GUTIERREZ

CD Info

Analekta CD AN 2 9989, Atma CD ACD 2 2290, Atma CD ACD 2 2567