Here is another episode from the series ‘Every song has a story so why not tell it’. Today we’re going to Spain. Olé.
Springtime Quiz! How many May Songs are there? Hundreds, I guess. They are usually very merry; but one particularly melancholy one is the Spanish ‘Por mayo era, por mayo’ (‘When it was in May, in May’) and I would like to draw your attention to this one. Por Mayo was written sometime during the 16th century. However the words are older, taken from a poem that has been famous over the centuries, to today. The song is also known as The romance of the prisoner, and the lyrics in translation go a bit like this:

When it was the month of May, oh… of May
When it was hot and sunny
When all the men went out to serve their ladies
Knights and workmen alike going out and flirting

While I, poor wretch, only know the night from the day
By the warbling of the little bird
That sings to me from a nearby branch outside my dungeon
Everyone goes out to serve the god of love
Except me who, sad and troubled, is perishing in this prison.

The mournful melody is set to a surprisingly strong and steady rhythm, hypnotizing and fascinating. Depending on which version you look up on the internet, one can dance and/or add a drum beat to it.

I always think it’s a miracle that so many old songs have survived the centuries and that we can just download from the internet all those five hundred years’ and more of music. ‘The romance of the prisoner’ was preserved because it was part of a songbook that was printed for the Spanish court, famously called Cancionero de Palacio and containing a staggering five hundred songs. And this is where poetry and reality strangely touch because at that court, there was a princess called Juana and her fate was to become just what the poem is foreshadowing: to be a prisoner…

Juana sadly entered into history as ‘Juana la Loca’ (loco means crazy). She was born in Toledo in the late 15th century. The young princess was said to be a very intelligent* young lady. She was married off to Philip the Handsome who was king of Flanders and other bits of Europe and, well, handsome. It was said they hit it off really well. They produced no less than six children who all survived, which is rather amazing for those days, I mean that they survived.

When her brother died, Juana became official heiress to the Spanish throne. Not long after that she became Queen when she lost her mother, leaving her father Ferdinand grumbling because with his eldest son and wife dead, he had lost his kingly status. Coincidentally at that period, rumours about Juana’s mental health grew stronger. A lovely opportunity not only for her dad (who had coins minted saying ‘Ferdinand and Juana, King and Queen of Spain’) but also for her husband (who also had coins minted saying ‘Philip and Juana, King and Queen of Spain’).

*) Let’s see…what was the girl good at? Here is a little list. Civil law, genealogy and heraldry, grammar, history, Spanish, Castilian, Leonese, Galician-Portuguese, French, Catalan, Latin, mathematics. Also she was great at dancing, horse riding, drawing, embroidery, sewing, hawking and hunting, and she could pick a mean tune on the clavichord, the guitar and the monochord. Added to that, she was a natural beauty. Some girls have all the luck. Girls? Luck? Not in those days. Remember, that great Age of Enlightenment in which we could all do what we … anyway, as terminology has it: The Renaissance man. There you are.

We will leave it to Shakespeare to work out those and other details in a play called ‘Joanna the Mad’ and keep the story short for now. Juana was 25 years old when she was declared unfit to rule and locked away in a convent. It was there that some miniature copies from songs of the royal songbook were manufactured, and survived as a separate little booklet. I like to think that it contained Juana’s favorite songs from the 500 Best Of The Spanish Court Songbook she had known as a Queen, and from which court musicians had performed for her when she was not yet the mad woman in the attic. Perhaps Juana played her nun caretakers in the convent a few of the songs, saying, ‘Can you send me someone to copy these out on paper? They are my favorites, you know. I’m sure that Sister Infatigata can write them for me, she has a good ear and such a knack for calligraphy. Do send her in some day.’

As far as we know, Por Mayo is not included in Juana’s little private cancionero. But the poignant words of the poem seem suitable to the Queen: the tragic fate of a woman who was proclaimed mad because it was convenient to some. Historians have suggested that maybe she suffered from melancholia, or depression, or schizophrenia. This is the part that makes me mad. Of course she was depressed! How would you feel if you had to live in constant fear of conspiracies and poisoned drinks, being only twenty-odd years old, trying to rule a plague-ridden country on the brink of civil war, having lost your brother and mother at an early age, enjoying very little support because of very efficient slander, faced with a hostile father and throne-hungry husband, and perhaps – since you were intelligent – having premonitions about what they were planning for you?
In other words – what does it do to you knowing that you have been a prisoner to start with?

Writing this, I wish I never read about Juana in the first place. Her story is simply too sad. And she lived to be 75 years old. However, as the Buddhists say, get over what happened but remember the lesson. There are a lot of lessons in this story, but let’s stick to the simplest lesson: ‘To celebrate the 500 years survival of the Cancionero de Palacio, we should perform the canciones in it.’

Already six of them are on my repertoire. Sing, choristers, sing!

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