Musical jailbirds

The choir was split up into quartets, and rehearsed Guerrero in the round.

The choir was split up into quartets, and rehearsed Guerrero in the round.

This Sunday, the Lutheran Church of Honolulu Choir will be singing two motets by the Spanish Renaissance composer, Francisco Guerrero (1528-1599), Canite tuba (Blow the trumpet in the new moon) and Rorate caeli desuper (Drop down dew, ye heavens, from above).


Francisco Guerrero, 1528-1599

In an earlier post, I wrote about Guerrero’s being a musical prodigy, but I failed to mention that Guerrero had lots of misadventures while on a trip to the Holy Land. His ship was twice attacked by pirates who stole his money and held him captive. Apparently his ransom was paid because he returned to Spain, but he had no money. For awhile he was held in debtors’ prison (wow, are there such things anymore?) which led me to think about other musicians who were jailed for one reason or another.

Did you know that Johann Sebastian Bach was put in prison? It happened when he was employed by the Duke at Weimar, a time when much of his organ music was written. But when the Capellmeister Johann Samuel Drese died, and Bach was passed over for a mediocre musician, he inquired about a job at Cöthen. When the Duke found out that Bach had applied for another job, Bach was arrested and thrown into jail for a month.

Oliver Messiaen, 1908-1992

Oliver Messiaen, 1908-1992

Another musician who found himself in prison was Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), a twentieth-century French composer who wrote “Quartet for the End of Time” while a war prisoner in 1941, and captured by the Germans during the invasion of 1940. The interesting story about this incident was that a fellow inmate produced a concert program for the occasion, which was officially stamped as approved. Apparently the German captors were in the audience and according to Rebecca Rischinm, Messiaen won the hearts of soldiers in this performance on “dilapidated instruments including a three-stringed cello.” You can read a fascinating account of the circumstances of this piece by clicking this link. Rischin says none of this would have happened had it not been for the cooperation of a music-loving guard, Karl-Albert Brüll, who supplied him with pencils, erasers and music paper.

Of course, the question is, was the fact that these musicians were imprisoned a factor in their writing music? Did music become an outlet for creative composition in the midst of disparaging circumstances? We don’t know whether Guerrero or Bach ever wrote music in prison — and I’m guessing probably not, in contrast to Olivier Messiaen who wrote the Quartet for the End of Time.

In the meantime, I found a YouTube video of Canite tuba by Francis Guerrero, which you can watch below.

About Katherine Crosier

In addition to playing the organ I am interested in documenting life's special moments through journaling, scrapbooking, photography and slideshow production. My family just groans.
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