Voices from the 17th Century: Pietro Cerone Criticizes the Villancico



An Italian theorist, priest, and singer, Pietro Cerone can be called a controversial figure, the object of scorn and emulation, in Spanish music history (over several periods, mind you).

When you look at Cerone’s biography, the focal point for his notoriety seems to be the treatise El melopeo y maestro… (1613), a tome on music theory and composition that essentially reflected his conservative view of Renaissance musical practice. Written in Spanish, the treatise is a massive beast containing nearly eight-hundred and fifty chapters and over eleven-hundred pages.

Among the many topics covered by Cerone is vocal music in church, giving him the opportunity to discuss his likes and dislikes. One of his pet peeves is the appropriateness of the villancico, a vernacular form that was unique to the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking world.

“I don’t want to state that the villancico is bad, because it’s heard within every church in Spain. In any case, it doesn’t appear that you could have the ideal solemnity that accompanies it, if there weren’t any. Moreover, I don’t want to say that it’s always a good thing; the villancico doesn’t move us to devotion, but distracts us from it; particularly, those villancicos that have a diversity of languages…

In listening to a Portuguese man and then to a Vizcaíno, now to an Italian and then a German, first a gypsy and then an African, what possible effect can such music have but to force listeners (even though they don’t want to) into laughter and scoff? And turn the Church of God into a comedy theater? And a house of prayer into a recreation room? That all of this be the truth, there are people who lack such devotion, who (in a manner of speaking) do not enter church once a year; and those who, perhaps, miss a lot of Mass on required days, through mere laziness, because they can’t get out of bed.

And on knowing that there will be villancicos, scarcely do you have more devotional people, nor more observant, than these. They leave no church, altar, or devotional unattended; nor are troubled by getting out of bed at midnight, in spite of the cold, in order to listen to them.”

(Translation: Bernard Gordillo)

Learn More: What’s a villancico?

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