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Music credit: 'Arde el furor intrépido' with La Orquesta Barroca de Sevilla under Diego Fasolis.
Opening image credit: 'In the Garden of the Alcazar, Seville, 1893', Elgood, George Samuel (1851-1943) / Private Collection / Photo Copyright: Chris Beetles Ltd, London / The Bridgeman Art Library.
Renaissance and Baroque Seville was a place of prosperity and dynamism, and as a consequence the arts flourished. Musicians and composers in particular found many eager patrons, and the city became a centre of music the equal of anywhere
Seville was the principal Spanish gateway to the Americas in the century following Christopher Columbus’s 1492 voyage of discovery. Transatlantic conquest, pillage, trade and colonisation led to sudden and massive increase in wealth. Hopes of adventure and enrichment attracted the ambitious, the enterprising and the talented from all over Spain, and beyond.
The state was deeply involved from the beginning, licensing the entrepreneurs, organising security, administering the colonies and collecting taxes. As a principal residence of the kings of Spain and location of a lumbering bureaucracy, Seville became the de facto capital of the country – and this at a time when it was becoming the dominant power in Europe.
This was not the first period during which Seville basked in prosperity and cultural sophistication. While most of the rest of Europe was enveloped in the Dark Ages, an enlightened civilization thrived here under four hundred years of Arab rule. And for generations after the conquest by Christians in 1248, Mudéjar artists, musicians and craftsmen dominated the higher arts.
This festival is a journey from Islamic, Jewish and Christian music of mediaeval Spain, through the musical glories of Seville’s Golden Age, to the works of Spanish composers of the early 20th century, so heavily influenced by Andalusian culture. Leading exponents of Spanish early music – from Spain, Britain and Morocco – perform in a variety of beautiful historic buildings.
Matching music with place – that is the raison d’etre of this festival. Carefully planned with regard to pace, balance, musical type and architecture, the experience is enhanced with talks, dinners, optional visits and the company of like-minded fellow participants.
The kernel of Seville consists of a clutch of major buildings – among them the cathedral, largest church in the world, and the Alcázar, citadel and royal residence – linked by a sequence of ceremonial plazas. But tracts of the centre more resemble a small Andalusian town than a city once at the forefront of European affairs.
A dense network of alleys and tiny squares abut great edifices of church and state. Tendrils of narrow streets curl haphazardly towards the periphery, some flanked by whitewashed buildings of only two or three storeys. The strident sunlight is filtered through ironwork balconies and the pot plants which festoon them, and through emaciated doorways there are glimpses of tiled patios and lush greenery, and the sound of gently splashing water.
Seville is a city of birdsong. Orange trees line avenues and squares, palms and evergreens give shade in roadside havens. Extensive parks reach right to the city centre, ponds and fountains are never far away.
Teeming, cacophonous, a kaleidoscope of colour, Seville is a city of the south. Life is geared to the fierce heat of the summer, with darkened rooms, ubiquitous tiles and long siestas. There is a degree of denial about the chilly winters. By May summer is just beginning, meaning daytime temperatures should be pleasantly warm.
Sevillians are not noted for their friendliness or subservience, many being among the last living embodiments of traditional Spanish grandeza. On the other hand Seville is famous for displays of passion with its extravagant and flamboyant fiestas, magnificent religious processions and the gritty intensity of flamenco (vitiated by staging, so we have not laid on a performance in this festival; we can point you to the backstreet bars for a more authentic experience).
Seville has the finest museum of Spanish art outside Madrid, superb and varied architecture, fabulously endowed churches, hauntingly picturesque vistas. Though tourists abound, very few stay more than a couple of days, leaving to you the luxury of prolonged exposure and the gentle acquisition of familiarity with a living, pulsating, becalmed, evocative and very real city.