Fourteen pages of program notes and translations! As I waded through the tome before the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild’s concert by the august Waverly Consort, I thought I might be the only audience member with even the faintest idea of what they were about, and that knowledge took me I won’t say how many years of graduate school to acquire. In a program entitled ¡Ibéria! – Una Comedia de la Vida (A comedy of life), director Michael Jaffee put together an extremely varied and complex program designed to give a taste of nearly every genre of Spanish and Portuguese music from the time of the Reconquista (1492) to the mid-seventeenth century. There was something for everyone: instrumental pieces, songs for solo voice and vocal ensemble, somber religious motets, secular music for knights and peasants, Sephardic ballads, “Latin rhythms” and even a musical farce in costume.

It was a tall order and Jaffee made it more complicated by cramming the whole program into the structure of the Spanish comedia. The three-act comedia was a popular entertainment in the seventeenth century for which its most famous playwright, Lope de Vega, wrote over 500 separate works. If listeners were occasionally turned off by racist sounding content, they should understand that one of the chief themes of the comedias was illicit love and revenge, a Spanish obsession that was code for maintaining sangre limpia (pure blood, untainted be Jewish, Moorish or Indian genes). Spain’s xenophobia transformed into art has always placed it on the fringes of mainstream European high culture, and Sunday’s audience was unlikely to know much about Iberian literature or music except for a passing acquaintance with Cervantes’s Don Quixote . As a result, the theatrical conceit of the program was pretty obscure and not necessary to a program replete with so much unfamiliar material.

The Waverly Consort has always given a special prominence to Iberian music and was one of the first early music groups to record Las Cantigas de Santa María, one of the masterpieces of the Spanish Middle Ages. They were also one of the first to brave the disapproval of conservative medieval musicologists by providing creative improvised instrumental accompaniments to vocal works-often comprising as little as a single musical line in the original manuscripts-that highlighted the North African and Arab influence on Spanish music.

There were two ways to approach the concert: to sit back and listen to wonderful and accessible music combining voices and original instruments, beautifully performed; or to try to follow along with the meticulously detailed program notes. Unfortunately, the latter approach was often necessary in order to get an even minimal understanding of the significance of the music, causing for some sensory and intellectual overload.

The continuity of the first half of the program was difficult to follow and was overly contrived. It opened with three “lower class” dance songs. One was a “creative reconstruction” of a song from Lope de Vega’s play San Diego del Alcalá set in the Canary Islands, utilizing the characteristic rhythmic patterns of the colony’s indigenous music. Also in this segment were two ciaconas , a dance with an ever changing melody over a short repeating bass line thought to be derived from the music of African slaves in the New World. These slaves, incidentally, became popular as dancing teachers, especially in Peru because of their “sense of rhythm” (Yes, the stereotype is that old!) The musical descendents of the ciacona include Bach’s Chaconne in the d minor Partita for unaccompanied violin. All of the above works were offered as the equivalent of the traditional loa , or “warm-up music,” to a comedia .

“Act 1” comprised music with texts based on old Spanish romances-the stuff that robbed Don Quixote of his sanity. But without at least a superficial knowledge of these romances and medieval epics such as The Song of Roland , it was better to listen to the beautiful performance without bothering to make sense of the program notes. Two movements from a mass by Cristobal de Morales whose cantus firmus in the tenor is based on a secular song based on one of these romances finished the “Act.”

An entremés, or interlude, was jam-packed with still more unfamiliar types and genres of music: more earthy fare this time, including instrumental diferencias (variations) on popular songs and a servant’s comic tirade (a precursor of Leporello’s “Catalogue Aria”) from an opera by one of the Golden Age’s most famous playwrights, Calderón de la Barca. The instrumental music was expertly played, despite the poor harpist’s losing battle to keep her instruments in tune, and in keeping with the Consort’s long career of creating wonderful and courageous instrumental accompaniments. A side benefit to this program was that the audience was treated to perhaps its first glimpse of the Spanish line of original instruments, including the vilhuela , an ancestor of the guitar that retains the fancy inlay work of the lute.

The second half of the program, “Acts II and III,” was easier to follow since it did not require any previous familiarity with the culture. “Act II” consisted of Portuguese religious music for Holy Week, examples of a repertory even less known than that of its neighbor to the east. Also included were several Ladino (the Spanish-based equivalent of Yiddish) ballads, recalling the once rich culture of pluralistic Spain. These ballads are steeped in the melodic modes we now associate with flamenco but which originated in Moorish North African music.

“Act III” presented Christmas music from Portugal, including an example of a fascinating New World genre, the guineo, songs parodying Africans trying to speak Spanish or Portuguese and imitating African dance rhythms. The first guineo “Sã qui turo zente plete” called all black people to celebrate Christmas. And lest we leave the concert without some real theater, the final work was a mojiganga , a piece that often ended a comedia. For their mojiganga, the singers paraded on stage wearing bizarre masks and carrying colored streamers to perform another Portuguese guineo, “Antoniya flaciquia Gasipà” about poor little Antoniya who becomes so drunk she gets a headache and can’t play King Caspar in the Epiphany play.

Waverly presented a rich and varied program-perhaps too rich. For those audience members who attempted to keep up with the enormous amount of new literary and musicological information crammed into those 14 pages of notes, it may have been overwhelming, even distracting, from the real focus, the music itself. That being said, these wonderful performers gave us a glimpse of an entire culture that has been virtually inaccessible except to musicologists and hispanists.