El Greco and snails

El Greco and snails (also music, everything is comparable) – Álvaro Zaldívar Gracia © Licanus 2014

Doménikos Theotokópoulos’s musical journey by Capella de Ministrers

Even though the idea seems to have been proposed by Dalí, the talkative genius, to other people, it is Oscar Tusquets, the Barcelona architect and designer, who best retells it at the beginning of his famous collection of essays, published in Barcelona by Anagrama in 1998, which bears that very title: Todo es comparable (“Everything is comparable”).

Inserted to prove “how entertaining it was to eat cargols a la llauna in the Durán [restaurant] at Figueres with Salvador Dalí”, Tusquets starts the remembered dialogue with a witty question/answer by the painter, “Did you realize that snails are like El Greco? Indeed, like Domenicos Theotocopulos who, born in Crete, learns how to paint properly that sort of icons they do over there; but, as soon as he moves to Venice, his admiration for Tiziano and the influence of Tintoretto make him the most Venetian of all Venetians, the most sensual, colourful and expressive painter of the Republic; but then he arrives in Toledo, and suffering a traumatic conversion, turns austere, sober, Old Castilian, the knight with his hand on his breast, with an overflowing mysticism, the most sincere character of the eternal Spain.”

By means of a rhetorical question, Tusquets makes Dalí confirm his suggestive idea in a more rotund way: “Come now, Tusquets, but it is surely evident! What makes El Greco distinct, what makes him an immortal artist, is his absolute lack of personality, his ability to metamorphose like a chamaleon, to absorb the values of his environment with such intensity that, at the end of the day, he turns out to be more genuine than the natives themselves; and what is the culinary virtue of the snails? What has turned them into one of the stars of so much cuisine and a delicacy for gourmets? The absolute lack of a taste of their own, their capacity to absorb the taste of whatever seasoning and to transform themselves into what the cook wishes. And look, when I dig out the snail with my little fork from its shell, see how it lengthens and adopts an appearance very much like that of the saints that levitate in El Greco’s heavens…”

An admirable intellectual exercise that mixes indisputable historical and artistic knowledge with Dalinian surrealist intuition (where sensuality, food and mysticism are more than compatible). It doesn’t really matter if these intuitions —those filiform and naked snails making their way up to the hard palate— may have fused off the former, better and easier to prove by means of watchful musings and essays, since the sum of both constitute, once again, that brilliant judgment by an exceptional artist.


Let us leave behind the always suggestive Figueres painter and, instead, take advantage of this path to enter a territory which has credits enough to justify the selection of some many and different types of music so as to fittingly accompany the fourth centennial of the death of the immortal Cretan painter, in Toledo, in 1614.

If, from the point of view of music, we resituate Dalí’s proposal, we could not obtain a proper musical backdrop for El Greco should we limit ourselves to his lengthy and fruitful stay in Spain; this would represent only one of the “tastes” of our complex recipe and we should also look for echoes of his no less profound ‘Italianisation’. Similarly, it would be impossible to understand El Greco’s complex expressive formula without that Greek root that would always remain with him and would even define his name, that unmistakable “Greek painter” (retaining the original Italian by-name “il greco” finally Hispanised but in the definite article). In consequence, bringing together in a single recording everything we want in order to pay homage to this man who was intertwined with three so different musical threads would have been imposible without the participation of an ensemble as open and versatile as the Capella de Ministrers led by Carles Magraner.

Having recollected, in their thirty-five years plus of artistic career, a stunning roll of authors, styles and periods, interpreted in an alway conscientious and creative way in their different recordings and numerous recitals, Magraner’s musicians have offered incredibly beautiful samples of music from one end of the Mediterranean to the other, from their native eastern Spanish coasts to the Greek ones on the opposite end of the mare nostrum, this ‘sea of ours’. An we should obviously not forget the rich Italian treasures of the Mediterranean centre where, with Venice looking East and Rome looking West, all cultures had their meeting point and wherefrom artistic enterprises set out to colonise the farthest places.

Traditional Greek dances and songs, a penitential hymn about Mary Magdalene, the fallen woman sung by the Constantinopolitan female poet Kasia (9th century) and the ancient Byzantine intonation of the Magnificat (already chosen by Capella de Ministrers to illustrate the voyage of Tirante the White, the chivalry novel of the Valencian Joanot Martorell, telling us the story of one who will put an end to his glorious adventures in Byzantium; or the more recent and feminist tribute entitled La Cité des Dames), all make up the exotic, albeit logical, beginning of this recording which thus, evokes, in its start, the artist son of a Cretan merchant transformed into a reputed painter of hieratical icons.

It is also an excellent sample of the kind of music that might have accompanied him from his departure, in 1567, from the island where he had been born in 1541, that splendid Italianisation of Greco, first in Venice, later in Rome, the courtly pieces – the villancico, the canaries (or hayes), the galliard, the balletti .. by Cesare Negri and Fabrizio Caroso (authors of famous prints for dancing music, from the end of the sixteenth century to the early years of the seventeenth century, already and happily selected by Carles Magraner for his splendid collection of Renaissance dances with the meaningful title La Spagna) and the sacred tunes of composers who, either from the Low Countries like Orlando di Lasso or else from Spain, like Tomás Luis de Victoria, found, in the affluent capital city of the popes, a privileged place to study and ellaborate the sonorous portrayal of the main deeds and characters of Catholic theology.
Exceptional musical portraits. These can be centered upon the Virgin like Victoria does, a man who, master in the Collegium Germanicum, is dwelling in Rome at the same time as El Greco, who will compose his famous Ave Maria for 8 voices or the equally Marian antiphone Alma Redemptoris Mater, both included by Carles Magraner in those exquisite highlights entitled Canticum Nativitatis that he dedicated to the great composer from Avila. But also the more mysterious Sybilla Phrygia that we find in Lasso and Capella included in that memorable recording entitled Nunca fue pena mayor. Here, the Flemish polyphonist illustrates one of the mysterious profiles of those Pagan divinators that, some years before, had been depicted by Michelangelo himself for the most beautiful of all papal chapels.

Another artist is born when, in 1577, El Greco settles down in Toledo, still the ancient imperial and spiritual capital of Spain, even though, by that time, it was officially Madrid, chosen by Philip II in order to centralise, also from a geographical point of view, his Peninsular kingdoms. A travelling Toledan, Diego Ortiz, author of a justly famous treaty on glosses or diminutions, published in Rome in 1553, is an excellent musical warning —which adds others, more Italian and modern, to the aforementioned La Spagna theme, chosen by Carles Magraner for his homonymous recording— Spanish-Italian echoes with which to enter the third pictorial and vital era of this tripartite personality who, so as not to forget his origins, signed his paintings with his Greek name Domenikos Theotocopoulos. The Toledo-Roman Ortiz is accompanied by the aforementioned Victoria who, much later, would travel, like El Greco, from Rome to Spain, although the polyphonist would become a citizen of Madrid until his death in 1611, a few years after that of his protectress, Empress Maria of Austria, sister to Philip II, to whom had dedicated his masterly Officium Defunctorum (1605) and which Carles Magraner recorded in its integrity for the fourth centennial of the piece and from which we hear Requiem aeternam, the moving Introitus.

In a very plastic way, these two, famous, cultivated composers see the addition, as a corollary, of the anonymous Sephardic elegy La Muerte de Absalom “Absalom’s Death” (an impressive musical testimony that the Capella very fittingly includes in their Música encerrada), a sombre remembrance of the important Jewish presence in the steep and maze-like city where El Greco passed away four hundred years ago.

While still admired in the faithful Toledo circles (and yet, also deprecated in Spain … let us remember today the noteworthy misjudgement of a Philip II already living in El Escorial), the fame and influence of El Greco will soar between the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with the beginnings of modern European art, an art which is capable of finding radical genius where many only saw mistakes or eccentricity. And, since one of the most successful trends of present-day ‘serious’ music is, indeed, what we in Spain call “ancient music”, it is only fair that this homage by the Capella de Ministrers to El Greco should stem from this “modernity of what is historical”, skilfully mixing Greek, Italian and Spanish musical pieces, traditional and ‘serious’ music, music of the Middle Ages and of the Renaissance, Mannerism or Counterreformation.
Many tastes and flavours which, like the snails, let themselves be penetrated without loss to their own nature: that unmistakably lengthy, spiritual but also fleshly profile which, like this delicious recording in the felicitous Magraner style, levitates with an attractive mystical tremour to eventually ascend and nourish our ears.