Joseph Nebra (Jose de Nebra)

JOSE DE NEBRA (1702-1768)

(This section is loosely based on a translation of an essay by Maria-Salud Alvarez appearing in the publication mentioned below*. I am grateful to Richard Butler of Broughton Astley for doing the translation)

Jose de Nebra was an outstanding Spanish composer as much through the relevance of the posts that he held as the importance of his religious works. He held the posts of organist and Deputy Master of the Royal Chapel, deputy Rector of the College of Young Singers and was the chief teacher of the Prince Don Gabriel.

The few keyboard pieces we know of Nebra's, if we compare them with his other works, are the fruit of his teaching activities. He gave music lessons not only to the Prince, but to individuals from several Spanish monasteries who went to Madrid for musical training. (Soler, Jose Lidon, Nebra's nephew Manuel Blasco de Nebra, Courcelle, Scarlatti and Sebastian Albero) All of them devoted themselves more or less exclusively to the creation of pieces for keyed instruments, organ or clavichord. Nebra, then, lived with the best composers of his time at an important historical moment - particularly in the spread of bipartite sonata form - and we can regard it as a meeting point of the new and the old traditions of keyboard writing.

His nomination to the position of organist of the convent of the Descalzas Reales and his later appointment as first organist in the Royal Chapel when he was 22 years old, and likewise the praise of his contemporaries, reflected in several documents, speak highly of his virtuosity on the keyboard.

It is likely that some of his pupils copied his pieces in manuscript, spreading them in other parts of Spain; this in an age in which the greater part of the works for keyboard of all composers circulated in manuscript.

Looking at Nebra's career, it seems likely that Nebra devoted himself to keyboard pieces as from his appointment as deputy Rector of the College of Child Singers and when he was teacher to Don Gabriel. But since the number of Nebra manuscripts is very small (many being copies), and few being clearly dated, it is not possible to establish a chronological order, nor to say much about the way his compositional style developed.

The works which are presented here (*Tecla Aragonesa, III, Obras Ineditas Para Tecla, Institut Fernando el Catalico, Zaragoza, 1995: 3 sonatas, 3 toccatas, and one piece for organ, in that order) are preserved as follows: 1,3 and 6 come from the private collection of musicologist Lothar Siemens, compiled in two manuscripts. The first of them is a notebook 21.5 x 28.5 cm where the sonatas 1 (folios 60 and 61r) and 3 (folios 42v and 43r) were copied in about 1800. No. 6 appears in folio 44 of a Riojano manuscript of the end of the 18th century, of 14.5 x 19.5 cm, compiled by Angel de las Heras.

The pieces 4,5 and 7 are found in the collection of the Royal College of Corpus Christi of Valencia. 4 and 5 are copied in a collection of five sheets of paper 16 x 20.5 cm, only contain these pieces, and are un-numbered. On the title page is stated "Quaderno de 2 Tocatas para Domingo Perez". Piece no. 4 takes up three folios and, following on, without any indication, the two movements which make up the 5th piece have been written on the six remaining folios.

The seventh piece occupies folios 20v and 20r of a notebook 20 x 28.5 cm, which contains worls for keyboard by various authors, compiled between1774 and 1788.

Finally, the 2nd piece comes from the Diocesan of the Cathedral of Laguna. This piece has been copied in four loose folios 21.5 x 28.5 cm, has no date, and is specified as a work for organ.

There is no information available on whether Nebra had a clavicord, harpsichord or even a piano for his private use. So we do not know which instrument is intended to be used in pieces 1-6. There is one clue: only in piece 3 is the keyboard range greater than 4 octaves, but one can't say much from this.

There are virtually no dynamic markings or indications of tempo in these manuscripts. It is not clear why; it could be careless copyists, but many composers did not bother to write instructions would have been self-evident to performers of the time. The signs for the ornaments are limited, and we should not read too much into this, either. The ornaments written are not mandatory, and it is unlikely a piece was ever played in quite the same way twice.

The pieces are all in one movement with the exception of no. 5, which is in two.



Sonata 1, in F, is tightly written and is extremely effective on the piano; it is elegant and well-written , with a strong pulse and worthy of Scarlatti at his best.

Sonata 2 in G is less distinguished, with a relatively static Alberti-type bass and a different structure; it is bass plus accompanying tune.

Sonata 3 in Eb is very awkward to play, with a jerky short-long rhythm occurring at the start of each section, and broken octaves in both hands which are difficult for the amateur to play confidently.

Piece 4 in D (Tocata) has a rapid descending sequence followed by arpeggiated fluorishes a little like those used in Cosuenda's pieces. There are some impossibly big jumps in the right hand played against broken ascending octaves in the left, and unless these passages are carefully re-written they are not for the amateur. They would not repay serious study.

Piece 5 in G minor (Tocata) is very effective and rhythmic; sounds good on the piano and is worth working on. This is probably second only to the sonata in F in this collection. There is a second movement which isn't so good.

Piece 6 in F (Tocata) is a single page and looks as if it was written for a child. It is very simple and looks like early piano writing.

Piece 7 in D is the organ piece; it is contrapuntal rather than piano texture though it sounds well on the piano if the parts are brought out clearly. It is predominantly two-part, and the counterpoint is not strict. It would probably benefit by being a bit shorter; it runs to 7 pages. Nevertheless it is worth exploring.

Nigel Deacon / Diversity website / 2003

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