While stationed at Torrejòn Air Force Base near Madrid, 1960–63, my husband and I toured southern Spain by car and visited the Alhambra Palace at Granada. The Alhambra began as an early Moorish, therefore Muslim, fort and castle, but was taken over by Catholic Spanish monarchs in the fifteenth century, around the time of Columbus discovering America.
In his well-known book, Tales of the Alhambra, Washington Irving captures the romance, intrigue, long history, and power struggles of this historic palace and fort. Tales of the Alhambra was published in 1832, after Washington Irving, while serving as American ambassador to Spain, had lived within the palace walls for a time. The Alhambra had become a gathering place for artists, scholars, writers, and sophisticated world travelers. The walled, hard-to-reach, mountainous site is also known for its beautiful gardens and waterfalls.
While browsing there in a two-story gift shop, I discovered a large, medieval book of sacred music. It was on the second floor of the shop, which was like being in someone’s dusty old attic. The book pages were made of vellum (unborn lamb skin). The musical notes and words were hand-written in black ink directly on the lamb skin, with occasional touches of red ink artistically included. The leather covered book of sacred music was massive, easily eighteen inches thick. The pages measured about 20″ long, and 15″ wide. Each two pages were on one continuous unborn lamb skin folded in half. At the fold, there were coarse stitches which attached the pages to the book’s binding. I leafed through the book, one folded lamb skin after another. The words were in Latin, from Catholic chants. The calligraphy and musical notes were beautifully hand drawn. The yellowed lamb skin had obviously been stretched, but did not lie perfectly flat, adding to the rumpled thickness of the pages.
I inquired about making a purchase, and was told to just pick out any page I wanted and remove it. The shop keeper didn’t seem to place much value on what I viewed as priceless. Being the only person in that “attic-like” space, selecting and removing the most artistic double-page from that ancient book is unforgettable. I could visualize some devoted and talented monk, in some dimly lit monastery, using a homemade quill pen or brush, with pots of homemade black and red ink, skillfully inscribing those Latin words and musical notes. I made my choice of the best looking double-page, went downstairs, and paid for the purchase with a few pesetas (less than three dollars).
Later, back home near Madrid, I went to a frame shop with my purchase of music written on an unborn lamb skin. The framer suggested cutting it at the fold, matting the two separate pages in deep red to match the accents of red ink, and framing the two red-matted pages in gold. I agreed to his suggestion, and was quite happy with the result.
For the next thirty years, this framed pair hung prominently in my homes in Spain, Wisconsin, and Florida. I was downsizing about the time my daughter, Clea, was setting up housekeeping, and the framed vellum pages were last seen hanging in her home in Arnold, Maryland. An expert recently told me that the music was likely written early in the year 900 and may have originated in Rome.
This memory is typical of my time in Spain, as it involves something archaic, ornate, religious, cloistered, monk-like, and Catholic, evoking their rather morbid need to worship and suffer. Ironically, the Spanish people were also known for singing and dancing, drinking sangria and carousing half the night, and I preferred that side of their nature.
I have often said that my three years living in Spain were the best three years of my life. Hired help was cheap, a dollar went a long way, and socializing with American fighter pilots and their wives was exciting. Buying sacred music from the Alhambra gift shop remains a precious cultural memory.