Behind the Lyre: Hannah Williams and Semana Santa

On 31st March, we sat down with our own Export Sales & Operations Coordinator, Hannah, to discuss her experience marching with the Banda de Música de Alba de Tormes for Semana Santa.

With the start of the Easter weekend, we thought it was the perfect timing to learn a little about Spain’s traditions during Holy Week. We thought it especially important, given the current circumstances in which they sadly won’ be able to take place this year.

Thanks for offering to share your experience marching in the Spanish Easter Processions, Hannah! It must feel odd to be the interviewee rather than the interviewer this time? Would you mind explaining to our readers what Semana Santa actually is?

Yes, definitely feels a little bit odd, but I’m more than happy to chat about this topic!

Of course, so Semana Santa is Holy Week in Spain, an annual tribute of the Passion of Jesus Christ celebrated by Catholic brotherhoods and fraternities. In Semana Santa, these groups perform penance processions throughout the streets of almost every Spanish city and town during the last week of Lent. These processions involve hundreds of penitents either carrying pasos ( wooden floats narrating the events of the Passion of Christ or the Virgin Mary) or walking with crosses, flags, candles – or in cases like mine, musical instruments!

Most processions begin at their home church, then pass by the Cathedral, Plaza Mayor (the main square) and the rest of the city centre. Each procession is unique and special in it’s own way! It’s a really big deal across Spain, with thousands of people lining the streets, or standing at their balconies to watch the processions go by.

Semana Santa
Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash
Semana Santa
Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

Which part of Spain were you in when you took part in Semana Santa?

I was living in Salamanca in Castilla y León – more or less between Madrid and the Spanish-Portuguese border. The historic centre is so beautiful, and was actually declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988. The city is the perfect backdrop for these processions! In Salamanca, 10,000 penitents from 16 different fraternities, organise 22 processions throughout Holy Week. The city actually has one of the oldest processions in Spain, with the earliest being traced back to 1240.

Hannah's View from her first Semana Santa Procession
(photograph property of Hannah Williams)
Hannah’s View from her first Semana Santa Procession
(photograph property of Hannah Williams)

So where do the marching bands feature in all of this?

For the majority of processions, marching bands appear right at the end, behind the penitents and pasos. They perform marchas procesionales, which are a specific type of composition devoted to the images and fraternities. Which part of Spain you are in will determine the pieces you hear. The most common pieces performed across the whole country are most probably:

  • Mater mea – click here to listen
  • Jerusalén – click here to listen
  • Caridad del guadalquivir – click here to listen
Hannah outside COSYCL
(photograph property of Hannah Williams)
Hannah outside COSYCL
(photograph property of Hannah Williams)

So, how did you actually find yourself playing for one of these processions, as an English clarinet-player who doesn’t identify as religious?

Well, that’s a good question…and a bit of a long story! My Music Performance degree at Leeds University had a compulsory Year Abroad. So, in the academic year of 2017-18, I found myself studying clarinet at Conservatorio Superior de Música de Castilla y León. I can’t remember where I first heard of the Semana Santa processions, but knew it was something that I wanted to experience whilst I was living in Spain – if any bands would have me!

I was on a coach to a nearby city to attend an orchestral concert, when I ended up sitting next to an older gentlemen. Despite my very limited Spanish at this point, he was very kind and patient enough to speak with me. He was a massive music-lover, so it wasn’t long before he was telling me about the Semana Santa processions in Salamanca. I (think) I managed to express my interest in joining in, so he recommended several bands for me to contact.

Several months later, I went to a concert by the Banda de Música de Alba de Tormes, with a plan to ask the conductor at the end if I could join them for Semana Santa. Upon recognising one of the percussionists from my jazz class, I chickened out and dropped Iria a message instead! She said yes, and I started going to rehearsals in the nearby village of Alba de Tormes most weeks.

Every time I took the coach to Valladolid to attend orchestra concerts, I looked out for the older gentlemen I’d met previously. I desperately wanted to tell him that I was going to be playing in some of the processions, but I never saw him. That was, until I had finished my very first procession, and he was stood at the end looking for me! It turns out that after we’d spoken, he’d rang all of the bands in the city to tell them;

“¡Si una chica de Inglaterra te pregunta si puede tocar clarinete contigo durante la Semana Santa, tienes que decir que si!”

“If a girl from England asks you if she can play clarinet with you for Semana Santa, you have to say yes!”

Fernando García

You’ll be glad to hear that we’ve stayed in touch. I write to Fernando and his wife Veli every Christmas, and we used to go to concerts and drink coffee together whilst I was still in Salamanca!

Hannah's after her first Semana Santa Procession, with Fernando García 
(photograph property of Hannah Williams)
Hannah’s after her first Semana Santa Procession, with Fernando García
(photograph property of Hannah Williams)

Could you tell us a little more about the band you played with?

Of course, they were called the Banda de Música de Alba de Tormes. As their name would suggest, they were based in a town on the River Tormes, just upstream from Salamanca. They have participated in the Semana Santa processions since 1995, accompanying a selection of different pasos, and even often perform works composed by their own members.

I personally couldn’t have asked to be playing with a more welcoming group of musicians. Members spanned generations, so there was a real family feel to the band, and they put me at ease immediately. Despite not understanding everything in rehearsals, and struggling to put one foot in front of the other on my first march – they were so patient with me! Turns out, if they put you right in the middle of your row, the people watching from the sides of the street have less chance of seeing your fumbling footwork. You can bet that’s where I was put every time!

Banda de Música de Alba de Tormes in Plaza Mayor for Semana Santa
(photo property of  Banda de Música de Alba de Tormes)
Banda de Música de Alba de Tormes in Plaza Mayor
(photo property of Banda de Música de Alba de Tormes)

What did you have to wear for the processions?

Something that I forgot to mention earlier was that these processions took place at all different times of the day – some even in the early hours of the morning! I remember playing from just past midnight until 4 o’clock in the morning, and it was around 3 degrees at the time – I could hardly feel my fingers!

The Banda de Música de Alba de Tormes very kindly lent me a black raincoat and lyre for my music. They also advised that I wore at least one pair of tights underneath my black trousers! I learnt the reason for this the hard way, after my first procession. The next time, I wore as many layers as I possibly could, whilst still being able to move my arms. I also bought some cheap gloves, which I cut all of the fingertips off of, other than my right-hand thumb which I was able to keep covered!

I must say I was very relieved that we didn’t have to wear a capirote. These are the tall conical hats which covered the faces of penitents. I’m not sure how I’d have played clarinet with one of those on!

 Hannah's first Semana Santa Procession
(photograph property of Hannah Williams)
Hannah’s first Semana Santa Procession
(photograph property of Miriam Hirt)

What were you favourite memories from this experience?

Despite not being religious at all, there is something incredibly moving about the Semana Santa processions. The music can be rather solemn, and in regions such as Sevilla, it is common to see crying women line the streets. I remember feeling particularly overcome with emotion whilst playing Hosana in excelsis on my last march. It probably had a lot to do with it being 3 o’clock in the morning, and not being able to feel my fingers. However, I remember feeling accepted into the band, which is something I’d struggled with at my actual music college for the duration of my time in Spain.

Hosanna in Excelsis by Oscar Navarro Gonzalez

On a less sentimental note, another of my favourite moments was actually at the beginning of my last procession. We had started from inside the Cathedral, and it was particularly bitter and windy outside that evening. I should probably say morning actually, as we started at past midnight! As we marched out through the enormous Cathedral doors, an almighty gust of wind blew through the band. It caught one poor musician’s music, and tore it straight out of their plastic wallet. Within seconds, pieces of sheet music were blown all through the band, and began scaling the walls of the Cathedral! I was trying so hard to contain myself, as the whole band were giggling – not ideal during a rather serious moment, but one I look back on very fondly all the same!

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