This Memory of Alcalá is not about my childhood, but it came to mind when I was recalling those years in the 1940s when I was an altar-boy in La Victoria, with Father Manuel. This article commemorates two of the most relevant professions of those times, especially at burials and in the funeral services of San Jorge: the sochantre [chanter], and the organist.
The sochantre was a type of singer who chanted the motets and psalms at Mass and the Divine Offices. In the 1940s the choir had almost disappeared, only performing at Christmas and the celebrations of the Virgin of the Saints. At that time the sochantre was Don Antonio Cobos, who had a deep, rich bass voice. His voice was more powerful than those of all the priests combined. The organist was Don Arsenio, an educated man, knowledgeable about music, who produced unforgettable sounds from the organ of San Jorge, and was a very good singer as well.
The parish of Alcalá had a tradition of excellent singers and organists, I can bring to mind at least thirty, whose duty it was to turn up each day and sing the Divine Office in the choir stalls of San Jorge. The construction of that choir is an excellent example of 18th century choral seating, made by Agustin de Medina y Flores. The organ is a formidable musical instrument, made by Francisco Pérez of Valladolid. No-one could deny that the chanters and organists of San Jorge did justice to their surroundings.
At the end of the 19th century, one of those chanters was Antonio Periáñez Lagos, married to Gertrudis del Manzano, both from Alcalá de los Gazules. In 1879 they arrived in El Puerto de Santa Maria with a nephew, Manuel Almendra Periáñez, an 18-year-old orphan, his sister Maria, one year younger, and a great-uncle, Francisco Periáñez Salcedo. They were all natives of Alcalá. Uncle Antonio sang all his life, and made a good living for his family acting as chanter in the Mayor Prioral Church in El Puerto. The Prioral was at that time among the ten richest parishes in the archdiocese of Seville. It also had a flourishing choir of clerics who sang the Divine Office every day.
On 2 June 1897, at 9 o'clock at night, Manuel Almendra Periáñez, 23 years old and suffering from pulmonary tuberculosis, was certified dead by the medic Don Lorenzo Barrios after a dreadful attack of asthma which not even inhaling eucalyptus vapours could alleviate. The illness had prevented him from being able to lie down, so he had spent the hours and the days seated in the front bay window of the house, No 9, Calle de Santa Clara in El Puerto, on the left-hand side as seen from Calle Cielos.
On 24 November 1996, Enrique Pérez Fernández from Jerez, a teacher and writer in El Puerto de Santa Maria, published in the Diario de Cádiz a curious anecdote which he had dug out from the old periodical Revista Portuense. It was entitled “A Ghost in Santa Clara” and the sub-title was “You'll end up like Almendrita”.
Two weeks after the death of Manuel Almendra, the Revista Portuense, under the heading “Appearance of a Dead Man”, reported the following item: “Popular fantasy, which is so given to exaggeration, has led to a large crowd of people gathering every day in Calle Santa Clara to see imprinted, so they say, on a pane of glass in a bay window, the face of a young man who passed away a short time ago. The old wives of the neighbourhood mentioned this to the people of the town, and unfortunately it spread to people outside the town, giving an air of credibility to what was just an amusing fiction.”
Incredulous, the journalist went that afternoon of 16 June 1897 to the place of the supposed apparition and the following day published a report on the event with the facts he had been able to gather there. It turned out that a little girl from that street, accustomed to seeing Almendra sitting in the window, believed that she could still see his face on a window-pane even after his death. The news ran through the whole city and in no time at all, many of the townsfolk turned up to take a look at the apparition.
The journalist reported that half the city had lined up opposite the window, until the point at which the window-frame had been removed, but people said they could still see it in the glass in the other window-frame. There were even some who said they could see it in one of the glass sides of a nearby gas-lamp, and had stayed there looking at it until well into the early hours. Señor Periáñez had complained bitterly about what was going on, because his wife had become gravely ill, and on top of the pain of his nephew's death was now added the commotion caused by these people. He had asked the Mayor to send a couple of civil guards to put a stop to what was going on.
The lawyer and writer Luis Suárez, who learned the story from his maternal grandmother, Doña Candelaria Leal, gave another version of the events in a later journal called Cruzados, in the early 1960s, under the title “Characters by Word of Mouth”. He was sure that this event gave rise to the popular saying in El Puerto, “You'll end up like Almendrita”.
Translated by Claire Lloyd
Crónicas del ambiente alcalaíno (III)
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