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The Churchgoer And The Composer

The Churchgoer And The Composer cover picture

The Choir of Selwyn College, Cambridge with the Selwyn College Instrumental Ensemble

Director: Andrew Gant
Sanctíssima María Francisco Guererro
De'un Maestro de capilla Antonio Soler
¡Ay, qué dolor! Joan Cererols
La Justa Mateo Flecha
Cantat mater Joan Verdalet
En piélagos inmensos Antonio Soler
O beata virgo Cristobál Galán
Ave Sanctissima Maria Cristobál Galán
O celestial medicina Francisco Guererro
O virgen Francisco Guererro
Congregante e Festero Antonio Soler

Total playing time 67m 00s

The Churchgoer And The Composer

The Churchgoer And The Composer

Spanish sacred music has always had its own traditions, its own forms, its own sound. Throughout the 250-year period covered by this recording there is a unique cross-fertilisation between the styles of the sacred and the secular, even the profane; there are texts assembled from different sources and in different languages; musical plays instead of Christmas carols, jousts and shipwrecks on the way to Bethlehem, the sounds of the Italian cantata and the Renaissance madrigal, to the accompaniment of the guitar, the harp and the organ; and throughout all there is the expressive power of the Spanish and Catalan languages, the inspiration for a group of uniquely original and inventive compositional minds, the creators of some of the most engaging and beautiful music of the age, though some of the least familiar.

The earliest composer on this disc is Mateo Flecha, the most celebrated exponent, (and, according to his nephew, the inventor) of the "Ensalada", or "salad". This musical "salad" is a typically Spanish reinvention of what the rest of Europe was doing: part madrigal, part quodlibet, they are lively, zestful pieces for four voices which tell a cheerfully worldly narrative, usually involving some kind of physical trial or exertion, to draw a devotional conclusion. The texts are a jumble of fragments in different languages, often, as here, quoting snatches of Latin liturgy in the middle of the story. One early "Ensalada" from the Cançionero del Palaçio of 1500 contains a jumble of drinking songs sung in several languages at once to imitate a wayside inn, and in another the composer has four complete "villancicos" running simultaneously, while the bass voice comments ironically "loquebantur variis linquis" ("they spoke in a variety of tongues") - a typically irreverent borrowing of a phrase from the liturgy. Mateo Flecha was born in 1523. He was a choirboy and later "maestro de capilla" at Lérida Cathedral, spending the years 1523-1531 under the patronage of the Duque del Infantido and the decade 1534-44 in Valencia. In 1543 he became "maestro de capilla" to the Infantas María and Juana, younger sisters of Philip II. Flecha died in 1553. His eight "Ensaladas" were published by his nephew after his death, though they were clearly popular in his lifetime. They are by far the longest Spanish-text Renaissance pieces, (a slightly shortened version is used here) and they put the singers through a variety of extremities: fire, battle, shipwreck, and in this case a joust, on the way to salvation. The text is a mixture of ungrammatical bravado and snatches of Latin, with his characteristic nonsense syllables thrown in to imitate the sounds of the tourney. Flecha also quotes from Jannequin"s celebrated madrigal "La bataille". It is also interesting to note the appearance of several themes which reappear through the Spanish music of this period - "nuestro Adán", "our Adam", or Christ, come to undo the disobedience of the first Adam, is a figure who appears again in Soler more than two centuries later. A "vihuela" part was published separately in 1554, suggesting that these pieces could be accompanied - a modern guitar is used here.

The name of Francisco Guerrero is by now familiar to lovers of Renaissance polyphony, although being a Spaniard he did not confine himself to smooth and elegant pieties. His life was nothing if not eventful - born in 1528, early study with Morales and employment as a singer in Seville led to his appointment as "Maestro de capilla" at Jaén Cathedral at the age of seventeen. He neglected his duties there and was dismissed, but successfully sued for reinstatement. In 1549 he rejoined Seville Cathedral as a singer, but his fame was such that in 1551 and again in 1554 Málaga Cathedral attempted to secure his services as "maestro de capilla" : Seville countered by making him associate "maestro" and giving him the right to succeed the ageing incumbent (although in the event he did not enter into that particular inheritance until 1574). He published much of his own work and enjoyed a great reputation and much patronage: on one occassion a Mass of his was sung to the Emperor Charles V, on another he met and kissed the hand of King Philip II. He was largely absent from his duties in Seville, travelling to Rome, Venice (where these pieces were published), the Holy Land, and France, where he was twice attacked by pirates and once held for ransom. The costs of his publishing ventures caught up with him, and in 1591 he was imprisoned for debt, being bailed out by his long-suffering employers at Seville Cathedral. He published a book about his travels in the Holy Land, and died in 1599.

Guerrero was one of the most prolific of all Renaissance composers, averaging a page of printed music for every day of his entire life. He wrote a large amount of secular music, and thought nothing of fitting a sacred text to an earlier secular madrigal. The collection from which these three exquisite little pieces are taken is the "Cançiones y Villanescas espirituales, de Francisco Guerrero, Maestro de Capilla y Raçionero de la Sancta Iglesia de Sevilla, a tre, y a quatro, y a cinco bozes". The gorgeous four-part "Sanctíssima María" has an alternative secular text, in which the first line reads "Divina ninpha mia", the rest of the text being the same. The imagery is very much that of the medieval hymns to the Blessed Virgin Mary, with its references to moon and stars. "O celestial medicina" is the earliest example on this disc of one of the most characteristic features of Spanish sacred music - the repeating verse/refrain structure. This little piece has a refrain followed by a single verse, or "copla", ending with the refrain with the words slightly altered. "Segundo Adán" is here again, as is a typical burst of syncopation in the "copla". "O Virgen" is a lovely little hymn for three voices. By contrast with Guerrero"s nomadic wanderings, Joan Cererols (1618-1676) spent his entire life in the monastery of Montserrat, as a choirboy, novice and monk. His skills as a musician were so highly valued that for many years a responsory was sung on the anniversary of his death - a unique honour. His compositions show a typically Spanish freedom in the disposition of the forces - most are for double choir in various forms - and a lively sense of rhythm. "Ay, qué dolor!" is one of 34 polychoral "villancicos" which cover all seasons and moods: this is a penitential one, which allows for great expressivity and variety, incorporating polyphony of an almost Baroque intensity alongside massive choral effects and melodies of great sweetness.

By this stage, the "villancico" has begun to take on its most noteworthy characteristics - a refrain, or "estribillo", with one or more verses, or "coplas", followed by the repeat of the refrain. (One contemporary writer describes it as a "head" with several "feet"). Cererols" piece has 11 "coplas" to be sung between the two renditions of the "estribillo": this performance uses the first one only.

Cristobál Galán was born in 1630 and worked at Morella church, Teurel Cathedral and in Corsica and Sardinia. In 1675, while he was employed as "maestro de capilla" at the Real Convento de Señoras Descalzas in Madrid the Queen regent attempted to have him appointed to the Royal Chapel: the appointment was opposed by the abbess, among others, and Galán had to wait until the death of the incumbent in 1680 to get the job. He wrote many "villancicos" and songs for between one and thirteen voices, and was highly regarded in his day - he was chosen by the great Calderón, the celebrated poet and author of many of the finest "villancico" texts, to collaborate on his "utos sacramentales" for Corpus Christi - a notable indication of his fame. He died in 1684.

Galán is represented here not by his vernacular works but by two Latin antiphons to the Blessed Virgin Mary. The flexible and flamboyant approach to the use of the forces is typical of Spanish composers throughout this period - "ve Sanctissima Maria" is for solo voice with double choir and continuo provided by harp and organ, while "O beata virgo" has an additional cello and has the harp accompanying the choir. It is also worth noting that the division of the choir into SATB is the exception rather than the rule - the choirs in "O beata virgo" are SSAB/SATB, while in "Ave Sanctissima" they are SSAT/SATB, a configuration which for some reason seems to have become more or less standard in Spain.

"O beata virgo" also exists in a version with a patriotic text: "O beata fructe", while "ve Sanctissima" is a setting of a Marian hymn found in a few 16th century settings. Both compositions are remarkable for their exquisitely imagined sound-world of very high voice parts against the sound of the harp, and, in the case of "O beata virgo", for its form: each phrase of the text has its own musical material, and all these musical ideas are combined at the end in a remarkable passage of polyphony. Galán"s harmonic language is also worthy of note, especially his use of false relations and his flamboyant use of what we rather fondly like to think of as the "English" cadence.

Throughout the 17th century Spanish church composers continued to develop their unique brand of sacred music with a decidedly earthy flavour: there are motets, masses, "villancicos", sacred and semi-sacred pieces for solo with basso continuo, pieces for one, two or three choirs with continuo and a rich mixture of voices and instruments. "Tonadas", "tonos humanos" and other secular song forms have their influence, and styles and forms taken from plays, operas and "zarzuelas" become important towards the end of the century. The battle between national traditions and foreign, especially Italian, imports, was on.

Joan Verdalet (1632-1691) certainly seems to have known the polychoral music of his Venetian forbears. A renowned organist, he was a student of the Arragonese musician Jaume Molina, and succeeded him in his post in 1652. "Cantat Mater" is a slightly unusual example of its type in two respects: firstly, it is entirely in Latin, instead of the more usual Catalan or Catalan/Latin mix; secondly, it begins with a "copla" for three voices, then has a lengthy "responción" for seven voices, then a different three-voice "copla" before the repeat of the "responción". Again, individual musicians are adapting a common format to their own needs, and again, only one verse of each of the "coplas" is sung here - there are nine altogether. Typically, the Latin verse seems to borrow phrases from all over the liturgy to create its Christmas message: "O vos omnes, qui transitis" is normally found in the penitential Maundy Thursday sequence, while the characteristically musicianly "in buccinis, in timpanis, in organis benesonantibus" is rather like Psalm 150. The music features some exhilarating changes of tempo and some Italianate passages of long-note melodies in the voices with florid organ figuration carrying the musical interest.

By the beginning of the 18th century the Italian invasion was more or less complete. The Italian cantata had arrived, probably introduced by Sebatián Durón, and native musicians enthusiastically fused its recitatives and ensembles with their Spanish inheritance. The "villancico" grew into an elaborate affair, featuring solos, choruses and instrumental introductions: its text became a full-scale narrative, sacred, but hardly liturgical. Traditionalists inveighed against it: composers and theorists embraced the new with gusto. The stage was set for the career of the principal composer in this collection, Antonio Soler.

Soler is known today, if at all, for his piano sonatas. His sacred music is unknown, or, where known, dismissed: modern articles on "villancicos", for example, often do not mention him by name, treating the whole late 18th and 19th century as one long decline in taste and accomplishment. This is unfair. He was without doubt a church musician first and foremost (he was a monk, and spent his whole life in the service of the church), and he wrote over 130 "villancicos". The best of these have a wit and charm equal to anything composed in the second half of the century: by turns exhilarating, engaging, amusing and beguiling, they contain music of grace, beauty and great compositional skill. Above all, they show a wholly original musical personality applying himself to a singular musical inheritance and coming up with something unique. They deserve our attention.

Soler was born in Catalonia in 1729, the son of a military musician. He became a choirboy in the celebrated choir at Monserrat, and at the age of 15 "maestro de capilla" at Lérida. In 1752 he took minor orders and moved to the Escorial as Organist, later becoming "maestro" His musical duties did not absolve him from the daily routine of life as a monk, and it is said that he would be found in the fields with manuscript paper and pen, jotting down ideas between the hewing and hoeing. In 1762 he published a theoretical treatise called "Llave de la modulación", "Key to Modulation", explaining how to modulate from any key to any other within two bars. This caused a huge uproar in musical circles, and Soler published two letters, one sixty pages long, defending and explaining his ideas. Soler died in 1783, leaving a huge corpus of work including organ concertos and music for plays as well as his "villancicos", theoretical writings and several hundred piano sonatas.

By the mid-eighteenth century, the "villancico" has moved far from its peasant origins (the term comes from the word "villano", a villager). The "estribillo" and "coplas" are still there, but have sprouted all the accoutrements of the Italian cantata so reviled by Soler"s critics: overtures, arias, recitatives, marches, fugues and minuets. Most of Soler"s "Villancicos" are Christmas pieces, the rest being for the patron saints of the Escorial, and of Soler"s order of St. Jerome. They are for between five and ten solo voices (choir and soloists), with a small ensemble of strings and organ, sometimes augmented by obligato instruments such as trumpets and flutes. The texts are lively and varied, with titles like "The Hen House", "The Madman and the Nobleman", and "The little gypsy girl". Typically, a lighthearted and worldly narrative leads to a devotional conclusion, sometimes in a slightly illogical fashion: the plot, however, is not really the point - the pieces aim to bring the message of Christmas or the lives of the saints closer to the understanding of the listeners, which they do with an irresistible charm.

"De un maestro de capilla" ("bout the choirmaster"), sets an amusing little play. Choirboys assemble for Christmas practice - as usual their "villancico" is not ready, and the fearsome choirmaster, concerned as always for his own reputation, is sure to give them a thrashing. The "maestro" tries some little canons in "sol-fa": the boys begin well enough, but soon dissolve into giggles and shouting, much to his annoyance. He tries again, with the same result. However, a huge thunderstorm, heralded by the church bells, washes the performance out altogether, and the piece ends with a charming "tonadilla", or "little song" thanking the Holy Child for deliverance from the storm.

Storms also form the substance of "En piélagos inmensos" ("In measureless oceans"). The opening chorus (the "estribillo") sets the two choirs as the voices of mankind, adrift in a sea of despair and peril before the birth of Christ. Soler skillfully sets one choir to agitated quaver figures here while the other sings syllabically in long notes, ending the movement on an unresolved, unaccompanied dominant chord. Two soprano soloists give thanks for deliverance in a gorgeous duet which takes the place of the expected "coplas", and after a second recitative a typically earthy March exhorts the shepherds and the three kings to follow their Captain to Bethlehem.

In "Congregante e Festero" ("The churchgoer and the composer"), Soler again presents what can only be a self-portrait. The chorus announces the birth of Christ - three Masses must be sung at once. A pious member of the congregation comes to commission a new setting from the choirmaster, and the chorus watch their haggling with evident enjoyment. A price is fixed, and in a charming "copla" for the two protagonists the choirmaster describes what he has in mind. The chorus sing the phrases of the new Mass as he writes them in a witty reworking of the "estribillo" or refrain. On the fourth verse of the "copla" the churchgoer is getting bored and asks for his promised fugue: the choirmaster obliges (once the money is paid, of course), the choir sings it, and everyone is happy.
Andrew Gant

Produced, recorded and edited by Lance Andrews