07 Jun 2020

Francisco Valls' Missa Regalis: The Choir of Keble College Oxford and the AAM

In the annals of musical controversies, the Missa Scala Aretina debate does not have the notoriety of the Querelle des Bouffons, the Monteverdi-Artusi spat, or the audience-shocking premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.

But the unprepared dissonant ninth created by the entry of the second soprano that Francisco Valls exploited for expressive effect in the Gloria of his 1702 Mass triggered, in 1715, a furious debate which raged for eight years, involving more than 60 Spanish musicians with celebrated composers from other European nations including Italians such as Alessandro Scarlatti and Vaz Rego from Portugal having their say too.

Today, while the musical glories of the Spanish Renaissance - by Victoria, Morales, Escobedo and others - are deservedly celebrated, the names of Valls (c.1672-1747) and his Baroque contemporaries remain largely obscure, their music neglected. There are several reasons for this, as José López-Calo, whose 1978 edition for Novello was the first modern edition of Valls’ aforementioned Mass, has explained. [1] Most significant was the Spanish liturgical practice which obliged every cathedral mestre de capela to provide new music for each feast day, and insisted that sacred works in the vernacular could be performed only once. Archives of 16th-century masses psalms and motets were mined; where particular local practices did not make new native works unsuitable for use elsewhere, they were disseminated within Spain, usually in hand-copied form since there was no ‘market’ for these compositions. The result, inevitably, was the end of the rich musical interaction Spanish musicians had enjoyed with their counterparts in France and especially Italy, and the prevalence of a conservative musical style and compositional practice.

In this context, Valls’ reputation for musical experimentation and daring seems rather surprising, and it’s true that his music is not consistently characterised by innovation. However, his riposte to his detractors in 1715 is interesting:

‘I concede that the entry of the second soprano is against all the prescribed rules. I concede that the Ancients did not use it and that I am, therefore, its inventor; let us see if it should not be granted praise rather than blame. Can anyone deny that the entry is something new, a rare means of heightening the melodic expression? If the use of dissonant intervals and chords is permitted (to give variety to music), why should not this entry be accepted, since it achieves, in its harmonic resolution, both variety and [the] consonance ...?’

Expressive heightening of this kind is powerful and affecting in this fascinating new recording of the 1740 Missa Regalis by the Choir of Keble College Oxford under their director Matthew Martin and the Academy of Ancient Music, made possible by the new edition of the Mass which has been prepared by Simon Heighes.

Like many of Valls’ works, the Missa Regalis remained unpublished and its manuscript preserved in the Biblioteca Central in Barcelona (during Franco’s rule these manuscripts were not available for inspection, exacerbating their neglect). Though his place of birth remains uncertain, Valls spent most of his career as mestre de capela at the city’s Cathedral, a post to which he was appointed to on 17 December 1696 after a short spell at Sancta Maria del Mar parish church. Valls’ appointment is striking for two reasons: first, at 24-years-old he was very young to gain such an illustrious and profitable post, and second, contrary to convention, he was awarded the position without any interview or examination process. It seems that his reputation must have been superlative, although in a letter to the Musical Times in 1978, Geraldus Warmodiensis (the editor of a Missa Scora Maggiore for Barcelona University Press’s complete edition of Valls’ works) suggested that evidence had come to light that ‘from an early date he was a spy in the service of the French court, a fact which accounts for his having been offered the Barcelona post without even having to apply for it. When his activities were discovered in the 1720s, he was persuaded to retire ‘for health reasons’’. [2]

For whatever reason, on 22 February 1726 Valls did indeed make an application for retirement. The remaining years of his life were largely devoted to writing a theoretical treatise, Mapa armónico (1742), a defence of Spanish practices against Italian and French compositional styles and the publication for which, until recently, he has perhaps been best known. However, Valls did not stop composing after his retirement. The Missa Regalis was dedicated to King John V of Portugal and its fairly small vocal forces (SSATB), which are accompanied by just continuo, attest to the practices at the Portuguese Royal Chapel where the concertante style was prohibited.

The Mass is a hexachord mass, the foundation of each movement, as in the Missa Scala Aretina, being the six-note sequence known as the ‘scala aretina’, so-named by Guido d’Arrezo. Valls’ contrapuntal ingenuity and invention are immediately notable in the Kyrie. After a majestic homophonic opening statement, lightened initially by its commencement on the second beat of the bar and subsequently by a glorious enrichment of texture and colour - which rings triumphantly in the acoustic of Keble College Chapel - the Kyrie’s movement from the simple rising line sung by the first sopranos, echoed by the tenors, into a flowering celebration of intertwining statements and variants of the cantus firmus, now ascending, now descending, ever-more rhythmically dynamic, enlivened further by syncopation and melodic elaboration, is uplifting. The Keble College voices are bright, buoyant and joyful. There is the slightest, and most telling, shading when the music takes a brief turn towards a fairly distance minor key.

The ‘Christe eleison’ turns the cantus firmus into a triple-time dance, a brief running quaver motif that rises and then falls then switches direction. However complex and rich the interplay, this motif shines through, even in lower registers and inner parts. The section cadences into the concluding ‘Kyrie eleison’, transforming the dancing motif into a 4/4 statement of greater stature and the Keble Choir sustain the growth and momentum persuasively. If there is nothing ‘radical’ here, there is unceasing interest and perhaps a sign of Valls’ harmonic expressiveness in the hints of subdominant tonality which persist almost to the final bar.

The Gloria is more restrained at the opening, fittingly so for its blessing of peace and good will to all men on earth. This is lovely lyrical, legato singing. Animation begins to infuse when the voices praise and bless God, the melismas flowing warmly, smoothly and with increasing energy. “Adoramus te, glorificamus te” propels the music onwards and conveys conviction. The alternation of homophony and polyphony makes “Domine Deus, Agnus Dei, Filius Patris” a statement of both affirmation and rejoicing, but there is a dramatic change of mood at “Qui tollis peccata mundi” where the falling lines, introduction of chromaticism and slower note-values combined with harmonic excursions through various minor-key tonalities create a sombre tone. This gravity is only partially alleviated by the crescendo-ing ascent of the plea, “deprecationem nostrum” (receive our prayer), which remains coloured by strange, overlapping seventh and ninths, though the strong pedal bass promises assurance of resolution. The vocal lines are clean and crisp, the diction superb: but, even it were not, Valls’ unmannered ‘painting’ of the religious sentiments leaves one in no doubt of the text’s meaning.

In the Credo we begin to understand why Valls’ contemporaries might have been so perturbed by his harmonic innovations. No matter how intricate the counterpoint of the opening section, director Matthew Martin keeps things airy and flowing, saving the magnificence and weight for the concluding “descendit de caelis”. But, with the “Et incarnatus”, the knives begin to pierce and twist: the dissonances are astonishing! After multiple hearings I still could not discern exactly what was going on, other than the ninths seem to pile up, and that the dissonant notes do not themselves resolve but rely on the movement, often torturously delayed, of the parts around them, denying the resolution of any real assuagement. Martin resists the temptation to over-egg this passage, allowing the music to speak for itself - and it does so with tremendous impact. The portrait of Christ’s crucifixion, suffering and death has a few more surprises up its sleeve, but in the rest of the movement, the singers are kept on their rhythmic toes as each textual phrase has its own metrical character. Martin melds them together convincingly, and the music of the concluding phrases are conciliatory though the familiar sequences, harmonic cycles and cadences - even in the final Amen - never go exactly when one expects them to.

The Sanctus is fairly short (and there is no Benedictus) but not lacking in intriguing details, not least the swift modulation from major to minor within the phrase “Pleni sunt caeli et terra gloria tua”, the disconcerting immediate repetition of this phrase a lurching semi-tone higher, and the temporal tugging of three against four in the closing “Hosanna in the highest”. All such details are immaculately performed. The Agnus Dei has a tempered dignity, the cantus firmus returning to the foreground, in its falling intervallic forms, and creating chains of dissonances and delayed resolution until the final homophonic declaration, “dona nobis pacem”.

The balance between organ (Edward Higginbottom) and choir is excellent, though I have to say that the other continuo instruments - bass violin (Joseph Crouch) and ducian (Inga Klaucke) make little obvious impression, perhaps inevitably so given the nature of the music and the acoustic in the College Chapel. The Gloria, Credo and Sanctus are each followed by organ music by two seventh-century Spanish composers, Francisco Corrêa de Arouxo and Juan Bautista José Cabinilles. It is played on the organ in the Chapel of St John’s College, Oxford by Matthew Martin, and described in a liner book article by Stephen Farr. As always, this is a handsome package from the AAM and that article appears alongside two by Mark J. Merrill, on the ‘tiento’ form illustrated by the works chosen here and the development of early Spanish organs, another by Álvarez Torrente informing us about Valls’ life and career, and Simon Heighes’ account of the manuscript, editing process and Valls’ music.

On the title page of the manuscript of the Missa Regalis, Valls described this late work as his ‘swansong’. Listening to this fine recording, surely many choirmasters and directors of music will long to perform this Mass, and hopefully it will encourage others to delve into those Barcelona archives and provide us with opportunities in the future to hear much more of the music by Valls that preceded it.

Claire Seymour

[1] José López-Calo, ‘The Spanish Baroque and Francisco Valls’, Musical Times 113 (1972), 353-56.

[2] Geraldus Warmodiensis, Musical Times 119/1625 (1978), p.586. Warmodiensis adds a further entertaining anecdote: ‘His brother Escamillo was a well-known bullfighter and the model for the famous character in Carmen.’