In Excelsis Deo: Music from the Time of the War of the Spanish Succession

Program: #18-17   Air Date: Apr 16, 2018

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While an unhappy series of battles, it was an enormous time of musical growth‚ÄĒand Jordi Savall‚Äôs latest book/CD compilation examines it in detail.

NOTE: All of the music on this program comes from the release   In excelsis Deo: Music from the time of the War of the Spanish Succession featuring La Capella Reial de Catalunya and Le Concert des Nations conducted by Jordi Savall. It is on the Alia Vox label, and is CD AVSA9924.
In excelsis Deo


Church music, court music and the historical memory of folk songs.


In this programme¬†‚ÄúIN EXCELSIS DEO‚ÄĚ in the Time of the War of the Spanish Succession, two Masses,¬†Missa¬†‚ÄúScala Aretina‚ÄĚ √† quatre chŇďurs¬†by the Catalan composer Francesc Valls (1671-1747) and¬†Messe √† deux chŇďurs et deux orchestres¬†by the French composer Henry Desmarest (1661-1741), are presented side by side: two exceptional master-pieces which are linked in time and by the history of the nascent 18th century, but which are less well known than they deserve to be by today‚Äôs 21st century audiences. ¬†Indeed, these rare works, created by two of the greatest composers of Catalonia and France (they belong to the same generation, Valls being ten years Desmarest‚Äôs junior), are linked by the history of conflict between the French and Spanish crowns during the War of the Spanish Succession which began in 1701.Valls‚Äôs¬†Missa Scala Aretina,composed in Barcelona at the end of 1701, was performed at the beginning of 1702, whilst Desmarest‚Äôs¬†Mass¬†was composed around 1704, just after his stay in Barcelona. The¬†Missa Scala Aretina¬†was performed for the first time at Barcelona Cathedral, whilst the¬†Mass √† deux chŇďurs¬†was probably first performed at the Royal Chapel of Versailles (certainly after 1704, bearing in mind Philidor‚Äôs list of¬†musicians¬†taking part in the performance, in which he mentions the names of singers of the royal chapel and court instrumentalists). It was at the height of the terrible war between pro-Bourbon and pro-Habsburg factions in Spain and Catalonia, in which the Spanish and French troops supporting Philip V were pitted against the Catalan and Austrian troops of Archduke Charles of Austria, who were supported by the people of Catalonia in a bid to retain their freedom.

The idea of bringing together in a single programme these two marvellous Masses grew out of our regular collaboration over the past several years with the Ch√Ęteau de Versailles and Laurent Brunner, its artistic director and director of ‚ÄúFestival Ch√Ęteau de Versailles Spectacles‚ÄĚ. It was he who suggested the programme: sharing his passion for both French and Catalan and Spanish¬†music, I immediately accepted the challenge with great enthusiasm. First of all, we set about considering how the project might take shape. To begin with, I had the support of the CIMA Foundation (Centre Internacional de M√ļsica Antiga),with whom we carried out all the necessary research, while with our chorus master, Llu√≠s Vilamaj√≥, we selected the vocalists (from La Capella Reial de Catalunya), and with Manfredo Kraemer,¬†concertino¬†of the orchestra Le Concert des Nations, we decided on the instrumentalists required in the line-up for each of the two works. The rest was possible thanks to an efficient collaboration with the team of the Saline Royale d‚ÄôArc-et-Senans cultural centre and the support of its director, Hubert Tassy. It was at the extraordinary venue of the Saline Royale that we carried out the¬†musical¬†preparation for the project (from 26th to 29th June, 2016), before performing the programme for the first time at Dole Cathedral on¬†30th June, and on 2nd and 3rd July, 2016, during the concerts given at the wonderful Royal Chapel of Versailles, during which our sound engineer, Manuel Mohino, made the live recordingfeatured on this CD.


The life of Francesc Valls (1671-1747), unquestionably one of the most emblematic Catalan composers of the Iberian Baroque, poses some unanswered questions, particularly as regards his date of birth and his musical training. Albeit without any real evidence, it has sometimes been stated that he spent time at Valencia, Mataró and Gerona, but we do know for certain that he succeeded Juan Barter at Barcelona Cathedral, where most of his works were performed. A key composer of Catalan music and more generally of Spanish music in his day, his works reveal a familiarity with the new musical trends from France, Italy and Germany. The Missa Scala Aretina, which rapidly became the subject of a great musical controversy (see the accompanying article by Josep Maria Gregori), was for decades the most keenly debated religious work of any Spanish composer. Having supported the archduke during the War of Succession, he was cast aside by the new regime after the fall of Barcelona on 11th September, 1714.

The presence of¬†musicians¬†from the archduke‚Äôs Austrian¬†music¬†chapel during the latter‚Äôs stay in Barcelona could account for certain parallels between Valls‚Äôs and Biber‚Äôs vocal and instrumental writing and line-up: Biber‚Äôs¬†Missa Bruxellensis¬†comprises 23 parts, of which 8 are distributed between two choirs of 4 vocalists each, while the remaining 15 parts are played by trumpets, violins and viols, oboes, cornets and sackbuts, organs and¬†timpani. Valls‚Äôs¬†Missa Scala Aretina, on the other hand, is scored for 11 parts, distributed among three choirs (of 3, 4 & 4 vocalists), plus 2 violins (doubled by oboes) and 1 violoncello, 2 organs, 1 harp and 2 trumpets (plus 1 violone and 1¬†timpani, added in keeping with the practice of the day). Despite these similarities to Biber‚Äôs great Mass, Francesc Valls‚Äôs genius is distinguished by its very personal character: a joyful, highly spontaneous style, invariably rich in effects and contrasts, the development of counterpoints in concertante passages between the solo parts or with the three choirs, alternating with sextets (Qui tollis peccata mundi) or quartets (Et incarnatus est) full of warmth and tenderness. Often woven together in unexpected ways, the polychoral passages and harmonies impress us with their modern, innovative character. Responding to criticism for having introduced a fourth voice in the¬†Miserere nobis¬†on an unprepared 9th chord, Valls justified his decision in the following terms: ‚ÄúWhat are rules in art, if not the instruments and means to achieve its purpose? And now, I ask, what is the purpose of¬†music? Anyone who is not deaf will answer, ‚Äėmelody‚Äô. For if the latter is achieved, what does it matter if I fail to observe some rule laid down by theorists of the past? If we permit the use of dissonances because they lend more variety to the¬†music, blending this entry with a harmonious exit through their variety and consonance, why should they not be allowed?‚ÄĚ

It is perhaps because of this desire for freedom that Valls’s music continues to be profoundly relevant today.  He offers a deeply personal and intimate musical discourse projected with an overall expressive vigour that is deeply moving, combining grace and beauty in a seamless whole through a total fusion of melody supported by harmony and counterpoint.


Henry Desmarest (1661-1741), one of the most talented composers of the reign of Louis XIV and Charpentier’s successor at the Collège des Jésuites in Paris, enjoyed his sovereign’s favour, both for his religious music (he had been a page at the Royal Chapel) and his operas. However, having decided to abscond with his sweetheart (who was then a minor) against the wishes of her father, he was condemned to death and forced to go into exile in 1699 to escape the death penalty. When, in 1701, the grandson of Louis XIV ascended the Spanish throne as Philip V, he appointed Desmarest Master of his Chamber Music in order to establish the Versailles style at his court, instructing him to recruit French musicians. And so Desmarest became Master of the French Music at the Spanish court. No sooner had he arrived in Madrid in June, 1701, than Desmarest was called to follow his king to Barcelona for the monarch’s marriage to Maria Luisa of Savoy. He remained there, together with a dozen French musicians, from August to the end of December 1701, to provide entertainments at court. It was about that time, in late 1701, when Francesc Valls, the famous chapel master of Barcelona Cathedral, performed his Missa Scala Aretina. No doubt Desmarest had the privilege of hearing this sumptuous Mass, as well as meeting Valls either on that occasion or later, in 1702, during his stay in Barcelona. However, fate was soon to deal the exiled composer a blow: Philip V returned from Italy with a marked fondness for Italian musical tastes and decided to disband his French Music, whose musicians then had to find employment with the various orchestras of the music chapel and the court. Buffeted like his king by the constant military twists and turns of the War of the Spanish Succession, at a time when the Royal Chapel in Madrid was undergoing transformation and in the midst of political manoeuvring, Desmarest was left without any secure position until 1707, when he was called upon to serve at the court of Lorraine. He was appointed Superintendent of Music at the court of Leopold 1, Duke of Lorraine, at Nancy, and it was in Lorraine that he would spend the rest of his career and end his days. There he premiered his splendid Mass for two choirs and two orchestras (1707), which was probably composed in Spain, inspired by local composers and, no doubt, by Valls’s Missa Scala Aretina.

At the time of Louis XIV, Masses for full orchestra, and particularly those requiring two choirs, were extremely rare in France. Indeed, as Jean Duron points out, in this genre ‚ÄúMarc-Antoine Charpentier was almost an isolated case with his¬†Missa ‚ÄúAssumpta est Maria‚Ä̬†[H.11], (a work that we recorded in 2004, also at the Chapelle Royale at Versailles, which we released in 2014; AV9905), with his¬†Messe pour M. Mauroy¬†[H.6] and the famous¬†Messe de Minuit¬†[H.9].‚ÄĚ In such a context, the existence of this unique Mass by Desmarest, also scored for two choirs and two orchestras, deserves special attention, particularly when we consider that none of these features are to be found in the other great masters of the period such as Lully, Du Mont and Collase, Lalande and Bernier. As Jean Duron observes, ‚Äúonly requiem masses seem to have fared better, since three more or less contemporary masterpieces by Andr√© Campra, Jean Gilles and Charpentier [H.10] have survived to the present day. It should be remembered that grand symphonic masses frequently ended up in the¬†music¬†archives of the cathedrals that had commissioned them, most of which were destroyed during the Revolution. Fortunately, Desmarest‚Äôs mass survived, thanks to the good offices of Andr√© Philidor, Louis XIV‚Äôs¬†music¬†librarian, and perhaps also ‚Äď given that it was preserved ‚Äď thanks to the son of Louis XIV and Madame de Montespan, the Count of Toulouse.‚ÄĚ

As Jean Duron also rightly points out, ‚ÄúWhat painstaking care went into the preparation of this score: for years during the most difficult days of Desmarest‚Äôs exile, Philidor proved himself to be an unfailingly constant and faithful friend, copying the banished composer‚Äôs sacred and profane works after he had been sentenced to death‚Ķ In his copy of the¬†Mass,¬†as in the case of other works by Desmarest, Philidor meticulously wrote the name of each of the finest and most eminent court artists who agreed to perform the disgraced composer‚Äôs works: at another time, in another place, this list of outstanding artists might be read as a kind of petition imploring the monarch‚Äôs clemency!‚ÄĚ
This extraordinary¬†Messe √† deux chŇďurs et deux orchestres¬†reveals the full extent of Desmarest‚Äôs genius: a spectacular command of counterpoint and harmonic sequences; an impressive architecture in the different parts of the Mass, alternating with admirable¬†symphonies¬†in which the two orchestras are brought together to open the¬†Kyrie,¬†the¬†Sanctus¬†and the¬†Agnus Dei;¬†moving contrasts between the choral declamation of texts in the passages of the¬†Gloria; between¬†Adoramus te¬†‚ÄúSlow‚ÄĚ and¬†Glorificamus te¬†‚ÄúQuick‚ÄĚ, as well as during the¬†Credo; between¬†Simul adoratur¬†‚ÄúSlow‚ÄĚ and¬†et Conglorificatur¬†‚ÄúQuick‚ÄĚ, and at the end, between¬†Pleni sunt c√¶li et terra¬†‚ÄúSlow‚ÄĚ and¬†Hosanna in excelsis¬†‚ÄúQuick‚ÄĚ, not to mention the overwhelming¬†Crucifixus¬†and the moving, polyphonic 8-part fabric of¬†Et incarnatus est.


To complement this Valls CD, we have added ‚ÄúMusic¬†from the Time of the Wars between Spain and Catalonia‚ÄĚ: first, ‚ÄúBatalla Imperial‚ÄĚ by Kerll/Cabanilles, which serves as an introduction to three ancient songs sung by people in Catalonia during the same period in which Valls‚Äôs and Desmarest‚Äôs¬†Masses¬†were performed.
The patriotic song¬†El cant dels aucells quant arribaren los vaixells(Song of the birds on seeing the approach of the ships; of Archduke Charles) borrows the beautiful old melody of¬†El Cant dels ocells(Song of the birds). This carol, which celebrates the birth of Jesus, was transformed into a patriotic song celebrating the arrival of the archduke‚Äôs battle ships. Another well-known traditional, patriotic song is¬†Els Segadors¬†(The Reapers), which recounts in ballad formthe ‚Äúreapers‚Äô revolt‚ÄĚ. It is performed here in both an instrumental and a vocal version, the latter corresponding to the present-day national anthem of Catalonia. To conclude, we have chosen the old lament¬†Catalunya en altre temps(Catalonia, in days gone by), which was sung in the years following the fall of Barcelona and the surrender of Catalonia. Here, the melody of an old love song provides the basis for a¬†musical¬†version (in my own arrangement) of a contemporary political protest, lamenting that ‚ÄúCatalonia, in days gone by,/ was ruled by her own hand,/ and her laws were written/ in a language no other than her own./ Weep, weep, Catalonia,/ for you rule yourself no more!‚ÄĚ

These are the songs of the memory of a people, music that evokes the lives and aspirations of men and women who, risking their lives and all their possessions, had the courage to defend their culture and their freedom.

Utrecht, 30th August, 2017

--Francesc Valls: Missa Scala Aretina
--Joan Cabanilles: Batalla Imperial
--Trad. arr. Savall: El cant dels aucells quant arribaren los vaixells (Song of the birds on seeing the approach of the ships [of Archduke Charles]), 
Els Segadors (The Reapers) - instrumental and vocal versions, 
 Catalunya en altre temps (Catalonia, in days gone by)
--Henry Desmarest: Messe à deux choeurs et deux orchestres

Composer Info

Francesc Valls (1671-1747), Henry Desmarest (1661-1741), Joan Cabanilles, Savall