Francesco Valls' Missa Regalis | in conversation with Matthew Martin
Matthew Martin, former Director of Music at Keble College, Oxford, spoke with the Academy of Ancient Music about the newest release on AAM Records, Francisco Valls’ recently re-discovered Missa Regalis, launching on 1 May 2020. Martin directed the Choir of Keble College and AAM in a world-premiere recording of this work from a new edition prepared by musicologist Simon Heighes, as well as featuring as soloist in the collection of 17th-century Spanish organ works that complete the album. Order your copy of this groundbreaking new release here.
Very little of Spanish baroque music is part of the established canon, and the vast majority of Valls’ compositions flounder in obscurity. Why do his works (and particularly his Missa Regalis) deserve to be better known?
Valls was more than just an interesting composer, he was one of the most important theorists of the time with various political connections during one of the most critical periods in Spanish history – the War of the Spanish Succession (1705-14). His best-known work, the Missa Scarla Aretina, was most likely written as part of the celebrations during the visit of Felipe V to Barcelona in 1701/2 and marked him out as something of an avant-garde composer at the time. The Missa Regalis – written for King João V of Portugal when the composer was almost 70 years old – stands as an example of old-fashioned yet extremely elaborate vocal writing and counterpoint, and its sobriety almost certainly reflects the musical conventions of the Portuguese Royal Chapel which by 1716 had abolished the more elaborate ‘concertato’ style for which Valls was known. But how did a composer who had established a reputation for his lavish and imperial style of writing (as in the Missa Scarla Aretina) end up writing this rather restrained mass for 5 voices and continuo for the monarch who had abolished ‘modern’ music from his Chapel in favour of the more constrained Roman ceremonial? A composer who had suffered political persecution in his own country now writing music for the rising star of European monarchs was surely a surprising turn of events, and makes this mass a rather fascinating piece of musical history. The AAM has painstakingly put together a most informative booklet to accompany this disc in order to address some of these questions. Extensive articles by Prof. Alvaro Torrente and Dr Simon Heighes explore in detail Valls’ political connections and affiliations, and the reasons for the rather uniquely distinctive mix of styles in this, his Schwanengesang.
You’ve written that the Missa Regalis exhibits “a refreshing (and sometimes fascinatingly illogical) combination of ancient and ‘modern’ “. How have you managed to navigate this challenging terrain in your reading, and where are some particular moments in the work that best illustrate this intriguing clash of styles?
The music certainly leapt off the page in a way I hadn’t expected. We only had two sessions in one day of recording, and so we had to work fast. I have to admit that I had my reservations about how the music might come across in performance given that, on the page, some of it looked (and sounded to me) rather dry and clunky. That said, once we started to record, the music seemed to take on a life of its own and we were all of one mind as to how it should go. One of the main challenges was to thread together the various sections in the movements in order to weave a consistent narrative. That said, the episodic nature of the music did make it a little easier to record in terms of stamina!
Valls was famously unconventional: his breaking of one of the core cadential rules of the time – the appearance of an unprepared ninth at the words ‘miserere’ in Missa Scarla – landed him in hot water and led to much controversy involving 50 celebrated musicians critical of Valls’ allegiance to Charles III and furious about his flagrant disregard for established conventions. The Missa Regalis (written much later in 1740 when he was almost 70) was, in a sense, a return to the scene of the crime of his earlier transgressions – and he was seemingly unrepentant. Although a much more severe and old-fashioned work than his previous two masses, Valls continues to defy his critics with unconventional chromatic lurches, unprepared dissonance and even occasional consecutive fifths and octaves. A good example of this is the ‘Et incarnatus’ in the Credo where there are four unexpected ninths announcing each clause. The ‘Qui tollis’ in the Gloria is similarly expressive in an unorthodox sense with pairs of overlaid sevenths and ninths. These were especially challenging to make sound natural and organic – and to get in tune! In response to his critics (of the Missa Scarla Aretina), Valls said that “the rules, like good servants, should keep silent”.
Included amongst the movements of the Mass are organ works by some of the greatest composers of the 17th century Spanish school. What was the thinking behind programming these compositions and how they fit in between the Missa Regalis?
While not really intended to be a liturgical sequence as such, I wanted to set the movements of the Mass against a contrasting background, not only to vary the texture but also to set it in context using earlier keyboard styles that might well have been known to Valls and his contemporaries. When Alex and I first came up with the idea of recording this Mass (it happened to be lying on my piano when he came to discuss another possible project!) we imagined it might take the form of a digital release and therefore stand alone (just 4 tracks). As the project developed, we agreed that a short disc showcasing the Missa Regalis would work well, and that we could use the organ next door in St John’s College to record some Spanish organ music (pieces by Arouxo and Cabinilles) to accompany it. Like many of these projects, funds and resources dictate that it is often something of an artistic compromise, albeit an interesting one: the organ is in fact French (in a Baroque style by Aubertin) but makes many of the right sorts of noises (Keble’s instrument is marvellous but would have been hopeless for this repertoire), there was no acoustic to speak of in St John’s so we had to add it to match Keble’s, the instrument is at the wrong pitch, etc. So there has been more than a little fancy footwork along the way in order to make this sequence hang together coherently, no small thanks to our fantastic engineer Dave Hinitt. But, listening back with fresh ears (we recorded all this over a year ago), it presents as a quasi-liturgical sequence rather true to itself.
The Academy of Ancient Music and The Choir of Keble College have enjoyed a rich performing history over recent years. What do you enjoy most about working with AAM?
This project has certainly been a great opportunity for Keble College Choir not only to revive some neglected music but also to work with great musicians including Joe [Crouch, ‘cello], Inga [Klaucke, dulcian] and Edward [Higginbottom, organ continuo]. More recently, we collaborated with many more of the players in a Bach St. John Passion as part of our Keble Early Music Festival. This again was a wonderful opportunity for the students and an experience they won’t forget. For me, the aspect I have enjoyed the most is the consistent attention to detail – particularly in the Missa Regalis project – and [AAM Chief Executive Alexander Van Ingen]’s determination to produce a product of real artistic and scholarly worth. I hope that it will stand as an important release for the choir.
As told to Kemper Edwards (30/04/2020)
Matthew Martin former Director of Music at Keble College, Oxford