The central baroque at Girona
FRANCESC SOLER (?, ? - Girona 1688), chapel master in Girona between 1682 and 1688, during the baroque period. His six years of activity in Girona were very fruitful: he obtained a new building for the music chapel where he set up his own residence and he most probably established the musical archives there as well as other annexes such as the rehearsal rooms and a dining room for the four choir boys. His activity has to be understood in the context of the final years of the reign of the House of Austria, when there was a remarkable improvement in the Catalan economy. In Girona this can be seen in the building of the cathedral steps and the remodelling of the chapter house archive complex. Possibly the most significant moment during his life in Girona was the French siege of 1684. This event was a defeat which the authorities attributed to Saint Narcissus. To celebrate it Soler premiered a Complines for 15 voices in marked baroque style a few months later. He died suddenly in May 1688 leaving many debts unpaid. Due to his prestige, the chapter paid his funeral expenses.
The works of his that have been preserved are in Catalan and Spanish as well as Latin. Most of the compositions in this collection are tonos – a type of Spanish poem which is sung and forerunner of the villancico. It is characterized by its complicated vocabulary, elaborate imagery and daring ellipses. These traits raise questions about whom the compositions were destined for, bearing in mind that a large number of the town’s inhabitants were illiterate. The poems are of a religious nature, and in accordance with Girona’s most important spiritual schools, can be classified thus: the traditional or scholastic school of the Dominicans and the Jesuits with a rational orientation (they consider the divine mysteries incomprehensible and it is dangerous to try to understand them), the mystical or Carmelite school (if we purify our emotions we can feel close to God, establishing a relationship with Him similar to that of lovers), and the Servites’ school (sorrow and repentance for our sins bring us closer to God).
He composed a large number of works, many of which are in large format for certain events that he lived through, while many others are in the usual format with just one choir, like the ones on the present CD. This format consists of two sopranos, a contralto and a tenor but no bass. There is a continuo proceeding from an organ and at times from a harp or a lute. When the composition was interpreted in the canons’ choir, the organ they used could have been either the large one hanging on the north wall of the main nave, or the smaller one on the south wall. For the eucharisitic pieces of the 40 hours – celebrated in the chapel cloister, nowadays called “l’Esperança”, a positive, smaller organ was played. Soler had difficulty introducing the new baroque polyphonic techniques among the music chapel interpreters although these tonal techniques were eventually to replace the old modal techniques. While this important transformation was taking place, the villancico appeared in Girona. This is a musical poem of courtly origin that gradually replaced the old tono. The melodic tailings of the different voices, typical of baroque polyphony, are very noticeable in his works. His rhythms are varied and changing, which makes it obvious that his aim was to impress the audience rather than to please or persuade them. The subject matter of this CD sums up the whole of his existing works: Christmas, the 40 hours Eucharist devotion, the paschal Triduum and a sample of the devotional pieces commissioned by the town’s various convents, the Jesuits in this case.
1 Al Niño de Belén (To the Child of Bethlehem ) a carol of courtly style with a simple musical structure and a mixture of several contrasting images: the sun and the king, snow and fire, fire and flowers etc., referring to the infant of Bethlehem. The first verse contains astronomical imagery, the second garden flowers, the third has a mixture of both, while the last one contains eucharisitic symbols. The alternation of the solo voices and the choir, plus the occasional polyphonic passage, constitute one of the charms of this work.
2 Así como tres infantes (Like the three infants) A brilliant composition dedicated to the Holy Sacrament and probably written for the 40 hours devotion of Holy Week. The text mixes carmelite mysticism with baroque naturalism. The form is a primitive cantata: the introduction is slow and displays an echo effect – most probably a novelty in Girona – followed by a long chorus where Soler counterposes different voices with a lively rhythm and enumerates certain natural elements that culminate in the words “music” (música) and “sweetness” (dulzura). The former being a central element of praise to God while the latter is a fundamental quality for mankind. The couplets compare the sun that sets every day with the sacred Host that hides a whole God. The skillful alternation between the solos and the choir help to convey its high quality.
3 Jod. Manum suam During Holy Week the Church would invite the congregation to reflect on whether the consequences of their personal sins were comparable to those suffered by the inhabitants of Jerusalem in 586 BC., when the city was destroyed by the Assyrians after a long siege. According to the author of the biblical text, this destruction and the following misfortunes were a divine punishment for the inhabitants’ sins. Soler composed a work of solemn sadness emphasizing certain words – the beginning of each line, for example, and others that he wants to draw attention to – with melodic flourishes that reinforce the magnificence of the lamentation.
4 Oíd los suspiros (Hear the sighs) This composition was commissioned by the Jesuits of Girona in order to celebrate the feast day of Saint Francis Xavier, the Jesuit who created several catholic communities in Japan in 1549 and who died in 1553 while on his way to China. In Girona at that time the Jesuits celebrated this anniversary in different ways depending on the year. In this example, the reduced format both in its length and vocal effects, suggest an austere celebration. The text is a mystical reflection on the contradictions that the fervent saint presumably suffered by wanting to evangelise people belonging to societies so different to his own. The experience of divine love that impulses him to evangelise is very pleasant but at the same time it is mortifying because it is limited. The alternation of solos and choir create a remarkably elegant effect using only a few resources.
5 Es la fineza mayor (It is the greatest refinement) A musical dialogue about whether the love of God is more important than the fear of God, presented in a composition dedicated to the Host. It was most probably interpreted in the 40 hours devotion before the highest ecclesiastical and educational authorities of the town. The musical technique, similar to an opera recitative, allows the composer to accentuate the feeling of confusion typical of this debate. Soler resolves the polemic in favour of the greater importance of love.
6 Ego enim accepi a Domino A brief but very unusual liturgical composition used in Girona during the short Easter Thursday procession when the celebrant goes from the high altar of the cathedral to the altar of the Holy Sacrament to reserve the blessed sacraments. It is not mentioned in any of the baroque processional texts belonging to the cathedral nor is it present in any of the Easter liturgical repertories. The text is based on the second letter of Saint Paul to the Corinthian Christians. The melody, which is austere and solemn at the same time, follows the typical model of the paschal Tridu baroque music.
7 Argumentosa abejuela (Argumentative little bee) A splendid, joyful and extensive polyphonic work typical of the 40 hours devotion. Soler most probably intended it to be performed before the principal authorities of the town at the beginning of Palm Sunday afternoon. The author wanted to impress the bishop, the canons and the municipal authorities with this work in the form of a primitive cantata with an introduction, chorus and couplets. Thus he achieves a skillful vocal overlaying with the three voices: both in the introduction and in the refrain the use of vocal imitation is very effective to the point that the last line of each verse conveys a solemnity most typical of this kind of devotion. The result is a work of remarkable polyphonic effervescence that must have deeply impressed all those present.
8 ¡Ay qué dolor! (Oh what sorrow!) The Jesuits of Girona whose huge convent was situated right in the middle of the town where the diocesan archives and the faculty of educational sciences now stand, celebrated the feast day of Saint Francis Xavier with great solemnity as the present composition shows. The text is modelled on the poetry of lovers’ laments (a common trait of Castilian baroque style) which are here applied to the saint’s death, narrating his last days with the erudite geographical references typical of this religious order. Soler mixes the soloist’s lines with the choir’s answers alternating polyphony and homophony and in this way the expression of sorrow gains intensity as Oh! (¡ay!) is sung by the whole choir at the beginning of several lines.
9 Atended a las voces de un Niño (Listen to a Child’s voice). This is an imaginary dialogue between the Child Jesus, more God than child, and a sinner who wishes to repent. The text conveys the spirituality of the Servites. This mendicant order was present in Girona where they were in charge of the parish of Our Lady of Sorrows. This kind of spirituality aims to have an emotional effect on the audience so as to achieve the repentance of their sins. Although this composition is a Christmas carol, the child Jesus is only mentioned in the chorus while the couplets are centred on the theme of wrongness and sin. The music is a polyphonic dialogue as the soloists’ voices and the choir’s alternate.