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Johan van Veen
musica Dei donum, February 2011

In recent years Spanish music of the 18th century is intensively explored, and this has resulted in recordings of hardly-known composers. On this site I have reviewed some of them, like a disc with symphonies by Baguer and discs with vocal music by composers like Jaime Casellas, Juan Francés de Iribarren and Jaime Torrens. Francisco Courcelle is another name which is completely new to me.

His name doesn’t sound very Spanish, and that is because he was born from French parents in Piacenza in Italy. He came from a family of dance masters; his father was dance master to the Farnese family. At an early age he was active in Parma and became maestro di cappella of the Chiesa della Madonna della Steccata there. From 1727 to 1733 he also was maestro di cappella of the Duke of Parma, the future King Carlos III of Spain. When the Duke’s mother Isabelle Farnese, the second wife of King Felipe V, was looking for a music master for the royal children, she turned to Courcelle, who arrived in Madrid in January 1734. He started to compose operas and villancicos. In 1738 he succeeded Joseph de Torres as maestro of the royal chapel and rector of the Colegio de Niños Cantores (the boys’ choir of the chapel).

Courcelle played a major role in music life surrounded by such renowned composers as Domenico Scarlatti, Gaetano Brunetti and Luigi Boccherini. At the time the famous castrato Farinelli also lived in Madrid.

A large part of Courcelle’s operatic output has been lost. What has remained is a large corpus of religious music: a considerable number of masses, and other sacred music like Offices of the Dead, sequences, responsories, Vespers, Magnificats, motets and villancicos. The two masses recorded here date from 1750 (Missa Ave maris stella) and 1763 (Missa Exultabunt sancti in gloria). They are scored for four solo voices (SATB and SSAT respectively), 4-part choir and orchestra. Stylistically these masses are typical specimens of sacred music from the mid-18th century, in that they contain elements of the late baroque as well as the early classical period. As in so many religious works of the time the influence of the opera is clearly noticeable, in particular in the solo sections. A striking example is ‘Quoniam tu solus sanctus’ from the Gloria of the Missa Exultabunt sancti in gloria. In addition to the solo sections there are duets, trios and quartets, and some tutti sections also contain short passages for solo voices. The proportions of these masses are notable: the Credo and the Gloria are by far the longest, the Kyrie is much more concise, and the Sanctus and Agnus Dei take less than 2 minutes. Neither mass has a Benedictus.

These are live performances of a concert in Dallas in Texas, USA. As a consequence there are some technical imperfections, but by and large these performances are pretty good. Choir and orchestra are doing a fine job, and the soloists are mostly good as well. Tamara Matthews uses a bit too much vibrato now and then. Jeffrey Snider only sings in the trio ‘Gratias agimus tibi’ from the Gloria of the Missa Ave maris stella, but because of an unsatisfying balance between the solo voices he is hardly audible. Scot R. Cameron has an interesting voice: having started his career as a tenor he has developed his falsetto register, and both are fully integrated. Kim Childs has a nice and clear voice.

This is definitely a very interesting and musically compelling disc of a composer who fully deserves attention. This recording has made me curious about other music by Courcelle. Hopefully we will hear more from his oeuvre in the future.

The booklets of Dorian are pretty sloppy lately. The date of the recording is not given. Only from the biographies of the participants one may gather who the soloists are and what their voice type is. They should have been mentioned at the cover. The track numbering is rather user-unfriendly: in both masses the various sections are numbered independently (1 to 14 and 1 to 16 respectively). So track no. 1 of the Missa Exultabunt sancti in gloria is in fact track no. 15 of the disc. That is very confusing, and so are the timings of the various tracks. The liner-notes by Grover Wilkins should have been edited as well. A production like this deserves better.



Michael Carter
Fanfare, January 2011

Domencio Scarlatti and Luigi Boccherini may be the two best-known Italian composers to have made their careers on the Iberian Peninsula, but they certainly weren’t the only ones. To their names and those of others we can add Francisco Courcelle (1705–78).

Born in Piacenza, Italy, to French parents who were celebrated masters of the dance and—at the time of his birth—in the employment of the Farnese family, the young Courcelle displayed an early interest in as well as an aptitude for music. As maestro di capella of the Chiesa della Madonna della Steccata in Parma, Courcelle composed music for the funerals of Francesco Farnese (1727) and Antonio Farnese (1731). Five years later, he was summoned by Isabella Farnese, his former student and now second wife of King Felipe V of Spain, and was named as music master to the royal children. Courcelle was described by all who knew him as being personable and is reported to have sought and—by way of his generous spirit—won the approval of his colleagues, especially Blasco de Nebra, who was in charge of the choir school when maestro di capella José de Torres died in 1738. In addition to Felipe V, Courcelle also saw to the musical needs of Kings Fernando VI and Carlos III, and for four decades was a member of a court musical establishment that—over a number of years—included Domenico Scarlatti, Carlo Broschi (Farinelli), Gaetano Brunetti, and Luigi Boccherini. Courcelle was a prolific composer. His known works include numerous Mass settings as well as responsories, sequences, Offices of the Dead, two oratorios, and several operas. By comparison, Courcelle’s instrumental output is small and appears to be limited to seven violin sonatas.

The two Mass settings on this Dorian release are from 1750 and 1763. The first, founded on a hymn tune, dates from the early years of the reign of Fernando VI, and the second, based on a gradual or offertory, was composed during the reign of Carlos III. The years that separate the two works display a marked difference in the attitude toward the arts in general and music in particular. Fernando VI had matured under the influence of his stepmother, Isabella Farnese, whose power, influence, education, and immense love of the arts—especially music and Italian musicians—was both significant and important to Courcelle. By the time Courcelle penned Exultabunt sancti in Gloria, he was serving a monarch much more interested in urban progress and hunting and less in the arts. Courcelle’s style is not unlike that found in the music of the young Joseph Haydn. The structure of the Masses subdivides the texts of both the Gloria and Credo, but does not treat portions of their text simultaneously, a technique that can be found in several of the Haydn, Mozart, and Schubert masses.

Grover Wilkins has assembled some 40 musicians for this effort, which was recorded in concert in Myerson Symphony Hall, Dallas. He deploys and employs his forces quite effectively, obtaining a generous sound from both chorus and orchestra. The recording is so quiet that—if it weren’t for the applause at the end of each Mass—you would think these studio sessions. The presentation is well managed and nicely paced with good diction from soloists and choral lines that are admirably etched and balanced. Ensemble is taut, tempos seem natural, and dynamics are well controlled throughout. Wilkins’s exceptional advocacy and the dedication of his musicians shine throughout the almost hour-and-a-quarter run of this disc. These are exceptionally imaginative and rewarding interpretations that summon utmost respect for the composer and undeniable admiration for the performers.

For Wilkins—he also wrote the entry for Courcelle in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians—this recording of the music of Francisco Courcelle isn’t a maiden voyage into Spanish music of the period. For Spanish radio and television, Wilkins has recorded a Mass, a Matins responsory, and works by two of Courcelle’s contemporaries. There is also another Dorian compact disc, Madrid 1752: Sacred Music from the Royal Chapel of Spain (DOR 93237), recorded with Madrid Barocco. Both of these provide exemplary evidence of the richness and diversity of the court’s musical life, and with this newest release Wilkins can add another winner to his growing catalog. Now, what about some of the choral music of Antonio Soler?






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5:58:02 AM, 13 July 2014
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