Urbán de Vargas, born in Falces, Navarre, in 1606, was among the most distinguished Spanish composers of the seventeenth century. His renown spread throughout the Iberian Peninsula; in Portugal, the music-loving Duke of Braganza acquired several of his polyphonic works. Vargas worked as maestro de capilla at various cathedrals and important churches: Huesca, Pamplona, Daroca, Calatayud, Zaragoza, and Valencia. He died in Valencia in 1656.
His compositions range from pieces for solo voice and continuo to impressive works for sixteen voices, divided into five choirs, and accompanied by a wide variety of instruments, including shawms, sackbuts, bassoons and dulcians, cornetts, archlutes, harps and organs, and even occasionally a claviorgan, clavichord or spinet.
Apart from the liturgical pieces required of him as maestro de capilla, he composed numerous villancicos, both religious and secular in subject matter, from purely lyrical pieces in honour of the Virgin and other saints, with texts in the vernacular, to songs of a martial nature. Many of his villancicos are entertainment pieces, often amusing or burlesque, and including. a number of villancicos de siesta, for performance in churches at sext (the sixth hour of the day, i.e. noon), a genre that came under attack in the controversy over the performance of secular pieces in church (see below). The texts of his villancicos make frequent reference to current events in Spain and Spanish society (the arrival of gold and other spoil from the Indies, the taking of prisoners, and so on). Some of them treat mythological or biblical subjects, recall the liturgical dramas of the Middle Ages and make colourful use of underworld slang, going so far as to describe Christ as a bully and a braggart!
So, on the one hand in Vargas’s output, we have the purest liturgical orthodoxy, with a strict and elaborate musical treatment, and, at the other extreme, very unorthodox – not to say sacrilegious – pieces, with an (apparently) simple musical treatment, including jácara rhythms, seguidillas, chaconnes and sarabands, texts combining Latin and Castilian, and flamenco-type ay-ay-ay interjections. This duality in Vargas’s works was not only deliberate, but it was typical of the lively Golden Age of Spanish music, of which he is such a fine example.
Vargas also worked in collaboration with some of the major Hispanic musicians of his time, including Juan Bautista Comes, Luis Bernardo Jalón, Carlos Patiño, Juan Gómez de Navas, the Portuguese Carmelite friar Manuel Correa, and Diego de Pontac. On several occasions he composed music for King Philip IV, the Great, of Spain. He must have taken up his position as maestro de capilla at El Pilar (Catedral-Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar) of Zaragoza, shortly after the king and his retinue arrived there from Navarre, to stay in the city for the second time within the space of a few months, in 1645. Various works by the composer date from that time: a Salve, which the king heard at El Pilar before leaving for the front at Lerida, and several villancicos referring to the king’s recruitment of men for the reserve army, created in 1626 under the scheme known as the Union of Arms. Philip returned to Zaragoza, again in 1646 to close down the court. The crown prince, Baltasar Carlos, who accompanied him, died of smallpox in the city on 9 October of that year. Broken-hearted, the king retired for twenty days to a cell at the Hieronymite Monastery of Santa Engracia. It was there that the funeral took place. The prince’s heart was buried in the presbytery of Zaragoza Cathedral (La Seo), as a token of affection for the city. Vargas, as maestro de capilla, composed the music for those sad, but very important events.
Since the nineteenth century, many music historians – Hilarión Eslava, Mariano Soriano Fuertes, François-Joseph Fétis, Antonio Lozano, Francisco Asenjo Barbieri, Baltasar Saldoni, Felipe Pedrell, Rafael Mitjana, Andrés Aráiz, Higinio Anglés, and others – have dealt to a greater or lesser degree with the life and works of Urbán de Vargas. And it is clear that lack of documentary evidence leaves us with some serious gaps in our knowledge of this composer. Even his name has been given variously as Barguilla, Vargas or Bargas, and some claim that he lived the life of a family man until 1645, when he gave up worldly life to become a priest. It has even been suggested, although it seems rather unlikely, that there were simultaneously two musicians of the same name!
One thing we do know is that Vargas’s pupils included some very talented musicians. Miguel Juan Marqués, for instance, was the author of the first jota melody that has come down to us, and also of a Canto de las Sibilas that is exceptional in being, at that late date, written in the Castilian language in Aragon. Another one, Luis Vicente Gargallo, was the author of the first Spanish oratorio. And it is possible that the Valencian organist and composer Juan Bautista Cabanilles, whose music was held in very high regard by his contemporaries, also studied with him.
No works by Vargas are to be found in his native Navarre, but we do find there some precious information about his life. Baptised on 31 May 1606 as Urbano (de la) Barguilla(s) y de Ripalda, he was the third of five children. Encouraged by his parents, he went to study in 1626 with Luis Bernardo Jalón, who was then a canon of Burgos Cathedral, as well as its maestro de capilla – training that was to stand him in good stead for future employment in his master’s position elsewhere. Originally he was to have spent two years with Jalón, but his brilliance was such that barely a year later he was engaged as maestro de capilla of Huesca Cathedral, with a very impressive salary for one so young (he was twenty-one). In 1629 he moved to Pamplona Cathedral, where he remained until 1637, during which time he was prosecuted several times, and finally banished from Navarre! In 1637 he was briefly in Daroca, before moving to Calatayud, where he was maestro de capilla of two collegiate churches, Santa María (1637-1642) and Santo Sepulcro (1643-1644). From the register of Santo Sepulcro, we learn that he married Luisa de Zabalza y Amezqueta, by whom he had three children. His reputation then grew rapidly, and after a short stay as canon of Burgos Cathedral, then as maestro de capilla at El Pilar of Zaragoza, he arrived in Valencia in 1653, having been engaged there directly, such was his fame, without the usual formalities. He died there three years later, having made a place for himself in Levantine society and having written several compositions in the Valencian language.
The work presented on this recording, is no doubt the most notable of all of Vargas’s compositions: the Quicumque vult – ‘Whoever desires to be saved’ – also known as the Athanasian Creed (although it is unlikely that it was written by St Athanasius), one of the four authoritative Creeds of the Catholic Church. Dating from 1651, this version is the only known complete polyphonic setting of this text.
When he was still maestro de capilla in Burgos, Vargas was commissioned to write a new setting of the Creed for Zaragoza Cathedral (La Seo). It was to be performed with great solemnity, in keeping with the text, on the Feast of the Holy Trinity. The aim of such a request was no doubt to underline the importance of Catholic orthodoxy. We remember that the mass expulsion from Spain of the Moriscos had taken place not so many years previously (1610) and that at that time, despite the vigilance of the Holy Office (the Inquisition), there was growing interest all over Europe – and, more importantly, in nearby Castile! – in the ideas of Erasmus and the new Protestant denominations.
Vargas was specifically requested to bring out the meaning of the text through the music. The result is a demonstration of the theories of the affections and of musical rhetoric as understood in the Hispanic world at that time and as set down systematically in the treatises of German theorists such as Joachim Burmeister and Christoph Bernhard.
Vargas provides precious information on various aspects of the performance of this work, from instrumentation and musical context to the liturgical framework and ceremonial context, not forgetting rehearsal. The harp would be ‘very detrimental to the music’ and should therefore not be used. The Quicumque was to be preceded and followed by an instrumental madrigal for shawms, bassoon and cornett. He even mentions all those who took part in the celebration, from the chapter members, musicians and singers (who were to remain standing while singing) to the sacristans, the bell-ringer, and even the person in charge of fetching and putting away the musical scores. The part-books were expected to be ready for rehearsals three days before the actual performance, which was to last half an hour, while ‘applying with due gravity the pauses that are required’.
The original manuscript belongs to Zaragoza Cathedral (La Seo), and there are also copies at Huesca and Teruel. Each of the part-books includes two printed texts...
The first of these is a letter from Vargas to his principal, the prebendary Juan de Arruego. In it he explains, first of all, the symbolism he used in composing the work: eleven voices, representing the twelve Apostles minus the traitor Judas, and three choirs, symbolising the Holy Trinity, with the first choir standing for the Three in One. He then describes the means employed to convey the text through the music: unison on the note C (ut) for the Latin conjunction ‘ut’, dissonance on ‘prohibemur’, the words ‘in Unitate’ sung by the three choirs together, and so on.
The second printed text, a literary pamphlet, comes within the context of the great debate that was raging at that time about the admissibility, or otherwise, of ‘stage music’ in churches. The playwright Juan Pérez de Montalbán and the satirist Francisco de Quevedo led the two sides in the polemics (for and against, respectively). During that time pamphlets appeared, written under pseudonyms, and the controversy became very heated, with inquisitors, royal confessors and university professors joining in the fray. The literary pamphlet that is sewn into the part-books of the Quicumque dates from 1632, i.e. early on in the controversy, and its conclusion, that ‘the music of comedies is not permitted in divine worship’, was in fact a serious warning to singers and musicians who were paid by the Church! It also serves as further proof that such things existed – one has only to think of the hundreds of jocular, and even irreverent villancicos that were written at that time, including more than a few villancicos de siesta.
About two hundred works by Vargas have survived in various places all over the Peninsula. We must remember that he was always considered as a model among seventeenth-century Hispanic composers. He may have been seen as exemplifying what composers should not do by the Catalonian theorist Francisco Valls in his Mapa Armónico Práctico, written getting on for a hundred years after Vargas’s death, but that was only because Valls was interested in the music of his time, and tastes had changed by then. That was also the reason why the maestro de capilla of La Seo, Francisco Javier García Fajer, ‘El Españoleto’, the leading exponent of Italian music in Spain, presented a new version of Quicumque to the chapter of "La Seo to replace the one by Varga, which, he said, lacked ‘the harmony and the majesty’ that were appropriate to music performed in a great cathedral. Nevertheless, Vargas’s Quicumque, which was so heartily praised by the Spanish composer and musicologist Hilarión Eslava (1807-1878), continued to be performed there each year on very special occasions until the 1940s. What better proof could one want of the quality of this work?
Antonio Ezquerro Esteban
Translation: Mary Pardoe
1. Entrada (Agnus Dei de la “Misa de la Batalla”) (Instrumental)
2. Símbolo de San Atanasio “Quicumque vult salvus esse”, a 11
3.“Viva la bizarría”, Villancico al Nacimiento, a 4 (instrumental)
4. Antífona: Pater manifestavi nomen tuum, in ascensione Domini
5. Magníficat de 6º tono, a 8
6. Antífona: Salve Regina, a 6 y arpa “Para el rey”
7.”Al sagrario que copia del bosque”, Villancico al Santísimo, a 4
8. Misa de la Batalla, a 4 (Kyrie-Christe-Kyrie)
9. Misa de la Batalla, a 4 (Gloria)
10. Misa de la Batalla, a 4 (Credo)
11. Misa de la Batalla, a 4 (Santus-Benedictus)
12. Misa de la Batalla, a 4 (Agnus Dei)
13. “Hoy el esposo divino”, Villancico al Santísimo, para Siesta, a 4
(Transcriptions of Antonio Ezquerro Esteban)
Isabel Alvarez, soprano (2) (5) (7)
Karmele Iriarte, soprano
Ana María Otxoa, soprano (5) (7)
June Telletxea, soprano (2)
Gabriel Díaz, contratenor
Mirari Pérez, contralto
Karim Díaz, tenor (7)
Jon Etxabe, tenor (7) (11)
Jagoba Fadrique, bajo
Jesús García Aréjula, bajo
Elier Muñoz, bajo (2) (11)
Manuel Vilas, arpa
Michele Zeoli, violone
Loreto Fernández Imaz, órgano
MINISTRILES DE MARSIAS
Nuria Sanromà, corneta
Beatrice Delpierre, chirimía
Fernando Sánchez, bajón
Ricardo Casero, sacabuche
JOSEP CABRÉ: CONDUCTOR
“Este disco es una gran sorpresa para los que (hasta ahora) éramos desconocedores de la obra de este músico. La música de Vargas posee la luminosidad que se asocia con algunos de los mejores compositores españoles de la época.- Vale la pena centrar la atención en el “Quicumque” (Credo) a 11 voces que es prácticamente una sumatoria de su estilo; Fe, sentimiento, gravedad y algarabía. Es una obra ambiciosa que el propio Vargas consideraba que debía durar media hora. Un sentido de amplitud le dan las sonoridades de cornetas, sacabuches y chirimías. Una suma de sus poderes como compositor en una obra que representa la suma de Fe católica.- El villancico instrumental “Viva la bizarría” es una delicia y representa lo mejor del estilo instrumental secular de la época.- No te puedes perder el Salve Regina a 6 con arpa “Para el Rey”. Esta obra tiene una solemnidad suave y lánguida que no sería indigna de los grandes trabajos de Monteverdi.- La Misa de la Batalla es la otra gran obra de este disco. Las dimensiones de cada movimiento son compactas. (Tan alejadas de las misas románticas) Posee un pragmatismo sacro típico de la época y su inspiración está bien lograda. Es imposible olvidar el bello tema del Agnus dei final.- La Capilla Peñaflorida es un ensamble de gran homogeneidad y sensibilidad. Los ministriles de Marsias también destacan en el conjunto dirigido con gusto por Josep Cabré”
(Ricardo Marcos G.)
"La música, cuyo principal atractivo es el uso de la polifonía característica de la época, está bien servida por los dos grupos musicales y convierte este CD en un instrumento que ayuda a dibujar un poco más el panorama musical español del siglo XVIII"
(Marc Busquets Opera Actual enero 2009)
“La música de Urbán de Vargas merece ser conocida. Es de una factura exquisita. La solemnidad del Magnificat de 6º tono y de la Misa de la Batalla impresiona. Como es habitual, la Capilla Peñaflorida, dirigida en esta ocasión por Josep Cabré, resulta de una solvencia apabullante. Aplaudamos la iniciativa recuperadora de NBMusika, pues gracias a ella hoy podemos disfrutar de estas excelentes composiciones de Urbán de Vargas”
(Eduardo Torrico CDCOMPACT diciembre 2008-Disco Recomendado)
"JOYAS DISCOGRÁFICAS (...) Con su límpido canto, apropiado carácter y estilo se aprecia el entusiasmo que voces e instrumentos han puesto en esta recuperación musical de un buen ejemplo del barroco peninsular de su tiempo"
(Karmelo Errekatxo Periódico Bilbao noviembre 2008)
"QUICUMQUE (CUALQUIERA QUE) LO ESCUCHE, ENCANTADO QUEDARÁ. Casi simultáneamente han llegado a mis manos tres excelentes discos de la editoria NB dedicados monográficamente a los compositores vascos Juan de Anchieta y Fray José de Larrañaga y al navarro Urbán de Vargas. Además de su indudable interés como aportación al conocimiento de nuestro patrimonio cultural, los tres gozan de una buenísima interpretación a cargo de la Capilla Peñaflorida en la parte vocal y no cabe más que congratularse por la inciativa de la editora vasca (...) la más sincera felicitación a NB y a los intérpretes"
(José Luis Fernández. SCHERZO november 2008)
"Bienvenido sea este disco dedicado al compositor navarro-aragonés Urbán de Vargas (1606-1656). Nacido en Navarra y fallecido en Valencia, la vida de este notable compositor transcurrió fundamentalmente en Aragón. Maestro de capilla de la catedral de Huesca, del Pilar de Zaragoza, de las catedrales de Burgos y Valencia, Vargas es un importante aunque escasamente conocido representante de la música española de la época de Felipe IV. Su extraordinaria vivacidad rítmica, la vena popular de muchas de sus obras, su gusto por los contrastes y por los efectos policorales, hacen de él un ejemplo típico del barroco hispano. Se música nos llega muy felizmente interpretada por Josep Cabré y la Capilla Peñaflorida, cuyas versiones son de una luminosidad y de una gracia ejemplares"
(Alvaro Marías ABC (Artes y letras), 26 de septiembre de 2008)
“Pero no hay duda, cuando hoy podemos escucharlo (Quicumque) como se haría en su tiempo (con los ministriles doblando las partes vocales), de que nos hallamos ante una de las partituras más importantes del siglo XVII español (y me atrevería a decir europeo), grandiosa y solemne como pocas y dotada de un simbolismo que nos lleva hacia procedimientos de un Johann Sebastian Bach. La versión de la Capilla Peñaflorida y los Ministriles de Marsias, dirigidos por Josep Cabré, hace honor a esta gran música”
(Andrés Ruiz Tarazona DIVERDI)