Antonio Soler: Four Villancicos

Liner notes by Frederick Marvin


Columbia Masterworks MS-7278



One can say the Villancico is to Spain what the Madrigal is to Europe. Known today as Christmas carols, Villancicos have retained their rustic simplicity, rhythmic vitality and humor through five centuries of changing form and use. The term itself derives from villano (countryman or villager) and seems to have been applied first to simple religious music or dance-songs. Early or late, religious or secular, the emotional impetus of the words was always set in a highly descriptive melodic and harmonic context. A late-16th-century treatise defines the Villancico as having "a head and feet; the head is a verse or two, three or four lines. . . . The feet are a stanza of six lines, being a sort of variant of the theme contained in the head . . . which it is customary to repeat after the head."


In the so-called Cancionero de Palacio, the most extensive collection of court songs belonging to the 15th and 16th centuries, we find Villancicos that are 3- and 4-part songs about love, history, politics, knights and shepherds. Many are humorous, some quite bawdy.


During the 17th century, the texts were still treated syllabically, the compositions combining strictest polyphonic imitation sections of straight-forward chordal progression. Accompanied by dances, 16th- and 17th-century Villancicos often ended the performance of a play. In the 18th century, however, the Villancico was enlarged in form and content: There is an Introduction followed by the Estrivillo (refrain) and the usual Coplas (couplets, similar to the trios of classic minuets) with four to six verses sung either by solo or a duet. The general pattern was to repeat a part of the Estrivillo after the Coplas.


While the early Villancicos seldom possessed any rhythmic pattern changes or modulations, Soler's are abundantly spiced with both. His use of Spanish dance rhythms is most apparent, and he uses situations that may seem strange to today's churchgoers, for his device was to bring these works close to the understanding of his congregation. Soler is very free in his form: He ends many of his Villancicos with either a Minuet, March or Fugue without a da Capo; some do not even have a set of Coplas, while others open with an Overture before the Introduction.


Soler's subjects are as varied as his treatment of the form. A small sample of the 128 Villancicos that I found in manuscript carries such strange titles as "El Prusiano" (The Prussian); "La Furia del Aquilón" (The Fury of the North Wind); "El Gallinero" (The Hen House); "El Alcalde" (The Mayor); "DOS Estudiantes Sopistas" (Two Student Beggars); "De un Cojo y un Ciego" (The Cripple and the Blind Man); "Un Loco y un Linajudo" (A Crazy Man and a Proud Noble); "Medico" (The Doctor); and "Una Gitanilla" (The Little Gypsy Girl).


The bulk of Soler's Villancicos consists of Christmas works; the rest are for Saints' days, primarily those of San Lorenzo (patron saint of El Escorial) and St. Jerome (patron of Padre Soler's order). These works are written for five to ten voices (meaning one or two choirs with soloists), accompanied by violins, contrabass with organ or harpsichord continue, the whole sometimes augmented by trumpet, flute or oboe obbligato. Because Soler did not have a full orchestra at his disposal in El Escorial, he was limited to groups of strings supplemented by the aforementioned instruments.


Like the austerities of the Spanish landscape and the architectural strength of El Escorial, where Soler spent thirty-one years of his productive life, the Padre's music is deceptively simple in appearance but not in the sound and color that results in performance.


There are no complete scores extant, and it is questionable whether any ever existed! However, scores may have been kept in the private library of the Infante Gabriel. Unfortunately, the descendants of the Prince told me that the collection of Soler manuscripts in their library was burned when their home was razed during the recent Civil War. As all of Soler's Villancicos are found only in parts, I have had to transcribe the various clefs for modern use, prepare a complete score, realize the unfigured bass for organ and/or harpsichord, compose a number of cadenzas where indicated, add trills where they belonged in music of the period; and, naturally, correct mistakes that 18th-century copyists made, as well as to decipher and correct parts of the music that have deteriorated through passage of time and lack of care.