Colossal Baroque: An Interview With Bryan Roach On Glorifying God With "the Most Splendid Music Ever Written"

An Interview by Julian Kwasniewski

Bryan Roach, director of the recently-founded baroque ensemble Musica Transalpina graciously agreed to sit down and answer a few questions about his musical group and their inaugural concert, Colossal Baroque.

Julian Kwasniewski (JK): Mr. Roach, thank you for agreeing to this interview. Could you tell us a little about Musica Transalpina and its mission?

Bryan Roach (BR): Musica Transalpina is a professional ensemble dedicated to the research & performance of sacred music from the baroque era. We were founded as both a vocal and an instrumental ensemble, which makes us unique in the United States. While the repertoire we focus on is presently obscure, we want to bring the forgotten masterpieces of the early baroque fully into the mainstream by presenting world-class performances of large-scale liturgical music from the seventeenth century. While this music is often quite historically important, it is also some of the most magnificent music ever written. Its quality is undeniable, and it is ravishingly beautiful.

We are confident that we can become the best baroque ensemble in the country if we can just get noticed by the right crowd. Our “Official” mission, therefore, is two-fold:

  • First, to increase awareness of the under-performed sacred repertoire of the seventeenth century, and
  • Second, to cultivate local, Southern California-based talent to make Los Angeles the leading city for early music in the nation.

My personal objective is evangelistic in nature: namely, to glorify God and save souls with the most splendid music ever written.

JK: Did you always want to be a musician? Were you always interested in early music? How did your career lead to the founding of Musica Transalpina? 

BR: No, not really. I can’t say I avoided music altogether, since I did study it academically, but I never wanted to be a professional musician: I imagined that once I graduated I would move into a different field. I pursued some graduate studies in business and started working in the investment arm of a family office, but the pandemic changed that. Then the opportunity to begin this ensemble presented itself and I couldn’t avoid this calling any longer. 

JK: Your first major public performance is coming up this August 27: can you tell us about your program?

Certainly: we have programmed a monumental mass setting in the so-called “Colossal Baroque” style from seventeenth century Salzburg written in 25 parts distributed across five choirs. The musical developments in Italy around the year 1600 were seen as a crucial element for the Counter Reformation cause north of the Alps, and this new concertato style of church music was heavily promoted by religious orders involved in education like the Jesuits, Piarists, and Præmonstratensians as a means to combat the perceived dourness of protestantism. It reached its largest scale at the royal court of Vienna and the episcopal sees of Olomouc and Salzburg, where prince-bishops tried to outdo one another in liturgical splendor.

While to-day some might find this style to be a bit overwhelming, it heavily alluded to Rome in the imaginations of the listeners: indeed, it was perceived as quintessentially Catholic in effect. The more exotic, foreign, and ultimately Italian it sounded, the more Catholic it seemed––part of the PR campaign of the time for religious orders like the Jesuits was to make Catholicism seem sophisticated and stylish. We know this because the Anglicans abhorred this new musical style for being too popish and felt threatened by it, while the Lutherans, counter-intuitively, wholeheartedly embraced baroque music since they considered themselves to be the true Catholics.

JK: What happens in between your discovery of a manuscript and its concert debut? What does “discovery” of a new piece look like? Do your musicians often perform from facsimiles of the original publications?

BR: When it comes to programming new music, we have some favorite composers we start with and then work our way back. We are especially fond of the way Italian-style polychoral music was incubated at the Austrian court, and we are working our way through the œuvre of two Habsburg Kappelmeisters, Giovanni Valentini and Antonio Bertali. While we aren’t always “discovering” their compositions, most of their sacred compositions have never been performed in the United States. Once we get through the pieces which have been copied into modern notation (and we’re about halfway there), then there are countless manuscripts of huge mass settings preserved in the archiepiscopal archive at Kremsier Castle that are just waiting for us to be transcribed. All we need to do is pay the librarian to scan the pieces for us and then we’ll have material to work with. We of course always welcome patrons who want to sponsor the acquisition of rare works of music for us to transcribe & perform!

As much as I should like to say that we perform directly from facsimiles, since we go through such an enormous quantity of music, we need to run our rehearsals as efficiently as possible to guarantee a world-class musical product. If we were endowed, like the state-sponsored ensembles in Europe, then we could take the luxury of embarking on the archaeological work as a group. I take the guesswork out by neatly typesetting everything while still retaining as much of the original as possible, usually just to provide something that is more legible than reading blotchy old manuscripts on yellowed paper with sloppy cursive lyrics. Our musicians, of course, are specialists in their fields, so they are able to read from the originals if necessary, and they understand idiosyncratic notations I retain in my modern transcriptions without issue.

JK: As director, what is the most exciting part of the process in bringing a concert to life? What is the most demanding?

Strictly speaking, our “Colossal Baroque” program on August 27th is our very first public concert; everything else has been a liturgical event. The most exciting part to me isn’t so much the rehearsal aspect or even the performance as much as the research. While not everything we perform is a world première, almost everything we perform is an American première, so this is a very exciting space to be in. My colleagues and I are all bewildered at why more people aren’t doing what we’re doing—this certainly helps keep everyone’s enthusiasm up. The excitement in the room is contagious.

Here is an excerpt of the Gloria from Antonio Bertali’s Missa Resurrectionis, which was composed for the Holy Roman Emperor’s Easter Sunday observances in 1666. You can hear the richness of the sound, the sudden and abrupt shifts in texture, the virtuosic melodies, and the variety of the instrumental colors which characterize the music of this era.

JK: Part of your ensemble’s work is also providing music at Catholic liturgies and not just in concert halls. How did this aspect develop? 

BR: First, some background information: when I was an undergraduate, I was struck at the complete disconnect between the legitimate Classical music establishment, which would program sacred masterpieces (enormous mass settings, Magnificats, Requiems, and Te Deums) by Catholic composers such as Mozart and Haydn, and the staff we had at our Newman Club. To my great surprise, neither the Classical music community on one hand, or the Catholic clergy & laity on the other, seemed to have very much awareness of each other’s existence. There were many of us music students who loved this old Catholic repertoire, even if we weren’t all Catholic, simply because so much of this literature is the finest music ever composed. To our surprise, we found it challenging to convince Catholics that there were timeless compositions that had their home, first and foremost, in the context of the sacred Liturgy.

I was asked by a Norbertine priest to help bridge this gap and bring this world-class music back into its home, namely, into the bosom of the Church, for its original purpose: the glorification of God and the salvation of souls. We have broken barriers both to bringing sophisticated music lovers into witnessing the sublimity of the liturgy, and on making Catholics aware of their rich musical patrimony. Our ensemble focuses on the lavish church music that was composed following the reforms of the Council of Trent in the late sixteenth century. The artistic, architectural, and musical style that emerged during the following century we now call Baroque, and it is no surprise that some of the most splendid art, architecture, and music dates to this period and was commissioned by the Church. This new style of music was meant to overwhelm the listener with emotion and fill him with awe and amazement, and was meant to reflect the magnificence, power, and glory of the Church. The majority of the music we specialize in was originally written for important historical events such as imperial coronations, royal weddings, and state funerals, and we are often the first to bring this extremely rare (but gorgeous) music from Europe to America.

JK: In the liturgical context, how do you see plainchant and this florid baroque music melding?

BR: Plainchant coexisted alongside more elaborate styles of music from the earliest days of polyphony; learning plainchant was seen as the first step in a musical education throughout the Renaissance and Baroque eras, and it is still taught to freshmen at conservatories. Gregorian chant really is the ancestor of classical music. We always intersperse our large choral and instrumental works with plainchant for variety & contrast—the same was done during the Baroque, to great dramatic effect.

With regard to the detractors of grand sacred music, we know that saints like Ignatius of Loyola and Alphonsus Liguroi were big “fans” of sophisticated church music. St. Philip Neri even said that the faithful should take advantage of the notoriously long Gloria and Credo settings of his era to pray their Rosaries!

JK: What are some future plans our readers can look forward to following?

BR: As we access more funding and become better recognized, I want to move in the direction of ever larger mass settings—the absolutely massive works of Heinrich Biber come to mind. These are almost never encountered in the United States.

In addition to liturgical music, a big goal of ours would be to program an oratorio or even a sacred opera. In fact, if a benefactor asked us to stage a secular opera from the baroque period, we’d be delighted to oblige. The distinctions between different musical styles were treated very flexibly during the Baroque, so I could foresee us becoming a one-stop-shop for all things Baroque. We’ve been hired for countless nuptial masses, funerals, and several first masses; ceremonial music for a formal reception or a masque for a special event would take no extra effort for us to pull off, and would be in keeping with the duties of a musician working for a noble court during the seventeenth century.

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