It is very likely that you have never heard
of Charles Levens. You are in good company: the editors of
New Grove haven't either. And in the about forty years that
I have been listening to early music I haven't seen his name
appear anywhere. It is very likely that none of his compositions
has ever been recorded before.
One of the reasons this composer is unknown
is the fact that he never worked in Paris or Versailles. Those
were the places to be in France in the 17th and 18th century
if you wanted to make a good career as a composer. France
was different from, for instance, Germany or Italy, in that
it was a centralized country and was completely dominated
by the capital and the royal court, not only politically,
but also culturally. As a result it isn't surprising that
the largest part of the French repertoire performed in modern
times was written by composers who worked in Paris or Versailles.
Music by composers who worked in other cities and regions
is relatively little-known.
Charles Levens was born in Marseille and was
a choirboy in several choir schools of Provence. In 1718 he
started working in Vannes (Brittany) and in 1723 he moved
to Toulouse. In 1738 he was appointed head of the choir school
of Saint André Cathedral in Bordeaux, where he stayed the
rest of his life. He may have worked far from the capital
most of the time but his works were well known there. His
'Grands Motets' and other works were performed at the 'Concert
Spirituel' in Paris and also at the 'Chapelle Royale' in Versailles.
Other performances are documented in Monaco, Lyon and Marseille.
Levens almost exclusively wrote religious music.
He felt most at home in the genre of the 'Motet en symphonie',
the motet for voices and instruments. The two works on this
disc both belong to this genre.
The Te Deum is a text which was often set to
music for performances at the occasion of military victories,
coronations and the birth of royal heirs. Levens conducted
his Te Deum when Maréchal Du Plessis de Richelieu, the town
governor, entered Bordeaux on 4 June 1758. At the composer's
request the forces of Saint André Cathedral were extended
by no less than thirty musicians from outside. This seems
to support the use of a pretty large ensemble here, in particular
in regard to the choir which consists of 28 singers. The size
of the instrumental ensemble is probably a bit too modest
by comparison: in particular in the tutti sections the balance
could have been better.
Levens' setting of the Te Deum is very impressive,
and it seems it made a good impression in his time as well:
a performance is documented as late as 1789. It begins not
- as one might expect - with a choral section, but rather
with an instrumental 'symphonie', followed by a 'récit' for
haute-contre with basso continuo, with the strings playing
only in the ritornello. After a choral episode the text "tibi
omnes angeli" (to thee all the angels [proclaim]) is
sung by a trio of the three high voices (two sopranos and
haute-contre). Towards the end of the first section there
is a sudden shift of rhythm in order to single out the words
"Dominus Deus Sabaoth". The haute-contre Vincent
Lièvre-Picard has a really fantastic voice, with a bright
sound. He distinguishes himself by clear diction and a truly
declamatory delivery of the text. He blends very well with
the two sopranos in the trio.
The next section is written as a solo for the
'taille', the French term for 'tenor'. He is accompanied by
strings with oboes playing colla parte. Levens wrote an ascending
figure on the words "majestatis gloriae tuae" (the
majesty of thy glory) - one of many examples of direct text
illustration. Sébastien Obrecht has a beautiful voice, but
tends to be a little too theatrical. He uses a bit too much
vibrato and is also pretty loud. To his credit I have to say
that in the next section he holds back when he sings with
the haute-contre. I would have liked him to hold back in his
solos as well, but there is no lack of text expression in
The fifth section, Te rex gloria, is set for
'dessus' (soprano). Sophie Landy also uses a little too much
vibrato, but her diction is excellent. In the sixth section,
Tu ad dexteram, we hear the bass, Marcos Loureiro de Sà, with
oboes and bc - another very fine voice. His text delivery
is also very good. The most moving and most remarkable section
in this Te Deum is the 11th, 'Dignare, Domine'. It is written
for three solo voices: haute-contre, tenor and bass. It is
full of suspiratio figures, which is explained by the
text: "O Lord, deign to keep us from sin this day. Have
mercy on us, O Lord, have mercy on us." It is just brilliantly
sung, with a maximum of expression, by the three soloists,
whose voices blend perfectly. The last section begins with
a fugal passage which returns later. In the closing bars the
word "confundar" is repeated many times on a falling
figure whereas other voices at the same time repeat "non,
non", bringing this splendid composition to an exciting
The motet 'Deus noster refugium', a setting
of Psalm 45 (46), is no less interesting. Here again the work
opens - after a 'symphonie' - with a solo, again for haute-contre.
It radiates peace and quiet, reflecting trust in God: "God
is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in trouble".
This is all the more telling as the next verses tell what
could happen to the earth: "(We will not fear), though
the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried
into the midst of the sea". The music is fast, agitated,
restless, with biting accents. It is fittingly set for three
basses with strings and bc; the three singers pull out all
the stops. The choir does the same in the next verse which
prolongs the previous verse: "Though the waters thereof
roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with the
swelling thereof". The next section, consisting of verses
5 and 6 ('Fluminis impetus'), is a solo for the haute-contre.
The basso continuo very directly depicts the flowing of the
water in the first line of this verse: "There is a river,
the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God".
The closing section of this motet again brings
a surprise. The psalm ends (vs 12) with a return to the beginning,
expressing trust in God: "The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge". But after this we get
verse 10: "He breaketh the bow, and cutteth the spear
insunder; he burneth the charic in the fire". As a result
the motet ends in a most dramatic fashion: a sequence of soli
and tutti passages over agile and sharply accentuated instrumental
parts. It shows again that Levens is anything but a conventional
composer and had a great sense of drama and text expression.
The booklet contains all the information one
needs. But I hope you are able to read French. The English
programme notes and the English translation of the lyrics
are pretty much unreadable as they are printed in yellow letters
on a white background. Whoever was it that came up with that
It is very exciting to listen to hitherto unknown
music of such a high calibre. I have made some critical remarks
about some aspects of this recording, but they don't really
matter that much, considering the overall level of performance
and the character of the repertoire. This is a very interesting
and captivating addition to the catalogue of French music.
Levens's compositions are in no way inferior to the better-known
motets of, for instance, André Campra. I hope we will get
more of his oeuvre in the near future.
Johan van Veen