Baroque Iberian Battle Music for the Organ

September 3, 2014

One of the most interesting genres of music to arise during the 17th century was that of Portuguese and Spanish battle music written specifically for the organ. Iberian organs, highly versatile for their size and often equipped with formidable banks of horizontal reeds, were an inseparable factor in the development of this musical category, and still inform us how to play it. This article will examine the repertoire of Iberian battle music, its origins, and the impact of the villancico, ensalada, and the Iberian organ.


The repertoire

In an environment where composers wrote tientos and versets by the hundreds, the battle music repertoire seems quite small. Only about twenty pieces survive from the 17th century (Table 1), even if the list expands to include battle-like works with more generic names, or which appear to contain material borrowed from non-Iberian composers. Yet, perhaps because their unique battle-related content makes them fun to play, this small body of works appears on modern concert programs far more often than do the many tientos and versets that surround them in the manuscripts of the period. Mary Ellen Sutton1 recommends in particular the battles marked in Table 1 with an asterisk as being of interest to modern audiences. Pieces marked + are nearly identical. The selection marked § has been attributed to both composers, or neither, as will be discussed later.

Most of the manuscripts containing battles (batalla in Spanish, batalha in Portuguese) came originally from monastery or cathedral libraries, no doubt because their composers were cathedral organists, some of them in holy orders. All of the manuscripts are now held in central libraries in or near Oporto and Braga, Portugal, and Madrid and Barcelona, Spain. Most of these works are available in modern transcription, but because so many of the anonymous pieces have similar names, I have included the original manuscript and folio numbers in Table 1.2 

In fact, almost all are described simply as a battle in a given mode. Mode designations imply that the compositions were intended for liturgical use. Fifth and sixth modes are the most common. The seven pieces in sixth mode have key signatures of F major. The four in the fifth tone are in C major. Although fifth mode is generally thought of as an F-based mode, its tenor is C. Sutton suggests that the use of C major here accompanies a general shift towards tonality. Three fifth-mode batallas, which are for all practical purposes written in the key of C, appear in Madrid MS 1357 in volumes indexed by mode. All of the fifth-mode versets in the first two volumes of MS 1357 were transposed to C.3 One of the two eighth-mode works, both thought to be by Aguilera de Heredía, is also in C major. The choice of key signature could be, of course, editorial. However, after playing the battles, I would agree with the editorial decisions. 

Most of the composers of battle music (Table 2) were famous musicians of their time and place. Pablo Bruna was considered one of the best organists and teachers in Spain. Blind since birth, he was known as “el ciego de Daroca” (the blind man of Daroca). Juan Batista Cabanilles was a master of the Spanish Baroque style, which enlarged on Renaissance practices and does not resemble the styles composers preferred in other parts of Europe during this era. A colleague said, “The world will crumble before a second Cabanilles appears.”

Some of the composers are less well known. The name of Diego (or Diogo) da Conceição appears in only one manuscript, where his few compositions are the best in the collection. Others remain unidentified, although stylistic similarities suggest that some of the anonymous pieces could be copies or variations on works by known composers. All of the known composers of battle music worked in Portugal or the Castilian region of Spain, where Iberian organ builders made improvements to the organs that facilitated this genre.

Borrowing from other composers was more acceptable in the Baroque era than it is today, and several of the battles demonstrate this procedure. The most notable is Cabanilles’s Batalla Imperial, which is identical, other than the ordering of the sections, to that of Johann Caspar Kerll, a slightly older German composer who worked in Austria. Who borrowed from whom is questionable, Mary Jane Corry positing a third composer entirely.5 In his article on Cabanilles in Grove Online, Barton Hudson attributes the battle to Kerll. In another example, two batalhas in Porto MS 1607 are quite similar to each other; Doderer suggests that based on their style, these might be different versions of a work by Cabanilles. In a third case, measures 58–159 of the Batalha de 6º Tom by Torrelhas are virtually identical to a section of one of José Ximénez’s Batallas.


Origins of the organ batalla/batalha

In approaching this topic, a person might ask what actually makes a composition a battle. The most basic consideration is the title. It is a battle if the composer says it is. However, battle pieces generally imitate the commotion of war with busy voicing, ostinato figures, lively rhythms, and percussive chords that simulate musket or cannon fire. They also often imitate the music of battle in the form of trumpet signals or fanfares. It is perhaps this trait that makes the music sound warlike in the 21st century. Trumpet signals are still in limited use in today’s military and are familiar to most listeners from ceremonies and the entertainment media.

The earliest music with these characteristics is the 14th-century caccia, which imitates the hunt with fanfares and rallying cries. A 15th-century battaglia by Heinrich Isaac for instruments with keyboard accompaniment has several characteristics that appear in most later battle music, such as ostinato figures and alternating duple and triple meter. It is interesting to note that Isaac also may have written his work for voices first, since Bianca Becherini found a poem whose text matches the music.

The music that began the battle craze in earnest, perhaps because it so cleverly captured the sounds of battle despite being written for unaccompanied voice, was Clément Janequin’s chanson La guerre. It immortalized a French victory over Swiss and Italian forces at the Battle of Marignano in 1515. Written in two large sections, this is a four-voice vocal work filled with a variety of techniques for making it sound warlike. Melodies imitate the calls of war trumpets, using actual tunes employed in battlefield communication. The onomatopoeic text that accompanies these may have come directly from the syllables players used when learning their music. Triadic figures in a simple harmonic background reflect the ensemble formation trumpeters of the time used, and quick notes simulate both the action of battle and more of the ceremonial trumpet sound.

La guerre was wildly popular and quickly spread across Europe, not only in its original form but also in imitations and transcriptions. Fifteen years later Matthias Werrecore wrote a retort, La battaglia taliana, commemorating an Italian victory over the French. Published in Germany, it was known everywhere as Die Kleine Schlacht, with Janequin’s chanson now being called Die Große Schlacht. Werrecore borrowed not only Janequin’s key (F Ionian) but copied the beginning motive from La guerre’s Secunda pars. This opening gesture, or variants of it, as well as the F-based mode, appear in a number of battles and tientos. I believe that Janequin’s motive was so widely admired because it was more than just a clever compositional device: it also accurately captured the sound of battle trumpets, both harmonically and melodically. 


The trumpet

To understand just what this battle sound was like, it is helpful to know a little about the trumpets that created it. From ancient times until the modern invention of radio, the trumpet was the primary means of battlefield communication. Art from ancient Egypt shows trumpet-playing soldiers on the march. After a hiatus following the fall of Rome, the trumpet appeared again in Europe as war booty collected from the Saracens. As the art of trumpet making progressed, the instruments developed from examples that could play only one low note to models that could play more than an octave above middle C and had a few diatonic notes. The trumpet ensemble became a symbol of power in the Renaissance court, and trumpet players were valued more highly than other performers.

Prior to 1975, scholars knew much about the Renaissance trumpet through two books published during the 17th century. These were Marin Mersenne’s Harmonie Universelle (1635), and Girolamo Fantini’s Modo para Imparare a sonare di Tromba (1638). Both books contain examples of battle trumpet calls, with syllables written under the notes, possibly to indicate tonguing but apparently also to aid the instrumentalist in learning the music. Scholars were able to see by studying the trumpet tunes that Janequin and his imitators had used real battle music in their compositions. While the syllables Mersenne and Fantini indicated were not the same as those Janequin used, that did not mean Janequin’s were not accurate for his time and location.

In 1970 historian Edward Tarr published a facsimile and translation of a third manuscript, Cesare Bendinelli’s Tutta l’arte della Trombetta. In 1614, Bendinelli had donated to a library his instrument and a manuscript containing a wealth of music and pedagogical material, and there they had lain for the next three and a half centuries. Bendinelli had gone a step further than Mersenne and Fantini. He described not only the notes but also the system by which Renaissance trumpeters played:

Here all the trumpeters begin to play, in the field, at princely courts, or in other places. I point out that a single [player] begins and the others follow in order, as is the custom . . . First the grosso; second the vulgano; third, alto e basso, that is, he who imitates the sonata with his notes, only lower, and who has to be quite expert; fourth the one who leads; and fifth, the clarino, who avoids octaves since they clash and are not used by those who understand music.

We can understand now why a Renaissance sovereign might have required twenty-four trumpeters. A chart of the harmonic series shows what notes each of the performers named by Bendinelli would have played (Example 1).

Understanding that Renaissance trumpeters played as an ensemble rather than as soloists now clarifies why composers so often imitated the opening gesture of La guerre’s Secunda pars. It represented not only the notes but also the harmony of the war trumpet sound of Janequin’s time. James South implies that even Janequin’s key of F may have been taken from practical example. Bendinelli’s own trumpet sounds close to our modern key of E, which may have been the F of his time and place.9 Bendinelli labeled the chart describing his own trumpet’s range as Trombetta Antigua, perhaps referring to the older war trumpet as contrasted with the newer C trumpet that had replaced it.

Example 2 shows how Bendinelli’s battle trumpet formation appears in Janequin’s much-imitated second section. In the first measure, all voices simulate trumpet harmony; then the bass and tenor sing the lines that the grosso and vulgano trumpets normally would have played. The rhythm of the short notes with the syllables “Fre re le le lan fan” is that of the rotta, a flourish with which both military and ceremonial trumpet music might end. I have discovered that the rotta figure features in many organ battles (Example 3). 

Perhaps the most imitated trumpet motive Janequin uses is the Boutez selle (“put on the saddle”) (Example 4). Distinctive and easily heard through the busy texture of the chanson, this figure appears in all of the Renaissance trumpet methods. In Bendinelli’s it is entitled Buta sella and includes an example of mnemonic syllables like those Janequin may have had in mind when he wrote La guerre. The Boutez selle figure appears repeatedly in the organ battles, and I have observed that it is often accompanied by battle trumpet harmony (Example 4).

The organ battles of Iberia do not simply copy Janequin’s chanson, however. They use fanfares and other trumpet-like figures that the composers no doubt heard as part of ceremonies, or perhaps even composed for trumpet as well (Example 5). Because these figures are still used today for similar purposes, we recognize them immediately.

Portuguese and Spanish organ battles also depart from Janequin in their overall structure. The actual battle depiction in La guerre, Secunda Pars, falls into roughly two parts. The first uses trumpet motives, and the second drum and gunfire sounds. The texture remains quite consistently in four voices. There are some meter changes, but the listener does not perceive discrete sections. 

Iberian organ battles, on the other hand, are distinctly sectional. The texture varies between full block chords and the battle ensemble depiction of solo voice over triads (on the organ these can also appear under the chords). Meter changes often delimit the sections. The unique shape and style of Iberian battle music developed due to the influence of three musical elements exclusive to Spain and Portugal and their colonies in the western hemisphere. These are the villancico, the ensalada, and the particular direction Iberian organ builders took with their creations.


The impact of the villancico, ensalada, and Iberian organ developments

The first of these influences, the villancico, vilancete in Portuguese, is a song form. Villancicos had vernacular text, folk melodies, and an energetic rhythmic style replete with syncopation, hemiola, and meter changes. The villancico was strophic with a refrain (estribillo) and sometimes many verses (coplas). Villancico-like characteristics in the organ battles may include changing meters, hemiola, and a dance-like 3+3+2 rhythm that often appears at cadences (Example 6).

At first a secular form, the villancico moved into the realm of liturgy as devotional coplas were created to accompany estribillos that often remained secular. It became customary to perform these following each lesson at Vespers and during the elevation of the Host during the Mass.12 Buelow suggests that battle pieces, closely related to the villancicos as they were, would also have been performed at the same points in the Mass.13 Phillip II of Spain banned the performance of villancicos in his chapel in 1596, but his complaint apparently was that they were sung in Spanish rather than Latin, and not that they were too spirited. The rest of the Iberian peninsula ignored this prohibition, and the villancico remained popular in Spanish and Latin American churches until the 19th century.

A popular theme for villancicos was the battle between good and evil. A song might depict a battle between the Virgin or the newborn Christ Child and Lucifer. Often the battle image might become more worldly. One example from mid-17th century Coimbra begins with a symbolic battle between divine and worldly love, but then turns into a skirmish between Portuguese and Spanish troops. Amid the repeated cries of “Long live divine love!” comes the text:


Viva el Amor divino 

Que nos ha quitado 

la prisión esquiva

De un ciego traidor.   


Praise the divine Love

Who has rid us

Of the unreachable prison

Of a blind traitor.


It is not surprising that some images of actual war might creep into the texts of sacred music. During the 17th century, Portugal was often at war, both battling for political separation from Spain and sparring with Spain in the western hemisphere, as they divided up the Americas between them.

A second factor in the development of organ battle music was the ensalada. The word means “salad,” and in fact the ensalada was a hodge-podge, a kind of musical revue made up of hymns and villancicos, sometimes acted out. These were performed on feast days and were especially popular at Christmas, New Year, and Epiphany. Ensaladas were sung and accompanied by an interesting variety of wind instruments, all of them loud. A composition might specify two trumpets and a schalmei, although the oboe and organ were also popular. 

Because the ensalada was made up of a variety of individual pieces, it was by definition a sectional music form. Spanish keyboard music already had a sectional genre, the tiento, one based on imitation similar to the Italian ricercar. Organists had simply to move from accompanying an ensalada to writing one for the organ alone. Ricercar-like imitation, usually at the octave, appears in some battles (Example 7), and authors often include battles in discussions of the tiento.

The third factor to influence the development of Iberian organ battle music was the instrument itself. At the beginning of the 16th century, Spanish and Portuguese organs were constructed by Flemish organ builders and were the same as those in other parts of Europe. Flemish practices continued in the Catalonian region of Spain, but in Castile and Portugal local organ builders took the instrument in a new direction. 

One difference was the divided manual, or medio registro. Each half of the manual, from middle C down and from middle C# up, could have its own registration. This allowed a small instrument much more variety than it might have with just one setting for the entire manual. Composers wrote pieces for medio registro with one hand soloing and the other playing an accompaniment. On a medio registro instrument, an organist could use different registrations to create an echo effect with this type of imitation. In the battles we often see paired imitation with a figure played first in one octave and then in another (Example 8).

Another improvement was the swell box, which appears to have been developed in Spain before anywhere else in Europe.15 Some of the enclosed pipes included reeds. The swell could potentially create echo effects without changes of octave or registration (Example 9). Some Spanish organs of the 17th century even had devices that allowed quick change of registration, although this was by no means universal. 

Organs became more versatile as organ makers learned to build pipes that imitated the sounds of other instruments. Pipes might do a credible job of mimicking the bassoon, the oboe, buzzing reed instruments such as the crumhorn, schalmei, and dulzian, and trumpets in all registers. The organ could play these sounds with more volume and a greater range than could performers on the actual instruments, sounding a death knell for these players who until that time had been highly valued. 

During the 17th century organ builders began to place trumpet-shaped reed pipes horizontally for more brilliant tonal effect and visual beauty. Almost every battle has at least one solo that might have been played on horizontal reeds against a background of a quieter reed chorus (Example 10). However, Doderer believes that organists would also have used horizontal reeds for dense chordal passages, creating a truly immense volume of sound (Example 11).

Not all Iberian organs were equipped with accessory stops to simulate percussion instruments as was the one at Lérida Cathedral (it also had bells and six different birdsongs). However, composers definitely assumed that performers would imitate this effect through articulation. Batalha famoza includes an instruction to play the left hand quickly in order to imitate musket fire (Example 12). Possibly this could be turned into a special effect, since the full sound of a pipe might not speak when played with a very short stroke.

These organs had fewer pedals than do modern ones. Organs surviving from the 17th century generally have from one to three pedals that might play C, F, and/or G, depending on the organ’s basic pitch (some were based on 24 F stops rather than the 16 C stops common in Germany).


Performance considerations

Developing insight into the trumpet sounds Iberian organists were emulating in their compositions throws new light on how this music should be played. The triadic accompaniment to a solo line should not hide in the background, but sound like a trumpet chorus. The organist can phrase a fanfare or battle call so that it sounds as if an actual trumpeter were playing it.

Understanding the organ of the time provides additional clues to bringing this music to life. Sutton suggests using an organ with at least two manuals to create the contrast that one medio registro keyboard could generate.17 Use pedals sparingly, since the organs for which the battles were written could only play sustained notes in common cadence pitches. One registration possibility would be a strong solo reed and bright reed chorus contrasted with full organ at sectional divisions. Barbara Owen suggests avoiding gaps in the registration or allowing it to become too foundational or too top-heavy.

Battle music remains a satisfying part of the organ literature today. Because their trumpet fanfares and battle signal motives persist as part of our aural culture, modern audiences still respond to this sound. Today we use battle music in concert rather than as liturgical repertoire, since tastes in church music have changed. However, battle music might make a satisfying postlude on a festive occasion, much as this music was used four centuries ago. 



1. Mary Ellen Sutton, A study of the 17th-century Iberian organ batalla (Ann Arbor: UMI, 1978), 142–143.

2. Gerhard Doderer, Orgelmusik und Orgelbau im Portugal des 17. Jahrhunderts: Unteruchungen an Hand des MS 964 d. Biblioteca Pública in Braga (Tutzing: Hans Schneider, 1978), 198–199.

3. Sutton, Iberian organ batalla, 92.

4. Josep Elías wrote on the title page of a collection of the master’s works, “Ante ruet mundus quam surget Cabanilles secundus.” George J. Buelow, A History of Baroque Music (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004), 382.

5. Mary Jane Corry, “A Spanish-Austrian Battle.” Music/The AGO and RCCO Magazine (March 1970), 35.

6. Sutton, Iberian organ batalla, 65.

7. Cesare Bendinelli, The Entire Art of Trumpet Playing (1614), trans. Edward H. Tarr (Nashville: The Brass Press, 1975), 12.

8. Monteverdi provides a written-out example of the trumpet ensemble in the Toccata that opens his opera, Orfeo, 1607. See Example 13.

9. James South, “References to trumpet music in the battle chansons of Clément Janequin.” DMA diss., University of North Texas, 1990. RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, EBSCOhost.

10. Renaissance trumpets were generally pitched between modern B and F.

11. Walton, Clifford, History of the British Standing Army, A.D. 1660–1700 (London: Harrison and Sons, 1894), p. 467.

12. Buelow, History of Baroque Music, 371.

13. Ibid., 380.

14. Manuel Carlos De Brito, “A Little-Known Collection of Portuguese Baroque Villancicos and Romances,” Royal Musical Association Research Chronicle, No. 15 (1979), 17–37. Translation by Dr. Miguel Chuaqui, Professor of Composition at the University of Utah.

15. Douglas Earl Bush and Richard Kassel, eds., The Organ: An Encyclopedia (New York: Taylor and Francis, 2005), 548.

16. Doderer, Orgelmusik und Orgelbau, 203.

17. Sutton, Iberian organ batalla, 123.

18. Barbara Owen, The Registration of Baroque Organ Music (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997), 130–134.