Something Old / Something New

Tomás Luis de Victoria

Tomás Luis de Victoria (c. 1548-1611) is often referred to as “the most famous Spanish composer in Renaissance Rome” or the like. As that epithet suggests, he has been marginalized for his nationality, not taken as seriously by history as his colleagues of Italian, French, or Low Countries heritage. Perhaps some recent recordings will raise him in your estimation, or maybe bring him into your view for the first time.

During the 22 years Victoria worked in Rome, he climbed to the absolute pinnacle of European religious musical culture, studying and composing alongside Palestrina and Lassus, teaching chant at the Pontifical Seminary, and performing on the most magnificent organs in Italy. Still, he longed to return to his native Spain, and finally got royal dispensation to do so in 1587. The sacred music he produced in Rome and Madrid is equal to anything of the period.

Victoria wrote rich vocal polyphony, mostly motets, following the precepts outlined by Palestrina, musical poster boy for the Counter-Reformation. The Catholic Church was trying to win back the disillusioned faithful who, spurred by the outcry of Martin Luther, noticed that the Church was corrupt and bloated. Palestrina took the Counter-Reformation’s cleansing ideals to heart: Less rhythmic complexity, clearer meters, fewer distracting dissonances, more obvious melodies.

In his Tenebrae Responsories, Victoria demonstrates some of the techniques his mentor Palestrina taught him. A good performance of this set of 18 motets for Holy Week should bring to mind the word “smooth.” You don’t get the kind of harmonic and contrapuntal tension so beloved of, say, Josquin des Prez, or the melodramatic arrangements of Lassus. Yet the word-setting is subtly expressive.

British vocal ensemble Stile Antico has a wonderful new recording of the Tenebrae Responsories. Typical of Harmonia Mundi’s releases, there aren’t tracks on YouTube, so you’ll need to go to Spotify:

 

However, you can listen to a sample from one of the recording sessions by Stile Antico at All Hallow’s Church in London in a featurette. The longest stretch of uninterrupted music starts at about 1:51. Notice the lustrous texture and the way the voices meld one to the other. Stile Antico manages to simultaneously let the natural rhythm in the Latin flow while maintaining Victoria’s strict duple meter (a once-rare sound in sacred vocal polyphony, now popularized by Palestrina):

 

Just for comparison, here’s a 2017 performance by Ars Nova Copenhagen (who, surprisingly, have not made any audio recordings of Victoria) of one of the Tenebrae motets. Under the direction of renowned early-music specialist Paul Hillier, the approach is markedly different from that of Stile Antico. Hillier seems to bring out the individual timbres of his singers’ voices, decreasing that smoothness I mentioned earlier. It’s not less beautiful, but it might not be as close to the Counter-Reformation ideal, which was to make music that banished all thoughts of this mortal life and raised our consciousness to the heavens.

 

Another interesting Victoria recording came out recently from the Oslo-based group Nordic Voices. Their Victoria:Motets is on Chandos, and you can find it on Spotify:

 

Although this, too, was recorded in a church (Oslo’s Ris kirke), the six-voice ensemble is so closely miked that they might as well be in a studio. Here is the motet “Congratulamini mihi,” a text from a cycle celebrating the Blessed Virgin. Nordic Voices take what I would call a madrigalistic approach, relishing the distinct vocal lines with even more individualism than Hillier allowed with Ars Nova Copenhagen.

 

The Nordic Voice’s performance of the motet “Vidi speciosam,” another text for Mary, demonstrates more delicate control over the material, especially in the highest voices (sopranos Ingrid Hanken and Tone Elizabeth Braaten). The second pars – that’s the usual term for a “movement” in a motet – starting at 3:19 is especially fluid and gorgeous.

 

Part of every Renaissance church composer’s job was the writing of Mass settings. Nearly 20 by Victoria are still extant. (In those days, no composer assumed that all his work was immortal and worthy of being kept for posterity, especially given how expensive it was to publish music.) All of them are cyclic Masses of one type or another, using pre-existing musical material to interconnect the various movements. As such, they are named after the pre-existing material.

The Missa Surge propera by Victoria borrows from the motet “Surge, propera amica mea,” by fellow Spaniard Francisco Guerrero. It’s a “parody Mass,” one that quotes from all the parts of a polyphonic source. Therefore, John Potter’s new recording, included on his album Secret History: Josquin/Victoria (ECM Records) is especially bizarre.

Potter, a tenor, has recorded some movements from this 5-voice Mass as solo songs with lute accompaniment. Turning polyphony into instrumental music was not unusual in the Renaissance, especially for secular music. But it’s hard to buy it for a Mass, particularly one that’s doubly focused on polyphony – its own and that of its source. All the grandeur is gone in this re-imagining. Here’s the Sanctus, reduced to lute song. Potter’s issues with breath control and intonation do not help his delivery:

 

Besides writing the Masses used in normal worship, church composers had to produce Requiem Masses when wealthy patrons died. Victoria’s Missa pro defunctis (Mass for the dead) is just that. Because of its special purpose asking that God accept a particular soul into heaven, a Requiem has different texts from other Masses. Thanks to Mozart’s magnificent setting, the “Dies irae” (Day of wrath) is the most famous Requiem text; Victoria, for some reason, did not set that one, so those words would have been sung as plainchant.

The Spanish ensemble Musica Ficta recently put out a recording of Victoria’s Requiem on the Enchiriadis label. Directed by Raúl Mallavibarrena, the performance is emotionally intense. Much credit for that goes to the composer, whose use of dissonance in this work of 1605 would probably have upset ol’ Palestrina (who had died in 1594). By this point in his career, Victoria seems unashamed of the influence of secular madrigals that used contrapuntal and rhythmic ideas to give the listener the most earthly of thrills.

Here is Musica Ficta’s juicy version of the text “Versa est in luctum cithara mea” (My harp is turned toward grief) from Victoria’s Requiem. All that beauty and perfection from his earlier works meets the pain of a very human heart.