'These pieces, of tragic magnificence, are performed with intensity and integrity, so that a great recording will now ensure that an incomparable treasure of Christian music will be safely preserved for future generations' (The Good CD Guide)
'Enthusiastically recommended to anyone interested in Renaissance polyphony and everyone else besides' (Gramophone)
The Liturgy of Holy Week in the Roman Rite was called Officium Hebdomadae Sanctae and this was the title that Victoria used for his collection published in Rome in 1585 shortly before he returned to Spain. In it he presented polyphonic music to adorn some of the most important services from Palm Sunday to Holy Saturday. It is one of the most complete cycles of music for Holy Week by a single composer, exceeded only by that of the little-known Paulus Ferrariens (1565). Of Victoria’s peers, Lassus and Palestrina, we have Lamentations and Responsories by the former and five sets of Lamentations (of which only the simplest was printed) by the latter. Victoria’s Officium for Holy Week and his great Office of the Dead have stood the test of time and are recognized as supreme works of the last phase of what we call Renaissance polyphony. Their intensity of expression and concentrated anguish have also influenced, somewhat unduly, our view of the composer, overshadowing his serene and joyous music for the countless happy festivals of the Church.
Within Victoria’s great monument of music for the ceremonies of the Passio et mors Domini nostri Iesu Christi there are two outstanding and quite different sets of specifically liturgical pieces—nine Lessons from the Lamentations of Jeremiah the Prophet, and eighteen Responsories, all for the services called Tenebrae (Matins followed by Lauds) on Maundy Thursday (Feria V in Coena Domini), Good Friday (Feria VI in Parasceve) and Holy Saturday (Sabbato Sancto). It is the set of eighteen Responsories that has acquired a musical life of its own in modern times, divorced from the liturgy and context in which it was conceived. But all great music rapidly bids farewell to its parent, the vessel and mould through which it passed, and takes on a life of its own.
The original context of Tenebrae, now largely abandoned in the debasement of liturgy by a de-spiritualized Church, was a sombre celebration of Matins divided into three Nocturns on each of the three days. In the first Nocturn of each day three Lamentations were alternated with three Responsories. Victoria set the Lamentations but not the Responsories. In the second and third Nocturns he did the opposite. The Lessons were to be recited and the Responsories Victoria put into strictly ordered polyphony, observing every correct repeat prescribed by the rubrics. Thus Victoria wrote six Responsories for each of the three days. In this respect he did the same as his great contemporary Lassus who wrote his eighteen in the 1580s. Lassus also published his set of Lamentations in 1585.
The plan of the Responsory texts and of the music is always ABCB with an additional repeat in the third of each group, thus ABCBAB. The section C is always for fewer voices—three parts instead of four—except in the very first where the versicle (C) is for just two. In Victoria’s orderly plan the first and third of each group of three Responsories are for a choir of SATB voices, but the middle one of each group is for SSAT. All the music of the eighteen Responsories is in the high clefs of Renaissance notation. Although there is therefore a strong argument for downward transposition in performance, modern choirs, including Westminster Cathedral’s, usually sing them as notated at modern pitch. A Roman tradition dating from the eighteenth century is followed at Westminster Cathedral in performing Tenebrae factae sunt and Aestimatus sum an octave lower, sung by tenors and basses instead of SSAT.
The texts of the Tenebrae Responsories trace the events of the Passion and Death of Christ. They are primitive centonizations from the Gospels with additions of unknown authorship dating probably from the fourth century. They do not always seem to make perfect sense, but somehow this enhances the austere power of it all, words and music.
In listening to this music in our modern way, as a suite of pieces set in great unity by a magisterial hand, we should reflect upon its conception and first purpose. Imagine a great church in darkness but for a massive stand with fifteen candles. Imagine how, as the Lamentations, Responsories, readings, psalms and canticles are chanted by priests, choirmen and boys, glorious polyphony punctuating the ancient plainchant, the candles are gradually extinguished until the last is hidden as the brief office of Lauds is concluded after the long Matins. This was the Tenebrae of Holy Week, often sung in recent centuries during the preceding evenings rather than in the small hours of the last days of Holy Week.
Victoria would surely be sad at the loss of the great ceremonies, of a liturgy that had been revised and perfected in his own lifetime. He might justifiably be proud that his own contribution could still move hearts and stimulate minds four centuries later. Victoria’s balance of formality and expression, his perfect setting and propulsion of the Latin words, still excite our admiration.
Victoria’s musical career in Rome brought him into contact with Palestrina and the innumerable singers, organists and composers from all over Europe who were active in the chapels and churches of that great city at the very time when Catholicism regained confidence, new vitality and disciplined reform. The young Spanish priest was soon publishing his compositions in sumptuous editions. Even Palestrina was not so fortunate at that time.
The success of his Roman years did not prevent Victoria from yearning for a quiet life in Spain. After his publications of 1585 he achieved his desire and returned to take up the position of Chaplain and Chapelmaster at the Royal Convent of the Barefoot Nuns of St Clare in Madrid, effectively the home and chapel of Philip II’s sister, the Dowager Empress Maria. There he ended his days, producing less and less after 1600 and nothing, so far as we know, after the publication in 1605 of the great Office of the Dead. He had turned down offers from Seville and Saragossa; he had visited Rome during the period 1592–94, supervising the printing of his works and attending Palestrina’s funeral. In 1595 he returned to Madrid and stayed.
Bruno Turner © 1987