The palace of the Braganza family, heirs to the Portuguese throne, is situated in Vila Viçosa near to the Spanish border and, in the sixteenth century, boasted a musical tradition second to none, having more musicians in its employ than any of Portugal's many cathedrals.
This recording is a celebration of the vast outpouring of masterpieces which survived the destruction by earthquake of the Lisbon libraries solely due to the dedication of the Vila Viçosa copyists. The particular items here represented come from Holy Week, and fully live up to what we might expect from this most impressive and elaborate of ceremonies in the liturgical year.
The ducal palace of the Braganza family, heirs to the Portuguese throne from the mid-seventeenth century onwards, is situated in Vila Viçosa, a small town near the Spanish border in southern Portugal. The palace was built at the beginning of the sixteenth century by Dom Jaime, fourth Duke of Braganza, and survives as the best witness to the former richness and glory of this royal house. One of the most thriving eras was during the time of the fifth and sixth Dukes of Braganza in the sixteenth century, when several Portuguese humanists were at court. Before Dom João (eighth Duke) succeeded to the Portuguese throne in 1640, following sixty years of Spanish rule under the Habsburg monarchs, over three hundred people were employed at the palace, including a very large band of musicians: more than a hundred are recorded there between 1583 and 1626 – a greater number than in any of the cathedrals in Portugal.
The Capella ducal de S Jeronymo was central to the lives of the Dukes of Braganza and liturgical services there were extremely lavish and protracted affairs, adorned with polyphonic music and often accompanied by harp, wind instruments (such as the sackbut and bassoon) and organ. The liturgy of Holy Week enjoyed a particularly privileged position and, in 1604, special papal dispensation was obtained which permitted the celebration of the daytime Offices of Holy Week to extend well into the night. In his will (1628), Dom Teodósio, seventh Duke of Braganza, described the chapel as the most treasured possession that he was leaving to his son, the future King João IV (‘a milhor couza que lhe deixo nesta Casa, he a minha Capella’), who thenceforth ensured that musical standards there were of the highest.
During João’s time as Duke (1630-1640) the palace continued to be the meeting-place for some of the most notable Spanish and Portuguese musicians of the day: these included Mateo Romero (maestro de capilla in the Spanish royal chapel), Manuel Cardoso and João Lourenço Rebelo. Through Dom João’s patronage several books of polyphonic music were published in Lisbon, including works by Filipe de Magalhães (mestre da capella of the royal chapel in Lisbon) and Manuel Cardoso. Dom João was an avid collector of music, building up a vast library of manuscripts and printed books, many of which were sent to him direct from publishing houses. He was also an amateur musician, theorist and composer. At Vila Viçosa he was taught by Roberto Tornar (Robert Turner), a musician of British extraction who had an active role in the ducal chapel and the newly-formed choir school, the Colégio dos Santos Reis. When he ascended the Portuguese throne in December 1640, King João IV arranged for his music library to be transferred to the royal palace in Lisbon, leaving the ducal palace and chapel thus bereft of part of its treasures. He continued to build up his collection and also had new works published. This magnificent library, however, was to perish in the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. The first part of the Index of the library (published in 1649) survives as a tantalizing record of an extraordinarily diverse international collection of musical works of which the majority is now lost.
After King João’s departure to Lisbon the palace at Vila Viçosa ran into financial difficulties and musical standards declined for a while. However, during the reign of King João V (1705-1750) renewed impetus was given to the organization and musical activities in the chapel. In 1716 a set of Estatutos was drawn up (to a large extent based on those of c1630 issued by Dom João) which, among other things, re-emphasized the musical importance of the services of Holy Week. It was stipulated, for instance, that the Office of Matins (Tenebrae), celebrated on the last three days of Holy Week, was to be sung in full, using both chant and polyphonic music. Using the repertories once preserved in João IV’s library in Lisbon, a series of choirbooks containing music for Holy Week was copied by a certain Vincente Perez Petroch Valentino in Lisbon in 1735/6, specially for use at the ducal chapel in Vila Viçosa.
The liturgy of Holy Week, with its series of penitential texts and reflections on the suffering and death of Christ, inspired some of the most expressive pieces of vocal music ever written. Motets, Lamentations and responsories by Spanish and Portuguese composers working in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in particular – composers such as Victoria, Cardoso, Esquivel and Juan de Castro y Malagaray – remain as testimonies to the taste at that time for emotional and often dramatic musical statements written in response to the sentiments of the texts. This music remained fashionable well into the eighteenth century and continued to be performed in the leading choral establishments such as the royal chapel in Lisbon even when Italianate tastes and manners took a firm hold (this happening particularly under the directorship of Domenico Scarlatti (mestre da capella, c1720-1728) who began to recruit large numbers of professional Italian musicians). Tangible proof of the continued taste for sixteenth- and seventeenth-century music is found in the series of Vila Viçosa choirbooks which include a wide range of choral works dating from this period for up to eight voice parts. Although some of the music in these books – by Victoria, Palestrina and Cardoso – is known through other sources (both printed and in manuscript), a very large proportion is unique. It is thus thanks to the diligence of the copyist that we are still left with an important repertory of works which would otherwise have been destroyed in the Lisbon earthquake. An additional curiosity is the music by a number of composers such as Francisco António de Almeida, Manuel Soares and the Italian Hieronimus Bezzi who played a decisive role in these compilations of Holy Week music: not only did they compose items in a pastiche stile antico, or seventeenth-century manner, but they also even completed – or added contrapuntal parts to – compositions by older composers.
The music on this disc has been selected from the Vila Viçosa choirbooks, beginning with items from the multifarious sequence of music traditionally sung during the blessing, distribution of palms, and procession on Palm Sunday, one of the most impressive and elaborate ceremonies in the liturgical year.
Bernadette Nelson © 1996