'The choir of Westminster Cathedral has long been noted for its distinctive Continental-style tone, which gives its performances of Latin sacred polyphony an attractively distinctive quality. This magnificent recording, which shows off Victoria's mastery of the art of writing music for up to three choirs in the grandest possible manner, suggests that 2004 is a vintage year for them … recordings of Renaissance polyphony rarely come much better than this' (Daily Telegraph)
'It is ideally suited to the full-throated, vibrant singing of the Westminster Cathedral Choir, while Martin Baker's finely controlled direction displays a keen architectural sense … A wonderful disc' (Goldberg Early Music Magazine)
'the choir is radiant in its home acoustic, and Martin Baker's well-researched decision to employ an understated organ 'continuo' adds small but telling touches of colour to the texture' (International Record Review)
Westminster Cathedral continue their survey of the music of Tomás Luis de Victoria—begun in triumphant style with a Gramophone Award-winning disc of the Missa O quam gloriosum—with this new recording of the Missa Ave Regina caelorum, an opulent double-choir setting based on Victoria’s two eponymous motets.
Also included are a four-voice Magnificat, two Ave Maria settings (for four and eight voices), the double-choir Ave Regina caelorum, and five Vesper Psalms, all composed for double-choir as if to underline their significance in the liturgy. The performances do full justice to the ambition of Victoria’s intentions, as Martin Baker firmly cements his position as worthy successor to the glories achieved by this choir under James O’Donnell and, before him, David Hill.
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Tomás Luis de Victoria, the greatest composer of the Spanish sixteenth-century ‘golden age’ of polyphonic music, was born in Avila in 1548 and in about 1558 became a choirboy at Avila Cathedral, where he received his earliest musical training. When his voice broke he was sent to the Collegium Germanicum in Rome at which he was enrolled as a student in 1565. He was to spend the next twenty years in Rome and occupied a number of posts there, of which the most important were at S Maria di Monserrato, the Collegium Germanicum, the Roman Seminary (where he succeeded Palestrina as maestro di cappella in 1571), and S Apollinare. In 1575 he took holy orders and three years later he was admitted to a chaplaincy at S Girolamo della Caritá. Around 1587 he left Italy and in that year took up an appointment as chaplain to the dowager Empress María at the Royal Convent for Barefoot Clarist Nuns, at Madrid, where he acted as maestro to the choir of priests and boys that was attached to the convent.
Victoria’s musical output was relatively small compared with other major Renaissance composers such as Palestrina and Lassus, and he published no secular music. The music he did publish, however, shows a very high level of inspiration and musical craftsmanship and it is clear – from the constant revisions he made to the successive editions of his works that appeared during his lifetime and from some of his comments in prefaces to his works – that he adopted a highly critical attitude to what he wrote. His style shows the influence of earlier masters in the Spanish school and also that of his long stay in Rome, where it is likely that he had considerable contact with Palestrina. However, while he shares with Palestrina a liking for smooth conjoint melodic lines and carefully worked double counterpoint, his music contains (even after making allowance for changing conventions about the use of musica ficta) more accidentals and a subtle use of harmonic coloration which sets it apart from that of any of his near contemporaries and gives it that quality of passionate intensity for which it is so justly renowned.
This disc presents a collection of mainly double-choir music by Victoria, almost all of it with specific Marian uses or connotations. It is striking, when one comes to examine the liturgical context of Victoria’s music, to find that a high proportion of his limited output falls into this category: including ten of his thirteen antiphon settings, seven of his twenty masses, and ten of his forty-seven motets; and his output of hymns included two settings of Ave maris stella. Of his seven polychoral Psalm settings two stand apart from the others. One, Ecce nunc benedicite, is a Psalm used at Compline on Sundays; the other, Super flumina Babylonis (first published in Venice in 1576), is a Vesper Psalm but lacks a ‘Gloria Patri’ and was evidently produced for a special occasion. The remaining five are all Vesper Psalms. Four of these, Dixit Dominus, Laudate pueri, Nisi Dominus and Laudate Dominum omnes gentes, were first published in 1581 in Rome by Francisco Zanetti, and the remaining one, Laetatus sum, was published shortly afterwards in Rome in 1583. Of these five Psalms all but Laudate Dominum are specified for feasts of the Virgin Mary. The present disc includes a Marian antiphon, a mass based on Marian themes, two settings of Ave Maria, the five Vesper Psalm settings mentioned above and a Magnificat.
The eight-part Ave Regina caelorum was originally used in the liturgy as an antiphon to precede and follow the chanting of a Psalm. It is now sung as a motet at the end of Compline in the period from Purification until the Wednesday in Holy Week. Victoria wrote a five-part setting of the antiphon which was published in Venice in 1576 by Angelo Gardane, and he subsequently wrote an eight-part version, which was published in Rome in 1581 by Dominico Basa. The double-choir version, like the five-part, opens with stately figures derived from the Compline plainsong, sometimes loosely paraphrased, to produce an impressive and sonorous chordal structure, which gives way at the end of the first half to some lively passagework setting the words ‘from whence came the light of the world’. The second half of the motet begins with some joyous antiphonal exchanges in triple time illustrating the words ‘Rejoice, O glorious one, splendid above all other’ and ends in a more sombre mood with wonderful rich eight-part counterpoint to the words ‘plead always for us with Christ’.
Missa Ave Regina caelorum, written in eight parts for two equal SATB choirs, is a ‘parody’ mass based on Victoria’s two motet settings of Ave Regina caelorum. In the sixteenth century and earlier it was a standard practice (which might well now be considered plagiarism, but was probably then considered a form of compliment) for a composer to take an existing motet or motets by another composer as a basis for creating a larger-scale work such as a mass by using, elaborating on and developing the material in the source(s) and combining this with new material to build a much larger musical structure. Sometimes, as in this case, a composer might use material drawn from his own works. Victoria used this technique to write two other double-choir masses on the basis of his own paired five- and eight-part antiphon settings (the Missa Alma redemptoris mater and the Missa Salve Regina). In the ‘Ave Regina’ mass the listener will hear throughout echoes of passages from each of the source motets and the plainsong on which they are based, together with much newly composed material, especially in the vigorous antiphonal exchanges between the two choirs in the two most wordy movements – the Gloria and the Credo.
The four-voice setting of Ave Maria, also known as The Angelic Salutation, is a form of prayer to the Blessed Virgin Mary based on the greeting to her by the Angel Gabriel (Luke 1: 28) and the acclamation of Elisabeth (Luke 1: 42). The devotional use of the first half of the prayer originated in the eleventh century but it was not until the sixteenth century that the full text was officially recognized and included by Pope Pius V in the Roman Breviary of 1568. It was removed from the Office in 1955. Two settings have been attributed to Victoria, one for four voices and the other for eight voices. The four-voice setting appears in a supplement to the last volume (published in 1913) of Pedrell’s edition of the complete works of Victoria, containing a number of compositions attributed to Victoria, but which do not appear in any known Renaissance printed source. In his commentary Pedrell says that he has reproduced the Ave Maria from a collection of transcriptions, entitled Musica Divina, by Monseigneur Proske (which was published in instalments between 1853 and 1864). Pedrell does not comment on whether the piece can correctly be attributed to Victoria, but the fact that he does not provide any prefatory incipits for the Ave Maria suggests that he had not seen the original manuscript on which Proske’s transcription of the Ave Maria was based. This and the strongly modal character of parts of the work combine to throw some doubt on its authenticity, but it is an attractive and well-loved piece in a predominantly homophonic idiom, which contrasts well the double-choir setting, which is of undoubted authenticity.
The eight-voice setting of Ave Maria is extended and sumptuous, again for two equal SATB choirs, opening with the words of the Ave Maria chant taken from chapter 1 of St Luke’s Gospel. This setting is written in a most effective antiphonal style which alternates passages of homophonic writing, some of them in triple time, with more polyphonically conceived exchanges of great spaciousness and fullness.
The Psalm Dixit Dominus is also written for two equal SATB choirs and sets all seven verses of Psalm 110 (109) in lively antiphonal style, ending with a doxology which opens in brisk triple time (perhaps symbolizing the three persons of the Trinity) and broadening at the end into some substantial and sonorous eight-part writing.
Laudate pueri Dominum takes its text from the nine verses of Psalm 113 (112) and is written for a high choir of SSAT set off against an SATB choir, giving scope for contrasts of tessitura and sonority which Victoria fully exploits and reinforces by including two sections written for reduced voices and a lively triple-time ‘Gloria Patri’.
Laudate Dominum omnes gentes is a setting of Psalm 117 (116). With only two verses this is the shortest Psalm, but Victoria nonetheless produces a substantial setting of it (for two SATB choirs). Opening with a set of imitative entries in both choirs, the music soon proceeds to a series of increasingly closely argued antiphonal exchanges which culminate in a section of rich eight-part polyphony. The setting ends with a doxology beginning with his customary triple-time ‘Gloria Patri’ and rounded off with a beautiful sonorous final section in duple time.
‘I was glad when they said unto me: We will go into the house of the Lord’ are the opening lines of Laetatus sum, a setting of Psalm 122 (121). This is a joyous text which captured the imagination of many composers, and Victoria is no exception. He responded by composing a superb triple-choir motet (for two SATB choirs and one SSABar choir), which uses all the resources of polychoral writing and vocal orchestration to create a vocal structure of great brilliance, richness and variety, and which fully justifies Nappi’s description of him as an ‘unsurpassable composer’.
Nisi Dominus sets the six verses of Psalm 127 (126) for double choir (a high choir of SSAT and an SATB choir) and contains much excellent antiphonal writing with a good deal of rhythmic variety, from the short bursts of triple time to the stately opening of the second half at the words ‘Beatus vir’. Contrasts of choral registration between the higher and lower choirs, together with sections for reduced voices, are skilfully used by Victoria to provide variety and again he uses triple time in the ‘Gloria Patri’ to set off the expansive final section in duple time.
The Magnificat septimi toni, the Canticle of the Blessed Virgin Mary, takes its text from Luke 1: 46–55, which recounts Mary’s response to the Annunciation of the Incarnation to her by the Angel Gabriel. Victoria wrote eighteen settings of the Magnificat. Two of these are large-scale polychoral works setting all the verses of the canticle after an opening plainsong intonation. The remaining sixteen are for four voices and set either the odd or the even verses of the Canticle to polyphony, the intervening verses being sung to plainsong. This Magnificat on the seventh tone (which is preceded by a short plainsong antiphon ‘Gabriel Angelus’) opens with a brief intonation of the first word of the text and thereafter the odd-numbered verses of the canticle are set to polyphony and the even-numbered verses are sung to plainsong. Apart from the ‘Gloria Patri’, in which a second tenor part is employed, the music is basically in four parts (SATB) with a number of reduced-voice sections for ATB or SAT to add variety. Because of the smaller forces, the style of the polyphony is different from that of the Psalms, being written mainly in a more intimate fugal manner, using motives often derived from the plainsong. After a vigorous triple-time setting of the ‘Suscepit Israel’ verse and the penultimate plainsong verse, the Magnificat comes to a satisfying finish with the five-part setting of the ‘Gloria Patri’ in which the soprano part, singing the plainsong in long notes, soars above the busy polyphonic texture of the lower parts; finally the work is rounded off by the singing of the last verse of the plainsong, followed by a repetition of the antiphon.
Jon Dixon © 2004