'A well-packed disc, for those who love a good long play. But, more to the point, the singing and recording are outstanding. And what music is here enshrined! … readers may be a little weary of praises for The Tallis Scholars. There is no other course. This is surely one of the supreme choirs of the world. Peter Phillips, whose notes are revelatory reading, has reached the heart of this sublime music' (Hi-Fi Choice)
'The recording is glorious' (The Observer)
The Tenebrae Responsories encapsulate something uniquely valuable in Victoria's art. It has much to do with an extreme simplicity and directness of style.
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The Tenebrae Responsories, along with the six-voice Requiem, are responsible for setting the modern impression of Victoria as a composer. The introverted, spiritually intense mood of both these masterpieces has appealed to modern ears, promoting the almost indelible association between Victoria, St Teresa (who, like Victoria, was born in Avila), Velazquez and El Greco. Although Victoria was capable of other moods, shown for instance in his ‘battle’ Mass Pro victoria, the joyful double-choir Psalm-settings and settings of the sensuous love poetry of the Song of Songs texts, the Responsories encapsulate something uniquely valuable in his art. This has much to do with an extreme simplicity and directness of style.
The publication which contains these eighteen Responsories first appeared in Rome in 1585 under the official title, as it then was, of Officium Hebdomadae Sanctae. It consists of considerably more than the Responsories, since Victoria set not only the nine Lessons from the Lamentations of Jeremiah the Prophet but hymns, motets, the Reproaches, the two sets of Passion choruses and other music from Palm Sunday to Holy Saturday. Taken together, these pieces represent the most complete cycle of music for Holy Week by any leading Renaissance composer. Gesualdo set all the Responsories (at considerably greater length than Victoria), but none of the Lamentations. Lassus set the same Responsories and the nine Lamentations, and Palestrina composed five sets of Lamentations but no Responsories. It is interesting to observe that settings of the Lamentations have received more concert performances than have settings of the Responsory texts. This must have something to do with the strict liturgical structure of the latter and the resulting impression that a concert is not quite the right place for them. They are well represented in recordings, however, where one may listen to them as they were intended to be heard, in three separate groups, one each for Thursday, Friday and Saturday of Holy Week.
Originally, on these seminal days of the Church’s year, the Responsories were sung early in the morning during Matins which was followed by Lauds. Later, these Offices together became called Tenebrae and were performed during the evening of the preceding day. In this service, the only light in the church came from a triangular stand holding fifteen candles (representing the eleven faithful apostles, the three Marys, and Christ), and from six candles on the altar. As each Psalm was chanted, a candle was extinguished, so that after the fourteenth Psalm only the highest candle (which represented Christ) was still burning. During the concluding recitation (the Canticle of Zachary) the six candles on the altar were also put out one by one until, as the Office of Lauds drew to a close, the only candle which was still burning was concealed behind the altar; thus the church was left in tenebris – in darkness. The rite symbolized both the darkness which covered the earth as Christ was crucified, and his burial. After the closing prayers the worshippers made a certain amount of noise to represent nature in turmoil at the death of Christ. Once the noise had died away, the remaining candle was brought out from behind the altar (a sign of the resurrection), returned to the stand and extinguished.
The Tenebrae Matins was divided, on each day, into three Nocturns, each of which required the singing or reciting of three Lessons alternated with three Responsories. The Lessons for the First Nocturn on each day are from the Lamentations. Victoria set these but not the Responsories. In the Second and Third Nocturns of each day Victoria did the opposite and set the Responsories, leaving the Lessons to be chanted by a deacon. Since Victoria wrote the music to adorn the Liturgy, he kept strictly to the repeats prescribed by tradition, which this recording preserves: a repetition of the second section of the opening four-part music after the reduced-voice passage, giving a kind of da capo shape: ABCB. This happens in all eighteen pieces. In addition, in the third of each set, the opening section is repeated again at the end: ABCBAB. In this scheme the A and B passages are invariably scored for four voices, while section C is always for fewer voice-parts, and sung by soloists. The detail of the scoring shows how carefully Victoria kept to a plan. The first and third of each group of three Responsories are set for SATB, the second for SSAT (we do not follow the unauthorized modern habit of singing some of these with men’s voices only). The reduced-voice passages are scarcely less ordered, all being for three voices, except the first one which is a duet. In almost every case the solo group in the first Responsory of each set of three is scored for SAT, the third is scored for ATB and the second makes use of the extra soprano part in the full choir, resulting in SSA or SST. This precise scheme serves as a simple framework for the emotional variety in the music.
Part of the clue as to how Victoria achieved this variety lies in the details of the Passion narrative. For a late Renaissance composer, albeit one who never wrote any madrigals, the story gives unlimited opportunities for different kinds of word-painting, as well as describing states of mind which vary from the supremely tragic to the contemplative. How Victoria encompassed these differences in an idiom so straightforward that it scarcely touches on imitative counterpoint is one of the great miracles of musical thought. With complete assurance, he describes the innocence of the lamb at the beginning of ‘Eram quasi agnus’; the swords and clubs of ‘Seniores populi’; the lugubrious darkness of ‘Tenebrae factae sunt’; the lion during ‘Animam meam dilectam’; the intense distress in ‘O vos omnes’. At the same time he is capable of writing passages of the most inspired music, without any obvious help from the text: consider the solo section of ‘Iesum tradidit impius’ which does no more than mark time in the narrative yet, with its two answering soprano parts, is perhaps the most memorable section of all.
The power of Victoria’s Tenebrae Responsories lies in the balance between the words and his setting of them. The text has its own impact, which may be discovered by reading it aloud. Victoria started from this point, being careful to capture the natural speech rhythms, keeping to syllabic setting (and so never indulging in the early Renaissance delight of music for its own sake); and then heightened the meaning of a verbal phrase with the right turn of harmony or fragment of melody. This pared-down musical idiom, unfamiliar to composers before the late sixteenth century, was lost again during the Baroque period. It has become once again a goal for composers during the twentieth century; but, attractive as the idea of an elemental style has proved to be for many, to express oneself clearly requires complete certainty about what one has to say. Victoria remains a model for them all.
Peter Phillips © 1990