Veni Sancte Spiritus
is the sequence at Mass on Whit Sunday. The sequence originated as a form of chant, usually fairly extensive in length as well as range, which was interpolated into the liturgy after the Gradual and the Alleluia. Although the earliest versions were in prose (hence, perhaps, the alternative name of ‘prosa’), it later developed as a type of rhyming verse. Special melodies, outside the scope of the traditional plainsong, were composed for them and the texts were often associated with particular events in the church year so that in medieval times they became in effect an addition to the proper of the Mass. There was a great literary and musical flowering of the form in the period from about 850 to 1000. The tradition of polyphonic setting of sequences began in this period with simple organum versions and continued through to the Renaissance period. After the Council of Trent (1545–1563), which abolished nearly all the body of sequences that had by then grown up, only five sequences, none of them from the early repertory, were retained in the liturgy: the ‘Dies irae’ for the Mass of the Dead; ‘Lauda Sion’ for Corpus Christi; the ‘Stabat mater’ for the Feast of the Seven Dolours; ‘Veni Sancte Spiritus’ for Whit Sunday and Whitsun Week; and ‘Victimae Paschali’ for Easter and Easter Week.
Victoria’s double-choir setting of ‘Veni Sancte Spiritus’ is included in a mixed collection of his Masses, Magnificats, Psalms and other pieces published in Madrid by Ioannes Flandrum in 1600. The setting leaves out verses 4, 6 and 8 and the final Alleluia of the full text of the sequence and the way the music is written precludes the insertion of these verses as plainsong interpolations into the polyphony. The music begins slowly, with solemn imitative entries of a theme loosely based on the opening phrase of the plainsong, but soon blossoms into more homophonic antiphonal exchanges between the two choirs and breaks into triple time at the words ‘Consolator optime’. After a brief passage in full eight-part harmony, the music returns to antiphonal exchanges between the two choirs until, at the words ‘Da perenne gaudium’, both choirs join in a final eight-part section of impressive beauty and sonority.
from notes by Jon Dixon © 1996