‘My harp is turned to mourning, and my music into the voice of those who weep. Spare me, Lord, for my days are nothing.’
Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548–1611) was ordained a priest in Rome in 1575. Ten years later, King Philip II of Spain appointed him chaplain to the Dowager Empress María, the king’s sister. Victoria took up residence with the Dowager Empress at the Monasterio de las Descalzas de S. Clara (the royal convent of the barefoot nuns of St Clare) in Madrid, where he lived, in service of the Empress until her death in 1603, and then until his. It was to commemorate her life that Victoria wrote the Officium Defunctorum: in obit et obsequiis sacra imperatricis (the Office for the Dead: for the death and obsequies of the holy empress); it was the last work he ever published.
Goethe once compared architecture to frozen music, and in this vein I was struck recently by Paul Goldberger’s description of the World Trade Centre memorial at ground zero in Manhattan, designed by the young architect Michael Arad:
‘it is a strong, almost minimalist design, turning the footprint of each tower into a square hole, with waterfalls running down the sides into a reflecting pool below. At the centre of each reflecting pool is another, smaller square, into which water tumbles, as if it were flowing to the centre of the earth. … They have made the space around the two footprints a handsome and restrained civic square, with oak trees, benches and light poles giving the place a kind of quiet, firm order. You wouldn’t mistake it for an ordinary park or urban piazza, but it isn’t a cemetery, either. You feel a sense of dignity and repose.’
This is the architecture of grief, and, ‘unfrozen’, it might sound something like Victoria’s setting of the Requiem. Like the memorial, this music is strong, and almost minimalist in its construction. It, too, has a kind of quiet, firm order; it is characterised by a sense of dignity and repose. It proceeds unhurriedly, creating melodic and harmonic structures that build on top of one another to create an aural landscape of stillness and serenity. It is music for grieving, but its grief is subdued, inward-facing. Victoria’s music mourns the death of a patron and of a matriarch, but it does so without being ostentatious.
Much of the dark splendour of Victoria’s setting comes from its harmonic language and slow pace—Paul Griffiths has compared the harmonic plangency of its false relations (such as when a d minor chord slides into A major and back again) to the strange colours and bizarre perspectives of El Greco, the painter who was working in Spain at the same time as Victoria. The opening motet of Victoria’s Office sets words from the tenth chapter of the Book of Job:
‘I am weary at heart of my own life; I will speak out at my own risk, and express the bitterness in my soul.’
The musical language here is dark and bare, but shot through with flashes of the harmonic brilliance that comes through later in the work. From this bitter opening to the final, reverential ‘Kyrie eleison’ (‘Lord, have mercy’) that closes the Office for the Dead, Victoria takes us on an emotional journey that reaches its high point in the motet Versa est in luctum, in which both soprano lines return again and again to a keening, inconsolable high F-sharp on the words ‘parce mihi Domine, nihil enim sunt dies mei’ (spare me, Lord, for my days are nothing).
Versa est in luctum had been set by another Spanish composer for another royal funeral only a few years before Victoria: Alonso Lobo (1555–1617) wrote a much more extroverted setting for the death of Philip II (the Empress María’s brother) in 1598. Lobo, only seven years younger than Victoria, is writing in a notably different musical language—bolder, more chromatic, and more adventurous than his older colleague.
As a contrast to the music of Lobo and Victoria, our program today includes music from three markedly different sources. First of these is the collection of 420 13th-century songs known as the Cantigas de Santa Maria, or the Canticles of Holy Mary, written during the reign of King Alfonso X (‘El Sabio’, or ‘the wise’). Within the collection, every tenth song is a religious hymn in praise of the Virgin Mary: we will perform two of these tonight. As you will hear, these are extraordinarily vivid poems, referring to Mary in a very human way.
Our second source of early music is the Llibre Vermell de Montserrat (the ‘Red Book’), compiled at the monastery of Montserrat outside Barcelona in the 14th century. The purpose of this collection of songs is clearly described within the book: ‘Because the pilgrims wish to sing and dance while they keep their watch at night in the church of the Blessed Mary of Montserrat, and also in the light of day; and in the church no songs should be sung unless they are chaste and pious, for that reason these songs that appear here have been written. And these should be used modestly, and take care that no-one who keeps watch in prayer and contemplation is disturbed’. I still wonder how successful the monastery really was in prescribing what songs its visiting pilgrims could and could not sing!
Finally, I am delighted to be able to include in this program a work by the incomparable Pablo Casals (1876–1973). Most famous as a cellist, Casals was also a fine composer, largely of instrumental music, but also of works for choir. Although we are many hundreds of years removed from Victoria and Lobo, you can still hear traces of that distinctly Spanish harmonic language, particularly in the exquisite phrasing and harmony of the opening and closing lines of this setting of O vos omnes.
It is appropriate in this, the 400th anniversary year of Victoria’s death, to conclude by returning to his setting of the Requiem Mass. The apparent simplicity of this music—at least as it appears on the page—belies the technical demands that it places on performers. This is emotionally intense music to rehearse, as well as to perform, and I am grateful to the choir for having been prepared to give so much of themselves to this program.
One can only imagine the impact that this Office for the Dead must women had on the women of the Monasterio de las Descalzas de S. Clara when they heard it for the first time, mourning the loss of their matriarch and their friend. I invite you, too, to give yourself over to this extraordinary music, and to experience its powers of emotional and spiritual expression.
—David Mackay, October 2011
The Programme for these concerts
- Tiento del Primer Tono (de Cabezón)
- Santa Maria, strela do dia [Cantiga 100] (Alfonso X)
- Versa est in luctum (Lobo)
- Officium Defunctorum—Taedet animam meam; Introitus; Kyrie; Graduale (Victoria)
- Rosa das Rosas [Cantiga 10] (Alfonso X)
- Officium Defunctorum—Offertorium (Victoria)
- O Vos Omnes (Casals)
- Segundo intermedio para los Kyries de Nuestra Señora (de Cabezón)
- Tiento del Segundo Tono (extract) (de Cabezón)
- O Virgo Splendens [from Llibre Vermell de Montserrat] (Anonymous)
- Officium Defunctorum—Sanctus; Benedictus; Agnus Dei I, II, & III; Communio (Victoria)
- Tercero intermedio para los Kyries de Primer Tono (de Cabezón)
- Mariam Matrem [from Llibre Vermell de Montserrat] (Anonymous)
- Officium Defunctorum—Versa est in luctum; Responsory (Victoria)
You may wish to read the entire programme for this concert.