Victoria: Tenebrae Responsitories / The Sixteen

Album cover art for upc 5099902942926
Catalog: 5099902942926
Format: CD

Christophers, Harry

Tomás Luis de Victoria was born in 1548 in Ávila, birthplace of St Teresa. He trained as a chorister at the cathedral there and was sent to Rome, aged seventeen, to study at the Jesuit Collegium Germanicum – which had been founded by Ignatius Loyola to combat Lutheranism – under the patronage both of the Church and of the King, Philip II. His years in Rome were very successful, and as a consequence he was able to publish almost the whole of his output during his lifetime, reprinting many works in later editions. Nevertheless, after his publications of 1585, which included the Tenebrae Responsories, Victoria returned to Spain as chaplain and chapelmaster of the Monasterio de las Descalzas de Santa Clara in Madrid. This accords with the image of the composer which we have inherited, reinforced by the intensity of much of his music, as a retiring mystic and contemplative; an image which perhaps should not be dismissed too lightly in view of the fact that Spain at this period was the spiritual centre of the Counter-Reformation. Victoria’s training under the Jesuits is unlikely to have been without effect on him, and it is significant that he composed no secular music at all. It would be wrong to infer, however, that Victoria was unresponsive to the joyous aspects of his religion, as his polychoral works in particular show. His last publication appears to have been the great Officium Defunctorum of 1605. He died on 20 August 1611. Officium Hebdomadae Sanctae was the name given to the rites of Holy Week by the Roman Catholic Church as they were celebrated before the Second Vatican Council revised the liturgy in 1962. It was under this title that Victoria published, in 1585, a collection of liturgical music for services from Palm Sunday to Holy Saturday. It is an extensive collection, containing hymns, motets, the Reproaches, the choruses for two Passions, and the Responsories and Lamentations of Jeremiah for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday (Feria V in Coena Domini, Feria VI in Parasceve and Sabbato Sancto). On these three days of Holy Week, together known as the Triduum Sacrum, the Office of Matins was originally sung early in the morning in complete darkness and was then followed by Lauds. In later years these Offices – the Offices of Tenebrae – were celebrated in anticipation, on the evening of the preceding day. During their course, the only illumination in the church was provided by six candles on the alter and by fifteen candles placed on a triangular stand. One of these fifteen candles was extinguished during the singing of each of the Psalms and the Canticle, while the altar candles were put out during the singing of the Benedictus. At the close of Lauds only one candle – the tallest, representing Christ – remained. This was placed behind the altar and the church was left in tenebris (as the services were originally celebrated, of course, the light of dawn would have begun to appear as the candles were extinguished). The chaos caused in the natural order by the death of Christ was then represented by the noise of the faithful knocking on the benches (strepitus), and as this died away, the final candle was taken out from behind the altar – a foreshadowing of the Resurrection – and returned to its place on the stand. The structure of Matins was composed of three Nocturns, each of which was subdivided by the recitation of three Psalms, followed by three lessons alternating with three Responsories. The texts for the Lessons in the first Nocturn were taken from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, and had their own special chant melodies, whereas the Lessons for the second and third Nocturns were simply recited in the customary manner. Victoria set all the Lamentations of the first Nocturns for each day of the Triduum and the Responsories for the second and third Nocturns. Each Responsory has a precise liturgical form to which Victoria strictly adhered: the second section of the text (scored for the full ensemble of four voices) is repeated after the third (scored for three solo voices with the exception of Amicus meus, scored for two). In the third Responsory of each set there is an additional repeat of the first and second sections, and Victoria scored the second of each set for higher voices. These details of scoring are small but significant elements in Victoria’s plan: they emphasise the ritual nature – in form and content – of the texts, and by so doing provide the only possible way of setting the Passion narrative, composed of such strange and powerful words, without distortion or exaggeration. Within these limits, carefully defined by the tradition of the Church, Victoria wrote music of awesome concision and powerful austerity. The words are paramount. The music is therefore straightforward, built upon the spoken rhythms of the Latin and then used, with infinite subtlety, to bring particular phrases to the fore. The opening of Eram quasi agnus is a perfect illustration of this procedure: it remains entirely within the bounds of liturgical propriety but is one of the most memorable, intense moments of the cycle. The same may be said of the verse of Tenebrae factae sunt: one of the most heartrending passages in the entire musical literature is achieved merely with the aid of a few suspensions and rising or falling semitones. There is nothing here, on paper, to suggest that this music is anything out of the ordinary: and this is exactly the point, for by remaining so completely within the limits of ‘expression’ set by the liturgical framework and language (that is to say, at the opposite remove from the expression of the homocentric at the expense of the theocentric which has been prevalent in western art from the Renaissance onwards), Victoria’s music may be seen to be a genuine masterpiece created purely ad maiorum Dei gloriam.