Tomás Luis de Victoria: Psalms and Motets

Notes from the CD

In no other period of musical history have composers so brilliantly captured such glorious choral sonority and musical colour as in the Spanish Renaissance. The Spanish school enjoyed a peculiarly mystical expression, achieved by relatively simple musical means, comparable to the intense religious paintings of Velazquez and El Greco.

The best known composer of the Spanish school, though by no means the most prolific, is Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611). His subsequent fame may be attributable both to the quality of his compositions and also that he was one of the more widely travelled of composers. Although others did travel, mainly to the new world, Victoria went to Rome to study at the Jesuit Collegium Germanicum; here he may have studied with Palestrina whom he succeeded as Maestro di Cappella in 1571.

He returned to Spain around 1587 and took up an appointment as chaplain to the dowager Empress Marìa at the Royal Convent for Barefoot Clarist Nuns in Madrid where he was responsible for the choir of boys and priests. Although his vocal compositions show the influence of Palestrina, we might also recognise a distinctive individual style which allows a more sensitive response to the text, perhaps more expressive and with wider harmonic colour than that of his teacher. For example, there is the considerable intensity of his setting of the funeral motet Versa est in luctum, especially at the text ‘nihil enim sunt dies mei’ (for my days are nothing). Similarly distinctive is the rising and falling phrase for ‘a solis ortu …’ (from the rising of the sun to its setting) in Laudate pueri Dominum and the 3/8 triple time setting of ‘mente cordis sui ’ (in the imagination of their hearts) in Magnificat Primi toni.

Victoria constantly revised his works for re-publication. Most of the psalms in this programme predate the 1600 Madrid publication Missae, Magnificat, motecta, psalmi et alia quam plurima. This collection includes 19 revisions and also anticipated a revised performance style. One example of this revision is the addition of an organo seguente part. A 1601 letter from Victoria claimed progressive tendencies. In it, he suggests his printed organ part as a possible substitution for choir 1 in these polychoral works as being an innovative performance practice. He also suggests that in triple choir compositions, choir 2 might, if necessary, be entirely replaced by instruments. However, although such practices may have been new in Spain, elsewhere in Europe they were common and he would presumably have worked with at least an organo seguente in Rome. But his remarks do confirm that we have choices of performance style. The organo seguente was, in most cases, anticipated, but the possibility of instrumental doubling or substitution links his later style to progressive tendencies more usually associated with Italy, especially with Venice.

Victoria ’s motets are widely admired and mark him as one of the greatest composers of sacred music of a time many regard as choral music’s Golden Age. Of the motets, the 8-part Salve Regina was particularly popular even in his lifetime. His general popularity can be gauged from the fact that about 85 per cent of his music was published before his death. In 1600 he published a total of 18 Magnificat settings, of which 16 are set in alternatim, i.e. verses set alternately in polyphony and chant. However, the one heard here is set polyphonically throughout and this style seems to have inspired him to include more triple time sections and fewer passing notes within a more concise structure. The sequence Lauda Sion included here also seems to mark a release from earlier compositional strictures, having an ebullience not found elsewhere.

His psalms may have been unjustly neglected. The earliest represented here, Super flumina Babylonis, was certainly performed as early as 1573 and, along with Nisi Dominus, was first published in 1576. His 8 psalm settings all involve more than one choir. Ecce nunc benedicite is for Compline whilst 6 of the others are presumably for Vespers. His polyphonic psalm settings are essentially through-composed, large scale psalm-motets; the prevailing practice in such cases was to alternate chant and polyphony. A common feature is that the Gloria always begins in triple time and is mainly homophonic in nature. Elsewhere there is generally little textual repetition, but there is always an idiosyncratic variety of choral texture and frequent alternation of single choir verses with polychoral material.

Victoria is the towering genius of the Spanish Golden Age standing alongside composers such as Byrd, Monteverdi and Sweelinck at the close of the Renaissance. His distinctive response to texts and handling of sonority and texture result in a poignancy and mystical fervour outstanding at a time of considerable and widespread creativity.

This recording uses new editions based on the part books in the British Library: Missae, Magnificat, motecta, psalmi et alia quam plurima; 3, 4, 8, 9, 12vv (Madrid, 1600).