Pro Cantione Antiqua, London, Bruno Turner
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The Liturgy of Holy Week in the Roman Rite (before recent revisions) was called Officium Hebdomadae Sanctae and Victoria used this title for his publication of 1585 in which he presented his music for the most important services from Palm Sunday to Holy Saturday. On the Thursday, Friday and Saturday, the triduum sacrum (Feria Vin Coena Domini. Feria VI in Parasceve and Sabbato Sancto), the Office of Matins was sung in darkness in the early morning. The extinguishing of the candles as the dawn came during Matins, led to the name "Tenebrae" when the service was performed in the evening because the putting out of the candles gradually put the church into darkness. One of the Friday Responsories begins Tenebraefactae sunt. The special "Tenebrae" Matins on each of the three days is divided into three sections, called noctums. After Psalms, the Lamentations of Jeremiah are sung (solo plainsong) in alternation with three choral responds in the first noctum. In the second and third nocturns Psalms, then Lessons (recited) alternate with three more Responsories in each noctum, so that there are nine for each day. In form, Victoria's set is strictly liturgical, following a rigid plan of repeats. The verses are for three voices instead of four (there is just one verse for only two voices). The middle Responsory of each group of three is set for high voices. The third Responsory of each group always has an extra repeat of words and music, in strict accordance with the rubrics of the liturgy, all carefully instructed by Victoria in the 1585 print. It is important to understand the strict liturgical context and function of Victoria's music. Within these limits, and in a musical plan that is very concise, Victoria is intensely expressive, using the devices of dissonant suspensions, the rising and falling semitone, the falling fifth and the melodic diminished fourth. Above all is Victoria's unrivalled setting of the Latin text, propelling the words and music in perfect unity. Nothing is grotesque or exagerated, the commentaries on the Passion of Christ, the quotations and meditations are full of dignity, but there is a burning intensity that sometimes explodes dramatically. The horror at Judas hanging himself or the sad, poignant tranquility of the burial (Sepulto Domino) are all expressed by Victoria in such masterly way that this music is regarded as some of the finest of the Late Renaissance.
Victoria's Tenebrae Responsories are all written at an apparently high pitch, in the combination of clefs that is called the high chiavette. This means that they should be transposed down for performance. Certainly the music is entirely suited to a group of adult male singers. Spanish adult tiples (falsetto sopranos) were famous throughout Europe; they were used during most of the 16th century in the Papal Choir. Tomas Luis de Victoria was born about 1548 near Avila. He spent many years in Rome, publishing there a great deal of his work. His last twenty-five years were spent in Spain in the service of the Convent of Descalzas Reales in Madrid. This devout Spanish priest wrote nothing but church music, which he revised and republished frequently. With Palestrina, Victoria is considered the perfect composer of Catholic church music in the spirit of the Council of Trent and the Counter-Reformation.