Chor of Westminster Cathedral - David Hill - the Master of Music
Recorded in Westminster Cthedral, London, on 2,3,4 November 1983
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Victoria was the greatest Spanish composer of the late Renaissance. Compared with the prolific Palestrina the number of his works is not great; compared with Byrd. Victoria's music is not so varied and wide ranging. Indeed, placed beside the enormous output of Lassus, Victoria's achievement seems to be very restricted. There is none of the dazzling virtuosity and broad culture, none of the extraordinary diversity of Lassus. Yet, in its narrow specialisation in strictly liturgical or devotional function, Victoria's music is not only the most perfectly fit for its purpose, but the most perfectly styled and fashioned of its kind, its emotional heart perfectly in accord with Roman Catholic liturgical ceremony in the Tridentine Rite. Even more than Palestrina's, Victoria's art is an expression of Catholicism as defined by the Council of Trent.
In the preface to his 1583 book of masses, Victoria wrote: 'I undertook for preference (he setting of that which is universally celebrated in the Catholic Church.....for what should music serve rather than the holy praise of the immortal God from whom number and measure proceed, whose works are wonderfully ordered by a kind of harmony and consonance?'. Ten years earlier, his preface to a book of motets described his purpose as 'enhancing the splendour of the liturgy and exciting the faithful'.
Tomas Luis de Victoria was born in 1548 in Avila, birth place of St Theresa, that extraordinary woman who combined the most practical commonsense with visionary mysticism. Just as she seems to personify the religious ethos of sixteenth-century Spain (the good side of it, at least), so Victoria came to embody the best of the Spanish character in music. As a youth he learnt his music as a chorister at the Cathedral of Avila. So promising was he that he was sent to Rome at seventeen years of age, patronised by Philip II and by the Church, to study at the Jesuit's Collegium Germanicum. This was both for training German missionaries and for a number of English, Italian and Spanish students. There he studied for the priesthood and in 1575 was ordained by the expatriate Thomas Goldwell (the last surviving English pre-Reformation bishop). Victoria then joined the Fathers of the Oratory, the Congregation founded by St Philip Neri. To this day Victoria's music is the most favoured at London's Brompton Oratory.
Victoria's musical career in Rome brought him in contact with Palestrina and the innumerable singers, organists and composers from all over Europe who were active in the chapels and churches of that great city at the very time when Catholicism regained confidence, new vitality and disciplined reform. The young Spanish priest was soon publishing his compositions in sumptuous editions (even Palestrina was jealous).
The success of his Roman years did not prevent Victoria yearning for a quiet life in Spain. After his publications of 1585 (including the famous set of Holy Week music) he achieved his desire and returned to take up the position of Chaplain and Chapelmaster at the Royal Convent of the Barefoot Nuns of St Clare in Madrid, effectively the home and chapel of Philip II's sister, the Dowager Empress Maria. There he ended his days producing less and less after 1600 and nothing, so far as we know, after the publication in 1605 of the great Office of the Dead, the Requiem for the Empress who died in 1603. Victoria died in 1611. He had turned down offers from Seville and Saragossa; he had visited Rome during the period 1592 - 94, supervising the printing of his works and attending Palestrina's funeral. In 1595 he returned to Madrid and stayed.
Despite the splendour of his publications and despite the early date at which Victoria got his music into print, he was not by the standards of his time prolific. Just twenty masses have come down to us. Fifteen are 'parodies' (masses based on a pre-existing work), one is freely composed, and four (including two Requiems) are 'paraphrase' masses, that is to say they are based on plainchant. The Missa O quam gloriosum est regnum is based on Victoria's own joyful motet of 1572. Tovey called it one of the most perfect ever written. The Mass is concise; it frequently takes over whole portions of the motet and somehow it balances great simplicity with a marvellously controlled fervour that is typical of Victoria. It has been the most loved and performed of all his masses in modern times. It is written in the G mixolydian mode, which in Victoria's hands is frequently straight G major. One magical moment of reverent simplicity is the section 'Et incarnatus est' in the Credo. It is difficult to imagine anything else so brief and so effective. Even the Agnus Dei of this Mass is short and just a single setting (here repeated by custom to the final words 'dona nobis pacem').
By contrast, Victoria's Mass on the Marian plainsong hymn Ave maris Stella is in G minor (transposed Dorian) and is contrapuntally a little more elaborate. The minor key gives the music that 'soulfulness' with which Victoria is so associated though this is only one aspect of this composer's otherwise cheerful disposition. The Ave maris steJJa Mass has two Agnus Dei movements, the second of which has divided tenors. It also has two Osanna settings, the one after the Sanctus being unusual for Victoria in using the full words of the first verse of Ave maris stella in the tenor part to a version of the plainsong tune. Victoria thus triumphantly asserts the basis of his Mass. This lovely work was first published in 1576 and then reprinted in the 1583 book which also contained the Missa O quam gioriosum.
Victoria's music in both these masses has none of the excessive excitements of Don Carlo Gesualdo nor the catchy secular delights of the early baroque. His music is classical and moderate in style. Its beauty and idealism are outstanding. It seems apposite to quote a much later composer, Carl Nielsen, because somehow his remarks fit Victoria so well.
-Bruno Turner, 1984