Composed for the funeral of his employer, Victoria weaves a tender, glowing musical tribute to the Dowager Empress Maria around the ancient plainsong melodies of the Requiem Mass. This recording of Victoria's Officium Defunctorum was named ‘Critics' Choice' by Gramophone and chosen by The Rough Guide as one of its ‘100 Essential Classical CDs'.
‘The performances are guaranteed to refresh even the most jaded palate.' Early Music Today
‘The Magnificat ensemble is stunning...their mixed voices blend as if a single instrument. This particularly suits the stately pace of Victoria's Mass for the Dead, chords melting seamlessly into the next.' BBC Music Magazine
‘The sound these singers make is exquisite.' The Sunday Times
‘The singers of Magnificat have a rich, creamy sound, well blended but with each voice part's individuality also fully audible.' International Record Review
‘...a lovely balance, with a very true-sounding tonal palette.' Gramophone
Of the great quartet of late Renaissance composers - Da Palestrina, Byrd, Victoria and Lassus - Tomás Luis de Victoria (c.1548-1611) was the least prolific and the most focused in his outlook. He was ordained as a priest in Rome in 1575 and remained a churchman all his life. His surviving music comprises entirely sacred works, including a large number of pieces for specific liturgical events: Magnificats, Holy Week music and two settings of the Office for the Dead. The second setting of his Office for the Dead, published in 1605, has become his best-known and most revered work. It was also the last of his works to be published.
Born near Ávila, Victoria returned to Spain in 1578 and entered the service of the Dowager Empress Maria, sister of King Philip II of Spain and widow of Maximilian II, who had taken retirement at the Royal Convent of the Barefoot Nuns of St Clare. On 26 February 1603, the Empress passed away and was buried at the convent; the Requiem Mass and Great Absolution were performed on 22-23 April and it was for these that Victoria composed his second setting of the Office of the Dead.
In common with other settings from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Victoria did not confine the musical settings to the Mass itself but also included other items from the complete Office for the Dead and the Great Absolution which follow. After the body was received into the church (on the night before the funeral) Vespers and Matins of the Dead were traditionally sung around the bier. On this occasion the burial had taken place in March, so instead, the same ceremony would have been carried out around an empty catafalque draped in black. The four-part ‘Taedet animam meam' and the chant ‘Ego sum resurrectio' with the ‘Benedictus Dominus Deus Israel' are parts of this office. These stand at the beginning of the recording to represent the office and to set the scene for the Mass itself.
The Mass setting is more contrapuntal; its six-part texture includes the plainchant as a cantus firmus throughout. The chant is not, however, in particularly long note-values and this, together with the generally slow movement in the other parts and the occasional ornaments added to it, causes the chant to blend fully into the texture. In the 1605 publication, the plainchant is provided in the second soprano part; high voices are used in this recording. The plainsong passages are sung in accordance with what we know about contemporary practice, in more measured note-values rather than the free time which has become the norm today. Although this may sound unfamiliar at first, it matches much more closely the rhythm and mood of the polyphony and leads to a much more homogenous result.
For the most part, the sections set to polyphony are those which would be sung by the full choir in the plainchant setting. However, in almost all the movements Victoria leaves a longer plainchant incipit than expected; this is immediately apparent in the introitus ‘Requiem aeternam'. Thus it is all the more strange that he omits the verse ‘Hostias et preces' and the repeat of the text ‘Quam olim Abrahae' in the offertorium ‘Domine Iesu Christe'. Neither chant nor polyphony is provided for the verse; in many performances this deficiency is supplied by using the chant on which Victoria based this section in his first Requiem setting of 1583. This militates against the general plan of plainchant verses and polyphonic refrains and on this recording this plainchant verse is followed by a repeat of the last section of the polyphony.
At the end of the Mass itself the assembled clergy would have gathered around the empty catafalque to perform the Great Absolution. It is likely that while preparations were made for this complex ceremony a choral devotion would have been performed; the motet ‘Versa est in luctum' is a likely candidate and it occurs in this position in the 1605 print. It is a lavish composition, recalling the textures of Guerrero's later motets.
For the responsorial ‘Libera me' which was sung while the catafalque was sprinkled with holy water and incensed, Victoria reverses the usual pattern and sets the solo parts of the text to polyphony, leaving the responses to be sung to chant. This is the same pattern as he followed in his 1583 setting. The rubrics of the ritual at this point require all the assembled clergy to participate in the singing of this chant, with cantors singing the verses. It seems likely that this gave rise to the custom of setting the movement in this way. The chant is printed only in the second soprano part in Victoria's version and high voices have therefore been used to sing this chant well as other movements. The choral part of the office ends with the singing of ‘Kyrie eleison' by ‘alternate choirs', where again polyphony alternates with chant.
© Timothy Morris, 1996