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Notes on Requiem


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Tomas Luis de Victoria

Of all the great quartet of late Renaissance composers - Palestrina, Byrd, Victoria and Lassus - Victoria (c. 1548-1611) was least prolific and the most focused in his outlook. He was ordained priest in Rome in 1575 and remained a churchman all his life: his surviving music is entirely for the church, including a large number of pieces for specific liturgical events: Magnificat, Holy Week music, and two settings of the Office for the Dead. Of these two, the second setting, published in 1605, has become his best known and most revered work, and was his last to be published.

Born near Ávila, Victoria returned to Spain in 1578 to enter the service of the Dowager Empress Maria, sister of King Philip II of Spain and widow of Maximillian II, in retirement at the Royal Convent of the Barefoot Nuns of St Clare. On February 26th, 1603, the Empress died and was buried at the convent: the great Requiem Mass and Absolution were performed on April 22nd-23rd, 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 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 church (on the night before the funeral) Vespers and Matins of the Dead were traditionally sung around the bier. On this occasion the corpse had been buried in March, but the same ceremony would have been carried out in its absence, around an empty catafalque draped in black. The four-part Tædet animam meam and the chant Ego sum resurrectio with the Benedictus 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 and 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, although in almost all the movements Victoria leave a longer plainchant incipit than expected - this is immediately apparent in the Inroit Requiem ætermam. 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 Jesu 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 1538. This, though, 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 seems likely that something would have been sung while the preparations were made for this complex ceremony: the motet Versa est in luctem 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 Reponsory 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 the cantors singing the verses, and it seems likely that this gave rise to the custom of setting the movement this way. However, the chant is printed only in the second soprano part in Victoria’s version, and high voices have therefore been used to sing the chant as for the other movements. The choral part of the office ends with the singing of Kyrie eleison by ‘alternate’, here again polyphony alternating with chart.

(c) Timothy Morris 1996

Extract from the CD booklets of

Tomas Luis de Victoria - Officium Defunctorum

(Linn Records CDK060 )

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Revised: 07/01/05 20:36:37 -0400.