Steve C Smith and Peter Phillips
Victoria's 'Requiem' Mass (as we now call it) has for many decades and for many people typified Spanish Renaissance music. Its mystical intensity of expression, achieved by the simplest musical means, obviously sets it apart from contemporary English and Italian music, and has led to comparisons of it with the equally intense religious paintings of Velazquez and El Greco. There is no doubt that this masterpiece conveys much of the highly individual Spanish view of religion and death, and this is the more valuable since their vision is largely unfamiliar outside Spain herself.
In fact Victoria was just one of a very substantial school of Spanish Renaissance composers; and one of the least prolific amongst them. Many of these deserve to be considered along with Victoria, though none wrote a mass quite as mature as this. One possible reason for their collective lack of fame is that they travelled very little, unless it were to the New World, unlike their Netherlandish contemporaries. Victoria was lucky in this respect. Having been born in Avila in 1548 and brought up there in the tradition of Morales, Espinar and Ribera, he went to Rome probably in 1565 to study at the Jesuit Collegio Germanico. Once there he must surely have met Palestrina, and was possibly taught by him. The subtleties of Palestrina's polyphonic idiom are regularly to be found in Victoria's music, unlike that of his Spanish contemporaries, and it gave him an extra dimension of technique when it suited him. In fact in this Requiem there is very little imitative polyphony and the lack of it allows its Spanish flavour to speak all the more strongly. Victoria stayed in Rome until 1587 at the latest, by which time he had been ordained priest (by Bishop Thomas Goldwell, the last surviving member of the pre-Reformation English Catholic hierarchy in Rome), and published several anthologies of his work. By the end of his life he had succeeded in publishing just about his entire output in eleven sets, most in luxurious format, which was a great deal more than Palestrina ever did. This 6-part Requiem appeared by itself in 1605, and was the last of the series.
From 1587 until his death in 1611 Victoria was employed in Madrid, initially as chaplain to the sister of Philip II: the Dowager Empress Maria, daughter of Charles V, wife of Maximilian II and mother of two emperors. It was for her funeral in 1603 that this Requiem was written. After her death Victoria became organist to the convent where the Empress had lived. Since he was by profession almost as much a priest as a musician, it will be understood why Victoria only wrote sacred music, though it should not be assumed that it is all sombre. By his contemporaries Victoria was held to be an essentially joyful composer and there are many motets to prove this, some of them in polychoral style. In addition much of his music has quite strongly madrigalian features, with liberal use of accidentals, diminished intervals, and word-painting (witness the rising scales on 'surge' in the motet Nigra sum recorded on Gimell CDGIM 003).
This recording of the 6-part Requiem follows the edition prepared by Bruno Turner, published by Mapa Mundi. In his preface to this edition Mr Turner explains that the 1605 print of the music carried some extra motets and liturgical items, as was customary at that time, which would have been added in performance to the Missa pro defunctis proper. These were the 4-part Taedet animam meam (the second lesson of Matins of the Dead) which has been moved to the very beginning to serve as a simple introduction; the motet Versa est in luctum, which may well have been sung as the dignitaries and clergy assembled at the catafalque before the Absolution; and the Absolution itself, for which Victoria wrote the full Responsorium, Libera me, Domine, with its final 'Kyrie eleison'. The only peculiarity of the print is the omission of a setting of the usual verse 'Hostias et preces' and the consequent repeat of 'Quam olim Abrahae' in the Offertorium. Although it may be possible to find a suitable chant setting of these words, and thus satisfy full liturgical demands, it is not musically convincing to do so and these words are omitted here.
All the music of this setting, except the initial Taedet animam meam, is scored for SSATTB. The second soprano part unusually carries the cantus firmus, though it very often disappears into the surrounding part-writing since the chant does not move as slowly as most cantus firmus parts and the polyphony does not generally move very fast. Victoria himself printed most of the unaccompanied chant incipits, though the editor has provided the short second 'Agnus Dei' and the final 'Requiescant in pace'. This scoring also holds true for Alonso Lobo's beautiful setting of Versa est in luctum, which was written for the funeral of Philip II of Spain, the brother of the recipient of Victoria's own setting. Lobo (c.1555-1617) was widely held to be the finest composer in Spain during his lifetime, and there is evidence that Victoria thought so too.
© 1987 Peter Phillips