Tomás Luis de Victoria – a 400th anniversary profile

Title page to a Cantiones sacrae, Dillingen, 1589 (Image © Lebrecht Music & ArtsTomas Luis de Victoria - Title page to a Cantiones sacrae, Dillingen, 1589 (Image © Lebrecht Music & Arts)

'Spain – the homeland of passionate musicians and fiery music…' claims a sleeve from works by de Falla, Granados and Albéniz (Leontyne Price, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Fritz Reiner). This opinion from the mid-20th century was probably influenced by, say, Picasso, Dalí and Gaudí and endures in the work of current artists such as the film-director Pedro Almodóvar. Add to this a touristic appetite for flamenco, castanets, bullfighting, Rioja and gazpacho and it is not surprising that guide-books are keen to convince us that modern Spain is a cocktail of incendiary temperaments and vibrant colours. Is it any wonder that Woody Allen chose this country as the setting for his complex and explosive exploration of personal relationships Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)?

It would be ridiculous to pretend that this reputation does not affect our view of Spanish music and, indeed, our performances of music from the whole Iberian Peninsula. Quixotically, such importation of fiery ideals seems particularly noticeable in the way many ensembles approach 16th-century music, and in particular the music of Tomás Luis de Victoria whose 400th anniversary we mark this year.

Born into a large and influential family near Ávila in 1548, Victoria died in Madrid on August 20, 1611. As a choirboy in Ávila Cathedral he studied with the leading Spanish composers of his time, yet this great Spanish renaissance composer was to be active in Italy for an important part of his life. In the mid 1560s he was sent to the Jesuit Collegio Germanco (a seminary founded in response to the spread of Lutheranism) in Rome. Enrolled as a singer, Victoria would have lived alongside English, Spanish and Italian boarders as well as those in training for the German missionary priesthood. In the period leading up to his first publication of motets (1572) is it most likely that Victoria knew Palestrina  (who at the time was maestro di cappella at the Seminario Romano) and may even have been taught by him. Certainly modern commentators feel that Victoria was the first Iberian composer fully to master Palestrina’s style. His work as a singer and organist in Rome lead to a teaching post at the Collegio Germanico and eventually to the priesthood after his wife’s death in 1577.

Despite such success, Victoria – in the dedication to Philip II of his Missarum libri duo (1583) – stated that he wished to return to Spain and was rewarded with a generous post in Madrid at the Monasterio de las Descalzes de S Clara where his was chaplain to the Dowager Empress María, daughter of Charles V until her death in 1603. This post was distinctly advantageous for Victoria who enjoyed generous leave to visit Rome where he attended Palestrina’s funeral in 1594. The Monasterio also provided Victoria with instrumentalists at high points of the church year and, from 1601, a bassoonist who played in all musical services.

Today, Victoria’s reputation largely rests on his Officium Hebdomadae Sanctae (music for Holy Week) of 1585 and Officium defunctorum (Requiem Mass) of 1605 written for the funeral of the Dowager Empress María. These works are much recorded and certainly well worth discovering. The Requiem in particular displays the underlying subtleties of a technique learned from Palestrina and uses very little imitative polyphony allowing for a clear, bold and striking presentation of the words. 

Yet many modern British ensembles find the abundance of Spanish imagery that feeds into our national subconscious a red rag to a bull (if you forgive the reference). Such large, solid textures often become gateways to the pursuit of Spanish flavour. I suspect such vocal heroics originate from Westminster Cathedral Choir who are preeminent in the performance of Victoria’s music. The first choirmaster of Westminster Cathedral (appointed in 1896) was Sir Richard Terry, an early pioneer in the revival 16th-century polyphony and the tradition he began is discernable in George Malcolm’s hair-raising 1959 recording of Victoria’s Responsories for Tenebrae with the cathedral choir. The passion and sheer energy on this disc is unforgettable; and it is still some of the finest treble singing that I have ever heard. (Incidentally, this recording is from the same year that they recorded Britten’s Missa brevis.)

This robust tradition lives on with many fine performances by Westminster Cathedral Choir on the Hyperion label with the Requiem (directed by David Hill), many of the Masses: Missa dum complerentur in particular (James O’Donnell ) and a recent recording by the Lay Clerks of Missa Gaudeamus (Matthew Martin) which is particularly ebullient.  

Maybe because of their popularity on disc, the Requiem and Holy Week music provide the most fertile ground for comparison of performance practice. Whereas David Hill and Westminster Cathedral Choir opt for a strident performance suited to their famously huge acoustic, Peter Phillips and The Tallis Scholars  find a much more Italianate lilt reminding us of Victoria’s closeness to Palestrina. Indeed, one could almost go as far as to say that Westminster Cathedral choir perform Victoria, while The Tallis Scholars perform Vittoria. This Italian hue underpins their entire anniversary boxed-set released by Gimell records last month. Containing the Requiem (1987), Responsories (1990) and Lamentations (2010) it is remarkable for its consistent quality and philosophy of performance. A specially recorded video of the first Lamentation for Maundy Thursday can be seen here…

However, for the ultimate comparison one should not miss The Hilliard Ensemble’s album 'In Paradisum' (ECM) which contains the first of Victoria’s Requiem and the splendid responsory Peccantem me quotidie interspersed with polyphony by Palestrina and 17th-century chant. Using only four singers, one can hear the technique of composition at play as well as marvel at the telepathic precision of this world-class quartet. The Hilliards favour a more subtly nuanced interpretation built from generous unhurried phrases that make time stand still. A desert island disc if ever there was. 

Anniversaries are the harbingers of boxed sets: The Sixteen are re-releasing their recordings on their own Coro label and, like The Tallis Scholars, are a pleasure to rediscover. I’d forgotten how good these performances were and how fascinating it is to hear the voices doubled with instruments (Missa Laetatus Sum à 12 for instance). Clearly this was one of the performance options that Victoria had before him at the Monasterio in later life and Harry Christophers’ careful interpretations are particularly well suited to the larger motets (Vadam Et Circuibo for instance). 

Slightly off the beaten track, the choir of the London Oratory, directed by Patrick Russill have recorded four motets and the Good Friday Improperia with a vibrancy and poignancy that deserves a wider recognition than their discs on the Herald label (Aid to the Church in Need) afforded them. Part of their attraction is in the slightly fuller soprano sound than the specialist ensembles offer. Victoria’s music accommodates this more expansive approach most agreeably and Victoria is for the London Oratory, just like the choir of Westminster Cathedral, a very important part of their regular liturgical contribution. Living alongside his works throughout the church year lends an authority to their interpretations which the intellectualized perfection of the concert ensembles frequently underplays.

This anniversary year also brings with it a welcome tide of live performances. Particularly noteworthy is the choir of St James’s, Spanish Place, who are performing all of Victoria’s Mass settings in their proper liturgical context throughout the year. 

In discussing an all-British selection of Victoria discs I am aware that I reflect much of my own taste in performance practice. Victoria’s music survives in many instrumentalised manuscript sources yet the predominant approach in recordings of this composer’s work is a preference for unaccompanied British choirs with a bit of faux-Spanish fire in their bellies. Roll over Almodóvar. 

Edward Breen holds an Edison Research Fellowship at The British Library and teaches early music history and vocal studies at Morley College. He is currently writing his PhD at King's College London: "The Performance Practice of David Munrow and The Early Music Consort of London".

© MA Business and Leisure Ltd. 2014