Edward Breen celebrates Spain's first great composer
'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.