by Ken Myers
[This article originally appeared in the March/April 2015 issue of Touchstone magazine.]
The medieval city of Ávila, seventy miles northwest of Madrid, is best-known to Christians as the birthplace of St. Teresa de Jesus, the sixteenth-century Carmelite nun, mystic, and reformer. Captured by Moors in A.D. 714, the city was retaken by Christian forces in 1088, after which a network of massive stone walls and towers were constructed to protect the city and its new cathedral, construction of which began around 1091. The apse of the cathedral is one of the turrets in the city walls, possibly evoking echoes of Psalm 46 to generations of believers: “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.”
Ávila may be the same city as ancient Abula, evangelized by the first-century missionary martyr bishop St. Secundus. who was traditionally numbered among the Seven Apostolic Men commissioned by St. Peter and St. Paul to preach to the two Roman provinces of Hispania. Even if the identification of Ávila with Abula is incorrect, it seems that Ávila is a place where Christians have been active in the spiritual combat of prayer and worship for a long time.
In 1548, a boy was born in Ávila whose disciplined musical imagination in service of the Church continues to convey a deep sense of the same mysteries beheld by St. Teresa. If you know only one work composed by Tómas Luis de Victoria, it is probably the Christmas motet, O magnum mysterium. The great mystery of the Nativity described in this ancient text is “that animals should see the new-born Lord lying in a manger!” Animals! The fleshy reality of the Incarnation was confirmed one night by a cloud of furry witnesses.
Victoria’s setting of this ancient and provocative text displays a hint of the mystical intensity that characterizes much of his music. His compositions frequently employ tense dissonances that resolve to open harmonies in modes that are neither “major” nor “minor” in the modern sense, evoking the Mediterranean influence of Spain’s Moorish past. These harmonic features, combined with his skill in interweaving multiple melodic lines, provided him with an apt musical vocabulary for conveying the awe and fearful wonder that great mysteries command. It is no surprise then that Victoria is often associated with his mystical compatriot St. Teresa, as well as with his contemporary and fellow Spaniard El Greco.
Victoria was a deeply pious man. Trained as a chorister at the Ávila cathedral from the age of 10, he studied composition and counterpoint as well as keyboard until his late teens. In 1567 he was sent to Rome to study at the Jesuit Collegium Germanicum, founded by St. Ignatius Loyola to combat Lutheranism. Eventually taking minor orders of lector and exorcist, he was ordained to the priesthood in 1575, all the while composing and publishing music, training choirs, and singing and playing at services in churches in Rome.
Music for Holy Week
In 1585, Victoria published a remarkable collection of music for use in Holy Week, the Officium Hebdomadae Sanctae. This musical anthology included eighteen Tenebrae Responsories, the nine Lessons from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, two sets of Passion choruses, hymns, motets, and other music to be used liturgically from Palm Sunday to Holy Saturday. It is the most complete body of work for Holy Week by any Renaissance composer, and the theological and dramatic power of the texts for this climactic season is equaled by the expressive dynamic of his music.
Most striking are the eighteen Responsories, six for each evening from Maundy Thursday to Holy Saturday. The texts for Maundy Thursday appropriately focus on the betrayal of Jesus, most written in first-person from the point-of-view of the suffering Lamb of God. The first, Amicus Meus, begins with these anguished sentiments:
The sign by which my friend betrayed me was a kiss: The one I kiss, he is your man; hold him fast. This was the evil sign he gave, and through a kiss murder he wrought. The wretch returned the price of blood, and in the end he hanged himself. It would have been good for that man had he never been born.
The penultimate responsory, for use on Holy Saturday, exclaims:
I have become like a man without help, free among the dead. They placed me in the pit of hell, in darkness, and in the shadow of death.
Each of these eighteen pieces follows a similar structure that gives a unity to the entire collection: an opening section in four parts; a leaner middle section in two or three parts (usually sung one voice to a part); then a final four-part section, followed by a recaptulation of the middle section. The form is ABCB. The third piece in each set follows a more elaborate structure: ABCBAB. These repeats were dictated by the tradition of textual repetition in the liturgy; Victoria helps listeners recognize the structure (and hence the drama) of textual repetition through musical repetition.
Throughout these works (taken all together about 70 minutes of a cappella singing), the music is intense but simple; the rhythms follow the natural rhythms of the Latin speech, and emotional content is expressed through harmonic transitions and the subtle contours of melody. Conductor Peter Phillips has written that these works display a simple clarity that contemporary composers long to achieve. But, he remarks, “to express oneself clearly requires complete certainty about what one has to say.” If Victoria’s setting of O Magnum Mysterium conveys confidently the hope that is revealed in the reality of the Incarnation, in his Tenebrae Responsories one senses the further mystery of the suffering of the Word made flesh that is scourged, smitten, and buried.
I recently heard an otherwise well-informed radio announcer refer to Renaissance choral music as “pre-emotional.” Perhaps he meant that this genre of musical expression lacks the idiosyncratic, immediate, personal subjectivism of later music. Conductor Harry Christophers had it right when he said that Victoria’s mode of expression is “at the opposite remove from the expression of the homocentric at the expense of the theocentric which has been prevalent in western art from the Renaissance onwards.” Making art that is theocentric may seem to modern ears and hearts to bracket or exclude emotion, but that’s only because modern listeners have faulty assumptions about the source and shape of love and compassion. Attending contemplatively and with receptivity to all of the works in Victoria’s Officium Hebdomadae Sanctae could be a way of cultivating chastened ears to hear.
Two of the responsories for Good Friday
— Jesum tradidit impius and Caligaverunt oculi mei —
are sung here by The Sixteen, conducted by Harry Christophers.
Victoria’s O magnum mysterium is sung here by Ensemble Plus Ultra,