Remembering Victoria

August 27, 2011

Today marks the 400th anniversary of the death of Tomás Luis de Victoria. Unquestionably one of the great figures in late Renaissance music, he also happens to be one of my favourites. A Spanish priest during the Counter-Reformation, he wrote (so far as I know) exclusively sacred music, and is probably best remembered today for his Holy Week music, a Requiem Mass, and a handful of gorgeous motets, principally O quam gloriosum, O magnum mysterium, and a lovely Ave Maria.

His music, while being broadly in the style of contemporaries like Palestrina and Byrd, often has a special quality that is hard to describe, but which makes it somehow especially alluring. I have had the privilege to sing his music on a few occasions, and I can testify that it is just as beautiful from within as from without. Harry Christophers, director of the British choir The Sixteen (which has itself recorded some of the most attractive performances of Victoria’s music), summed him up in this way:

“Scholar, mystic, priest, singer, organist and composer – six persons all rolled into one and that is, quite simply, why Victoria is the most outstanding composer of the Renaissance. He devoted his life to the church, and his works reveal such heartfelt passion that there are times, in performance, when we are almost overwhelmed by their intensity.”

♦♦♦♦♦

Here are a few of the best Victoria recordings of which I am aware, with samples where available:

Victoria: Cantica Beatae Virginae
Jordi Savall; Hesperion XX; La Capella Reial de Catalunya

This collection of a dozen or so Marian motets is a gem. Instruments are used to fill out the aural background, giving the music a lush, rich texture. The singing is robust and warm, not at all the cool, bloodless kind of singing one sometimes associates with polyphony. Here is the Ave Maria:

♦♦♦♦♦

Victoria: Officium Hebdomadae Sanctae
La Colombina

A big (3+ hours) collection of Victoria’s music for Holy Week, superbly sung and evocatively recorded. Passion narratives, Tenebrae music, motets, antiphons, and hymns are all included, intermixed with some Gregorian chant. It’s a beautiful experience to hear it. I have written about this recording before.

♦♦♦♦♦

Victoria: Et Iesum
Carlos Mena; Juan Carlos Rivera

This disc was on my best of the decade list last year, and I haven’t changed my mind about that. The concept is unusual: Victoria’s polyphonic sacred music is arranged for solo voice and instrumental accompaniment, a practice that was apparently current in Victoria’s own day. The simplicity of the settings brings out the beauty of the vocal line, and the singing, by counter-tenor Carlos Mena, is ravishing. As far as I am concerned, music does not get much better than this. Here is the Salve regina:

♦♦♦♦♦

In Paradisum: Music of Victoria and Palestrina
The Hilliard Ensemble

This disc includes only four pieces by Victoria, but it warrants inclusion on this short list because of the absorbing and exalting singing. Victoria’s music is heard alongside that of Palestrina, and both are interwoven into the Gregorian Requiem. It’s a special recording. Here they sing Peccantem me:

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