The death early in 1603 of Maria of Austria, daughter of Charles V, wife of Maximilian II and mother of Rudolf II, called for extravagant exequies. Her catafalque, erected in the monastery of the Descalzas Reales in Madrid, was ‘magnificent and majestic’, according to the artist Diego de Urbina. ‘This catafalque had a width of eighteen feet and a height of fifty-four feet [with] more than two thousand candles, which gave out a brilliant radiance. The catafalque had four steps going up to the tomb, covered with yellow brocade, and at their top was the high tomb, covered with a very rich brocade cloth.’ The queen’s chaplain, Tomás Luis de Victoria, was commissioned to write music for the occasion. He created a six-voice Officium defunctorum, at the heart of which is the liturgy of the Requiem Mass. In what was standard practice at the time, the polyphonic singing alternates with chant incipits: one or several of the sopranos will begin a new section by chanting the first few words, before the other voices weave around them.
Victoria’s Requiem was not especially admired in its time, but since its rediscovery 150 years ago the mythology around it and the praise it has attracted have grown to fantastic proportions. It has been described as a ‘requiem for an age’, ‘the end of Renaissance music’, ‘the end of Spain’s golden century’ and a ‘serene lament for the whole Spanish faith’. Although there is plenty of evidence to show exactly how and why it was written, Owen Rees’s book is the first to properly explore the subject.
Unusually for music of this period there is no doubt about what Victoria wrote: the sources are consistent and reliable, and four copies of the official printing of 1605 survive. What has changed over the centuries is the way it is heard. As the musicologist Michael Noone recently observed, ‘That an early 17th-century work by a Spanish priest-composer for the funeral of a retired Habsburg empress has become staple fodder for the international choral concert repertory in the early 21st century … is a subject worthy of serious inquiry.’ What makes it all the more surprising, he might have added, is that the Requiem wasn’t the product of many months’ work, but a piece of Gebrauchsmusik written in a great hurry.
The preparations for the first performance were so rushed that Victoria probably had only a day or two to compose the ‘Libera me’ – even less if he was called on as chaplain to help finalise the funeral arrangements. There was, for example, some confusion over where the empress would be buried. (In the end she got her wish – Descalzas – over the king’s preference for the monastery at El Escorial.) The hurry explains why in this movement he borrowed a section from a simpler, four-voice setting he had written years earlier and which doesn’t fit the context very well (the remainder of the setting is essentially for six voices). There are other signs of haste in the main body of the Requiem, two of which are particularly telling. The six vocal parts should each have a distinct line, but Victoria doubled up in the Benedictus (with a pair of consecutive octaves) and in the Kyrie (a pair of consecutive fifths). This kind of parallel movement between two voice-parts was considered an exceptionally bad grammatical solecism, almost never committed by the best composers of the period, since it implies that proper polyphonic thought has lapsed. Rees states that in all of Victoria’s writing for six voices or more, there is only one other example, and that is in a setting for eight voices where such things are more likely to occur. (Two modern editions of the Requiem – those of David Wulstan and Bruno Turner – try to correct the offending octaves in the Benedictus but in doing so introduce two sets of consecutive fifths. It would have been better to leave Victoria with his momentary slip, as Rees does in his new online edition of the entire work.)
The first mention of the Requiem outside the narrow Spanish circle of its composition was in two general histories of music written in the 1770s and 1780s by the English antiquarians Charles Burney and John Hawkins. Three of the four surviving copies of the original publication ended up in Rome, and Hawkins received report from there of its being ‘one of the best’ of Victoria’s works. Burney, taking this up, called it ‘much celebrated’. There is no evidence that either of them ever saw the music, and they certainly never heard it sung; but through them the Requiem (and Victoria) became known to the London musical scene, where Hawkins was a leading member of the Academy of Ancient Music. What interested Hawkins and his friends was physical evidence of old music – written and printed sources – and the histories that went with them. Music of this antiquity was held to be more of a monument than a living resource: actual performances were beside the point.
This was also true, at least at first, of the 19th-century Cecilian Movement in Germany, though its adherents came to promote the performance, as well as the documentation, of early sacred music. Ernst Ludwig, building on Burney, referred to the Requiem as ‘besonders berühmt’ (‘particularly famous’) in 1814. In 1835, Carl Proske transcribed the music from one of the Roman sources and showed it to his fellow Cecilians. They were looking for music that expressed ‘dignity, sublimity, grandeur, serenity, purity, restraint and relationship to chant’, and must have been pleased with what they saw because they instigated the Requiem’s second publication, in 1874, in a version edited by Franz Xaver Haberl (though not completely accurately). We know, because Haberl tells us, that this edition was performed complete at the General Assembly of 1874, following three successful earlier performances. He writes that he found Victoria’s chant-based style more suited to the ‘devout grief’ of a liturgical Requiem Mass than the grand instrumentation and tone painting of the modern works, which transgressed ‘ecclesiastical styles’.
Haberl’s interpretation was central to the Requiem’s reception in the 20th century, and it was from this point that the epithets and exaggerations began to accumulate. Proske had written, on very little evidence, that it was the ‘crown of all the works of our master’, which Haberl quoted in the preface to his 1874 volume. Felip Pedrell did the same in his monograph on Victoria from 1918. The first edition of Grove’s Dictionary (1890) states, without attribution, that ‘this work is universally described as the crown of all the works of the master’. By the time of Robert Stevenson’s Spanish Cathedral Music of the Golden Age (1961), ‘the master’ had become ‘a great genius’.
Evidence of actual performances also began to increase, particularly in France, where Charles Bordes, basing his edition on Haberl’s and copying his mistakes, published the work in 1893 for the benefit of his choir, the Chanteurs de Saint-Gervais in Paris. Victoria’s use of chant was of special interest to him since he believed that the rhythmic and melodic qualities of plainchant were also those exemplified by the finest sacred polyphony. Bordes’s conducting score survives, festooned with dynamic markings and tempo variations of violent contrasts (a practice I do not endorse), which he called ‘nuances et indications d’exécution’. But at least the music was becoming a living body of sound, to be interpreted and performed.
Bordes’s edition travelled to Ireland, where it was used for one or more performances by the Palestrina Choir in Dublin between 1898 and 1901. It also informed the revivalist work of Richard Runciman Terry after he became responsible for music at Westminster Cathedral in 1901. Terry clearly agreed with Bordes when he wrote that ‘modern individualistic music, with its realism and emotionalism, may stir human feeling, but it can never create that atmosphere of serene spiritual ecstasy that the old music generates. It is a case of mysticism versus hysteria.’ Victoria’s Requiem was approved for use in the liturgy in a listing of 1904, though it isn’t certain that it was ever performed by Terry. Rees argues that its six-voice scoring would have overtaxed the choir but this seems unlikely: Terry put forward much more polyphonically complex English renaissance repertoire, if only in five voices. It was chosen by the BBC Third Programme in 1950 for a professional performance by the Schola Polyphonica directed by Henry Washington and was sung at the funeral of the composer Manuel de Falla in Cádiz Cathedral in January 1947. Something of the atmosphere that had by now attached itself to the work was expressed by Juan María Thomas, who conducted it on that occasion: ‘We entered the quire [where] our souls were able to unleash … all their emotion that had been restrained until then, casting it into the ardent and harmonious storm of divinely composed polyphonies that form the Requiem.’
Performers sometimes have trouble understanding musicologists. They can seem not to be interested in the sound of the pieces they study and, worse, unable to put into words the power of individual passages. Rees is an experienced performer as well as an academic, however, and typical of his understanding is his analysis of two exceptional turns of phrase in ‘Versa est in luctum’, a funeral motet published with the Requiem proper: the diminished fourth (a rare dissonance which he describes as ‘acerbic’) to characterise the word ‘flentium’ (‘weeping’), and the three times the sopranos leap up a fifth to end a phrase on a weak syllable (on the words ‘domine’ and ‘mei’). ‘This is highly abnormal behaviour,’ he writes, ‘at a phrase ending for the top voice in polyphony of the period. In so doing, the upper parts reach their peak note, E, a note used extremely sparingly throughout the Officium defunctorum, and not hitherto in “Versa est”.’
He does miss one fundamental point of interpretation, however. Requiem masses, especially those from the 19th century, tend to project the more dramatic and uncomfortable phrases in the text: ‘Dies illa, dies irae, calamitatis et miseriae’ (‘That day, that day of wrath, of sore distress and of all wretchedness’) comes over memorably in Verdi’s setting. But in any Christian funeral service there must be a reckoning with what we expect for the departed. Is it to be the fires of hell (more popular in the early 17th century than today) or the possibility of a beautiful afterlife? Commentators tend to follow the assumption that a funeral service must be a sad, even torturous occasion, which will be reflected in the music written for it, with Victoria’s music being no exception. Rees is more neutral than that; but I feel he is so keen to downplay the fact that Victoria was a priest (often made too much of in commentaries on his music) that he misses the special message that Victoria has embedded in the work. Throughout his setting the dominant force is light, and wherever ‘lux’ is mentioned the music takes on a new expression. The phrase ‘Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis’ (‘Eternal rest give them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them’) occurs five times in the course of the Mass, and each time Victoria’s music acquires an added sweetness, achieved by a gentle acceleration in the quoting of identical phrases between the voices, as if in intimate conversation, culminating in the final reference, right at the end in the ‘Libera me’, where the whole experience is summed up. No other priest of his standing set these words to music so effectively, and it would be a mistake not to read this as a theological, as well as a musical, intervention. In his view, light has replaced the finality of death.
I’m also unconvinced by Rees’s careful debunking of the supposed Spanish mysticism underlying the music. Other debunkings – for example, of the idea that Victoria intended the piece as his last work, in the manner of Mozart’s Requiem – are welcome, but the possibility of mysticism has some relevance. As the musicologist Higini Anglès put it in 1968, ‘like the mystical writers and painters of Spanish humanism, [Victoria] was able to harmonise artistic severity with loving emotion.’ Rees goes on to confront the many later writers who have found a particularly mystical religiosity, amounting to a fascination with death, in Iberian Requiem settings, finally stating that ‘there did not exist a general “Spanish” approach to composing Requiem Masses.’ Yet, Victoria was born in Ávila and went to St Gil, a school personally favoured by Saint Teresa, the leading mystic writer of the period. Painters of the Spanish Renaissance, headed by El Greco, were famous for their mystical treatments of religious subjects. Mysticism in music can be a difficult thing to pin down, but if painting and religious writing of the period was influenced in this way, why not music too?
Anglès’s remark goes a long way to identifying the mystical element I hear in Victoria’s Requiem. Elsewhere in his writing the loving emotion tends to be more apparent, for example in his much-performed motets in praise of the Virgin. His equally often performed Responsories for Tenebrae – an earlier work – have a punchier, almost brutal style, though they too have had commentators refer to their mystical language. But in the Requiem the long-note chant quotations slow the pace of the writing to the point where all the listener can do is surrender to contemplation. This is quite a high-risk strategy. The many lesser composers who tried it can easily sound lost. But this is the miracle element in Victoria’s setting. The more ordinary it looks on the page, the more effective it is in performance.
Rees writes that ‘since the start of the new millennium, recordings of the Victoria Requiem have appeared at the rate of approximately one a year.’ Although the modern craze for the Requiem could be said to have started with the recordings by Westminster Cathedral and by my own ensemble, the Tallis Scholars, both from 1987, Rees lists recordings of several nationalities, Spanish not least, and most of them have appeared in the last two decades. He also lists eight performing editions of the music that have appeared since Haberl’s, omitting his own. As part of his recitation of the piece’s success as a concert item, he mentions that between 1986 and 2015, I performed it 86 times, never liturgically though sometimes in a church. (That number now stands at 137.)
The Requiem wasn’t an instant success in part because it lacked the instruments, operatic solos and superficial embellishments that were rapidly becoming popular features of new music. This was the period when Monteverdi was sweeping the board with his opera-inclined compositions, rendering obsolete the sober, chant-based polyphony epitomised by Palestrina. Public taste went with him, and it was two hundred years before music without artifice was again discussed and performed with enthusiasm. In the course of his research, Rees has discovered a whole repertoire of Italian settings of the Requiem written between 1560 and 1650 (he lists 81 of them). This is an astonishing archive, totally unknown today. None of these pieces established any kind of reputation at the time since settings of the Requiem, though clearly in demand, were considered so plain and commonplace that they excited little interest; and almost none has been reprinted since.
In his final chapter, Rees considers the place of the Requiem in contemporary repertoire. Audiences don’t want to go to a church service, but they do want to hear the music and to understand something of the context in which it was written. In an effort to satisfy this, record companies and choirs often seek to ‘evoke, recreate or preserve the “aura”’ pertaining to the piece, as Rees puts it, ‘even as the work moves … beyond the ritual contexts from which that aura is in part derived’. CD sleeves and the covers of modern editions try to suggest the look of the 1605 publication, rendering them ‘more instantly evocative of pro defunctis liturgical books … than was the original 1605 book itself’. He goes on to say that ‘the aura of grave and solemn liturgy engendered by the Westminster Cathedral recording is intensified through the use of Latin titles – which are not used by Victoria in the 1605 volume.’ Another recording, by the Gabrieli Consort in 1995, used distant placing of the microphones to ‘heighten the sense that the listener is witnessing the piece unfold in its proper space’. But this impression is misleading: ‘There would have been very little resonance in the Descalzas chapel at the first performances, given that the space (which is in any case not particularly large) was lined with drapery.’
Our desire to hear period music ‘authentically’ leads to other strange behaviours. Bruno Turner wrote in the introduction to his 1987 edition of the Requiem, used by both Westminster Cathedral and the Tallis Scholars, and still the preferred edition for choirs today, that the piece ‘can only be presented with respect and humility. The purpose of this edition is to encourage performance in the same spirit, with dignity and simplicity.’ This does little to define the music in the modern context. There is an argument that we trivialise centuries-old liturgical music by listening to it with a cup of coffee in our hand, but this doesn’t in any way reduce it as music. Bombastic claims that it is a ‘requiem for an age’ or a ‘serene lament for the whole Spanish faith’ add little to the experience of listening to the Requiem. As for those who claim that it can only be appreciated in venues with the proper religious aura, they should have more confidence in the music, and in those who perform it.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.