By ARTHUR F. EDWARDS
Annotator, Los Angeles Master Chorale
1530 to 1630 was a period almost unique in the history of music- a period during which the schools of Dufay and Des Pres, transplanted to Italy, were disseminating the various facets of contrapuntal technique throughout Europe. Five years ago, in his excellent annotation of the Master Chorale's first Festival of XVIth and XVIIth Century Music, Dr. Robert Stevenson characterized this rich period of music in the following words: "In Napoleon's era, Haydn and Beethoven made Vienna the acknowledged musical mistress of Europe, and on the eve of World War I, Debussy, Ravel, and Stravinsky did the same for Paris. However, no one capital or even country could claim such preeminence in the 16th century. When Shakespeare was just beginning his career in 1590, London could boast of William Byrd - one of the greatest English composers of all time. But in the same year, Madrid with Victoria, Rome with Palestrina, Mantua with Monteverdi, Venice with Giovanni Gabrieli, Munich with Lassus, and Prague with Gallus (known also as Handl) showed how wide was the distribution of stellar genius."
As the land processes through the cycle of the seasons, so the music of the Renaissance church moved with solemn majesty through the liturgical year. Thus we have the Marian Antiphon for advent Alma redemptoris Mater; the motet for January 1st O magnum mysterium; the prophetic words of Isaiah from the Epistle of the Feast of the Epiphany Surge illuminare Hierusalem; the passion motet Vere languores; the responsory for the crucifixion and death of Jesus Tenebrae factae sunt; the triumphal gradual for Easter Sunday Haec dies; and two selections for later in the church year; Tu es Petrus for the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul; and Super flumina Babylonis which is proper for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost.
Tonight's program has such a spectacular representation that it would require far more space than there is available to do justice to the lives and works of these composers. Much could be said about Giovanni Gabrieli and his pupil Heinrich Schütz whose Psalmen Davids includes the Psalm 150 performed tonight. This work, published in Dresden in 1619, continued the polychoral splendor that Gabrieli and his uncle had fostered at St. Mark's in Venice. With regard to Schütz it should be noted that the Erhöre Mich (No. VIII of Book 1, Kleine geistliche Konzert 1636) displays a rather lean frugality (only two voice parts and continuo) not so much because of the seconda prattica of Baroque music but because of the exigencies of the wartime devastation in central Europe (1618-1648). For proof of this statement we may refer to Bukofzer (Music in the Baroque Era, p.93), who states that the Konzerte "called only for a continuo but no other instruments because, as Schütz remarks in the preface, the ruinous effect of the war had completely paralyzed musical life." The 20th century was not the first period to find that guns and butter are not compatible.
Clearly, the two composers most lavishly represented on this program are Giovanni Pierluigi from the small Italian town of Palestrina and Tomas Luis de Victoria from Spanish Avila. Any comparison of these two composers must draw heavily on Robert Stevenson's Spanish Cathedral Music in the Golden Age. In his analysis of motets based on the crucifixion of St. Andrew, Stevenson notes that, where Palestrina writes in a smooth, gently-flowing line, Victoria vividly treats of the sufferings of the apostle. "Great artist though he undoubtedly was, Palestrina seems everywhere content to have seen the crucifixion of Andrew 'through a glass darkly'; whereas Victoria always seeks to view the scene 'face to face,' to see the cross as he sees dulce lignum in his famous motet Vere languores, and himself to participate in the blood, the sweat, and the tears. This burning desire to participate in the passion, and to suffer with the martyrs and above all with Christ, has, of course, been often referred to as a typical feature of Theresan mysticism." Elsewhere, note is made of the much more extensive use of accidentals by the younger Spaniard. To delve more deeply into the treasures of the study:
"No two homonymous motets are more interesting to compare than Palestrina's and Victoria's parallel settings of O magnum mysterium. Only in this instance did both composers choose the same motet text and then later return to construct parody masses on their original motets. Palestrina's motet a 6 (1569) continues with a second pars, Quem vidistis pastores, and is for Christmas. Victoria's O magnum mysterium, a 4, is of single pars, and is designated as a Circumcision motet. Still more interesting, the text as set by Victoria continues with Beata Virgo cujus viscera meruerunt portare Dominum Christum: words that in modern liturgical use form the 'B' of the aBcB plainsong, O magnum mysterium (fourth responsory for Christmas Vespers). Palestrina, who considered O magnum mysterium a Christmas text, omitted the Beata Virgo phrase; although he did seem aware that the text is a responsory. It will repay us to disentangle the liturgical associations before beginning any detailed study. Circumcision, with its premonition of the shedding of blood on the cross, has always been recognized as a less joyous feast than Nativity. Because Circumcision foreshadows Crucifixion, it is entirely appropriate for Victoria's O magnum mysterium to link with his thrice-famous Vere languores (Maundy Thursday). Measures 40-44 of his O magnum mysterium duplicate at the lower fourth mm. 52-56 of Vere languores. In the Circumcision motet, the text at mm. 40-44 refers to the Blessed Virgin, who was by the Most High judged worthy to bear (portare) the Child Jesus within her own self. In the Maundy Thursday motet, the text at mm. 52-56 refers to the wondrous wood and nails adjudged worthy by the Most High to bear (sustinere) the King of Kings during his hours of agony. Had Victoria's O magnum mysterium been composed for Christmas, as was Palestrina's, there would have been something quite incongruous in his having carried over music from it into a motet for so solemn an occasion as the night of the Last Supper. But because he had not Christmas but Circumcision in mind, the carryover serves the highest artistic purposes. Such a prolepsis symbolizes in musical terms the intimate link that has always, according to traditional exegesis, united the one occasion with the other." (p.438.)