Back With a Vengeance: Â Tantalizing Treasures from the Spanish Renaissance and Mexican Baroque Eras
by Victoria Looseleaf
Every art form has its golden age, when creativity, genius and the electricity of the new flowers in seductive ways, burrowing into the collective fabric of society with such irrepressible force that nothing will ever again be the same. Here in the relatively youthful United States, the 20th century cracked open with the Jazz Age in the 20s (think F. Scott Fitzgerald and flappers), live television in the 50s (from the dramas of Paddy Chayefsky to situation comedies such as “The Honeymooners”), contemporary music and art in the 60s (hello Warhol and postmodernism), and ground-breaking films in the 70s (all hail Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola). And while Stravinsky may have blown the sonic universe apart in 1913 Paris with “The Rite of Spring,” there is an unspoken musical connection to all that has come before and that which has transpired since – no matter the locale. Indeed, by traveling back nearly 400 years to the golden age of the Spanish Renaissance, tonight’s concert not only yields a bounty of lavish sounds, but can also be heard as a sumptuous precursor to Bach and what lay beyond. In the works of Tomas Luis de Victoria, the greatest composer of the Spanish 16th century, a veritable golden age of polyphonic music flourished. Born into a large and wealthy family in Avila in 1548, Victoria, who, in 1575 became an ordained priest in Rome and thus came into contact with people from all over Europe, was the least prolific of his contemporaries, Palestrina, Byrd and Lassus. But less is sometimes more, and writing only sacred music, the Spaniard created an oeuvre that included 20 Masses, 52 motets and a number of other liturgical pieces. Noted for his intense and expressive Mass settings, Victoria left Italy in 1587 and worked in Madrid as chaplain and choirmaster to the dowager empress Maria of Spain, widow of Maximilan II and sister to Philip II. It was upon her death in 1603 that Victoria wrote his final masterpiece, the “Officium Defunctorum (Requiem),” which was not, however, published until 1605, six years before his own death (it should also be noted that because of family income and connections to the clergy, Victoria could afford to publish most of his music, hurling it across Europe and the Spanish New World. Publishing 11 volumes during his lifetime, Victoria’s last published work – and possibly his last composition - was the Requiem.). Often referred to simply as Victoria’s Requiem, it is scored for six voices, with the requiem itself only a part (about 26 minutes) of the entire “Officium Defunctorum.” While Victoria shares Palestrina’s fondness for smooth melodic lines and carefully worked double counterpoint, his music contains more accidentals, a subtle use of triadic harmonies, unusual suspensions and a flexibility in the declamation (text setting), resulting in decidedly more emotional oomph and passionate mysticism that set it apart from his contemporaries. Making use of plainchant as a cantus firmus throughout, mostly in the second soprano part, Victoria created a sound that, to our ears, seems austere, but would have been in keeping with the Empress’s own modest final days: those spent at the Royal Convent of the Barefoot Clarist Nuns, where Victoria is also buried in an unmarked tomb. Liberally peppered with open fifths and widely spaced sonorities, the work also includes a pair of exquisite motets; the four-part, “Taedet animam meam” opens the 40-minute opus, and the penultimate movement, the funeral motet, “Versa est in luctum,” is based on words from Job. Teeming with pungent harmonies as well as offering the widest range among the voices, the latter is the work’s musical high point that would have been performed at the end of the Mass, when the assembled clergy gathered around the catafalque to perform the Great Absolution. For the Responsory - “Libera me,” which was sung while the catafalque was sprinkled with holy water, Victoria set the solo parts of the text to polyphony, leaving the responses sung to chant. Devoid of musical hooks - no Kanye West/Jay Z-style grooves here - yet equally compelling, the Requiem is that of a composer in total mastery of his resources – technical, emotional and spiritual – representing a crowning achievement that stands the test of time, brilliantly reflecting Victoria’s own words: “Music is not man’s invention, but his heritage from the blessed spirits. Music, because of its instinct with rhythm and harmony, describes the very being of God.”
God continues pulsing through the resplendent sacred and secular music from the New World in the second half of this evening’s concert. During the 16th and 17th centuries, while European composers were adhering to fugal rigors, chapel masters in cathedrals throughout Mexico were creating exquisite vocal music of exceptional grace and beauty, making Mexico City a hotbed of melodious sophistication. Like the melting pot that is the City of Angels today, many music makers from Spain, Portugal and Italy brought liturgical music in the Renaissance tradition to places like Peru, Chile and Mexico, creating a cultural and musical cross-fertilization. Cutting a broad swath from Guatemala to the missions of California, this music of “New Spain” once again allures, thrills and soothes. With Antonio Durán de la Mota’s motet, “Laudate pueri Dominum,” the lively accompaniment of guitar, cello and violone (Baroque bass), results in a spry rhythmic underpinning, as does that of “Loa – Prologo from “La Purpura de la Rosa,” by Tomás de Torrejón y Velasco. This prologue, from the first opera written in the New World, premiered in 1701 in Lima, and is a stellar example of dramatic music surviving from Latin America. The a cappella motet “Adiuva nos Deus” by Manuel de Sumaya, though written in the 18th century, has a Renaissance feel, its five parts making use of fairly complex rhythms including two against three (a pattern that would not appear again in Western music for another 150 years). De Sumaya’s “Sol-fa de Pedro,” an eight-minute solfeggio piece (syllables sung to specific notes), was composed as part of the punishing examinations used to select Mexico City Cathedral’s chapel master. Winning the post, de Sumaya excelled at word painting, with the work featuring cascading voices that come together on the word, “unite,” and quivering eighth note motifs giving an aural twist to the utterance, “warble.” Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla’s double choir motet, “Mirabilia Testimonia Tua,” a setting of Psalm 118, is a perfect example of a hybrid work, its elements of the Renaissance and Baroque splendidly accented by the enticing New World rhythms. The four villancicos, which highlight fast, light dance rhythms, by Tomás Pascual, García de Zéspedes and an omnipresent - no matter the era – Anonymous, end the evening in full-tilt party mode as well as shed light on the superb period that is once more gaining the recognition and popularity it so justly deserves. As Johann Sebastian Bach once said, “The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.” So, too, do these rhythmically dextrous works – all infused with magnificent aural lightness - nurture, replenish and ease our spirits, something desperately needed in the 21st century.
Victoria Looseleaf is an award-winning arts journalist and regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times, La Opinion and Performances Magazine. In addition, she is the producer-host of the long-running cable access television show on the arts, “The Looseleaf Report.” This is her fourth season with the Los Angeles Master Chorale.