Prepare to encounter moments of exquisite tenderness as Harry Christophers takes you on a voyage of breathtaking vocal works. This all-choral, a cappella program explores the works of Tomás Luis de Victoria — one of the most significant Renaissance composers — and witty hedonist Francis Poulenc. Their sacred music, although separated by some three hundred years, possesses similar traits of compassion and fervency.
Harry Christophers, conductor
members of the
Handel and Haydn Society Chorus
- Victoria: Magnificat Primi toni à 8
- Poulenc: Quatre motets pour un temps de penitence
- 1. Timor et tremor
2. Vinea mea electa
- Victoria: O vos omnes
- Poulenc: Quatre motets pour un temps de penitence
- 3. Tenebrae factae sunt
4. Tristis est anima mea
- Victoria: Litanniae Beatae Mariae
- Poulenc: Salve Regina
- Victoria: Nigra sum
- Victoria: Quam pulchri sunt
- Victoria: Vidi speciosam
- Victoria: Salve Regina à 8
One hour before the start of each performance in Saint Cecilia's Sanctuary and Memorial Church's Pusey Room. Please note: lecture seating is limited.
Evening at the MFA, Boston
Join us for a gallery talk and performance at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Orchestra & Chorus
Sonja DuToit Tengblad
The composers on today’s concert, sixteenth-century Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548–1611) and twentieth-century French composer Francis Poulenc (1899–1963), seem to have little in common. Their music, however, unites them not only in the choice of texts but also in the powerful musical expression of that text reflecting a restraint that, at times, feels as if it is on the verge of uncontainable emotion.
Opening the concert is the plainsong or chant Salve Regina. The Blessed Virgin Mary has always been an important figure in the Roman Catholic Church and the Salve Regina is one of four hymns written in her honor. St. Jerome (340/2–420) suggested that Mary was the mother of the human race and records indicate that feasts in her honor were being celebrated as early as the fifth century. By the eleventh century, Marian devotion was an important aspect of worship. Images of Mary abounded in painting, sculpture, and literature as Mary’s religious image (purity, intercessor) became conflated with secular images of beauty and love. Salve Regina is found in a manuscript from the twelfth century and while there are several possibilities, the composer’s identity cannot be determined definitively. The composer of this chant created a flowing single-melody hymn that, beginning in the thirteenth century, was incorporated into the evening devotions of the numerous societies dedicated to Mary. By the fifteenth century, there were Salve confraternities named for the plainsong hymn. Composers were often members of these societies; there are over 127 polyphonic settings of this hymn from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
Victoria was an organist, singer, and one of the greatest composers of the Renaissance. His early music training took place in Spain; he then went to the Jesuit Collegio Germanico in Rome as a singer in 1565. He took minor orders and was ordained a lay priest in 1575. He remained in Rome for more than twenty years, teaching, composing, and publishing. He probably studied with Giovanni Palestrina (1525/6–1594), whose controlled use of dissonance was considered the epitome of Italian sacred music in the sixteenth century. Victoria wrote of his wish to return to Spain in a dedication to King Philip II published in 1583. His request did not go unnoticed; Victoria was named chaplain to Dowager Empress Maria, sister of King Philip II in 1587. After her death in 1603, Victoria became organist of the chapel, which allowed him time to oversee publication of his works and travel. Victoria, who wrote only sacred music, is the only composer known to have matched Palestrina in technique and even surpass him in his variety of expression.
In Victoria’s setting of Salve Regina (1576) eight voices are grouped into two choirs that sing in alternation. The choirs join together at the text “Eia ergo” and again at “O clemens.” Here Victoria uses long-note values to create a sense of musical expansion and entice our sense of expectation.
The Litanniae Beatae Mariae (1583) also features eight voices divided into two choirs singing antiphonally. Victoria uses the traditional litany structure beginning with the Kyrie, followed by supplications with the response “ora pro nobis” and concluding with the Agnus Dei.
The text for the Magnificat, or canticle of the Virgin, is from the Gospel of Luke in the New Testament and is Mary’s response to the news that she will be the mother of Jesus. The text contains ten verses plus the Doxology (a short concluding prayer giving glory to God). In his Magnificat primi toni (1600) for eight voices, Victoria uses voice pairs, imitation, and homophony in multiple voice combinations to convey the sincerity and importance of this text exquisitely.
Nigra sum and Quam pulchri sunt are settings of texts taken from the Song of Songs. Some of the most sensual texts in the Old Testament, in Victoria’s time they were often associated with the Virgin Mary. Victoria begins Nigra sum (1576) with a long-short-long rhythmic pattern that reflects the natural accents of the text. This rhythmic pattern acts as a unifying feature even as the chordal (vertical) alignment of the voices in the opening of the motet changes to a contrapuntal (horizontal) texture. In the four-voiced motet Quam pulchri sunt (1572), Victoria pairs the vocal lines, weaving the polyphony in a continually changing pattern.
In O vos omnes, time itself seems to be suspended. The intimate feeling of the text is conveyed brilliantly through the carefully controlled textures and text painting. This sense of intimacy and musical spaciousness emerges in all of Victoria’s polyphonic settings. In the works on today’s concert, the profound, even austere settings retain a feeling of personal expression through Victoria’s use of polyphony, homophony, and imitation. Particular words are highlighted through subtle text painting techniques such as the rising line on the word “ascendentum” in the motet Vidi speciosam.
More than 300 years later, Francis Poulenc (1899–1963) evoked a similar sense of intimacy and personal reflection with his Quatre motets pour un temps de penitence, composed between 1938 and 1939. A turning point in his output, these motets are part of the composer’s return to Catholicism that was precipitated by the tragic death of his friend Pierre-Octave Ferroud in a car accident on August 17, 1936. Concerning this time in his life Poulenc wrote: “Thinking about the frailty of the human condition, I was once again attracted to the spiritual life. Rocamadour [pilgrimage site of the Black Virgin, a sculpture of the Virgin from black wood] served to lead me back to the faith of my youth.”
Poulenc explained that the Quatre motets “are as realistic and tragic as an Andrea Mantegna painting.” Mantegna, who worked in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, combined realism with artistic manipulation of perspective, creating heart-wrenching effect. Using texts for Lent, Poulenc’s settings paint vivid scenes with precision and contrasts that resonate with the fervor of private prayer. The text for the last motet relates Christ’s words in the Garden of Gethsemane. It is a text of separation, sorrow and abandonment that Poulenc expresses with precision coupled with his personal sense of tone color. The opening lines are set as a solo; Poulenc then uses a different combination of voices to portray Jesus’ request to “Stay and watch with me”. This is contrasted starkly with the next section (“vos fugam capietis”) which depicts the frantic flight of the disciples when Jesus is arrested.
Poulenc’s setting of Salve Regina for four unaccompanied voices was composed in 1941. In its use of dissonance, it may be described as modern, yet the movement to consonance at the end of each distinct phrase evokes a sense of the past. Twice Poulenc briefly breaks the homophonic texture that predominates this motet. The first is at “Et Jesum” and the second time is the final line of text. The last phrase “o dulcis virgo” is repeated several times as an enduring personal invocation.
It is this sense of profound personal expression which ultimately connects the music of Victoria and Poulenc. Despite being separated by hundreds of years, the clarity in the writing and the overall purity of sound that encompasses this music resonates no matter the century.
Program notes prepared by Teresa M. Neff, Ph.D.
2010–2011 Historically Informed Performance Fellow
Artists, dates, and programming are subject to change.
Magnificat à 8