Spanish Practices, English Speculations

In terms of total performance time, I’ve probably conducted more music by J S Bach than by anyone else but when it comes to individual named works then Victoria leads the field. There are several reasons for this. Reliable editions are available from a number of sources; the ranges of the individual vocal lines suit modern singers in a way in which Byrd’s, for example, often do not; and I like the noise it makes (very much). True, in Victoria we do not find the scintillating rhythmic virtuosity of Byrd (though his Lauda Sion gets pretty close), but there is a Palestrinian perfection of technique that combines with delicate feels for harmony and sonority to give his music a distinctive hue.

This late Renaissance sacred music is generally thought of as being for unaccompanied voices and undoubtedly that is how it was and is often performed. But it wasn’t and isn’t the only option. In Victoria’s lifetime ‘voices only’ was very much the Roman custom but in his Spanish homeland they might be joined by almost any combination of organ, wind instruments and harp. Some readers will remember our extended series of Victoria performances in 2010/11 in which, yes, we did sing unaccompanied, but also in combination with organ and historic brass instruments to splendid effect.

Victoria’s music for multiple choirs offers clear opportunities for the exploration of performing options, though in our June concert I’m going to use just two, though in combination with each other. Both Regina coeli and Salve Regina are for double choir, with the ensembles contrasted in their scoring – SSABar/SATB. In was a common practice in the decades around 1600 to have unequal numbers of singers in the two choirs of such pieces and over the years I have found it to be effective when the SSABar group is the smaller of the two. Furthermore, we shall use the composer’s own organ part (though see below) which he suggested could support or even replace some of the vocal lines. (In the past we’ve done that too – in the triple choir Laetatus sum.)

This organ part was an addition to the music when the 1576 editions were re-published in revised versions in 1600. What we don’t know is exactly why it was added. Was Victoria simply following a new fashion? (Unlikely.) Was he ratifying a performance practice that regularly occurred anyway? (Very possibly.) Was this organ part a suggestion from the publisher? (Also very possible.) Did the publisher then get one of his hacks to arrange it from the vocal parts? (Also, I think, very possible as it is not always most gracefully written. I’ll be honest here – for our performance I have ‘tidied it up a bit’.)

The 1600 publication also contains a number of accidentals not found in 1576. Again, there are unanswerable questions. Were the original omissions mistakes? Did ‘the rules’ of melody and harmony as they were in the 1570s mean that singers would have sung them anyway, but in the different musical world of the 1600s these details needed to be made explicit? Did Victoria change his mind? The overall effect of the adjustments is to give the music a much more ‘modern’ major/minor feel. Perhaps he was moving with the times.

But with or without instruments, with or without the modernising accidentals, small choir or large, this is music which achieves a distinctive sublimity. Join us for something special on June 16th, and remember that our tickets are cheaper when bought in advance.

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