The balance of austerity and grief: Victoria – O vos omnes

by 5:4

One of the greatest difficulties, i feel, with writing music for Holy Week, is the need to be objectively austere, while also expressing some sense of the highly-wrought feelings that pervade the week. i don’t mean in some ghastly “stiff upper lip” way; that would be dishonest and repressed. One must engage with the events recounted in the texts in an intellectual way, grappling with their meaning (the theology if you like), while never forgetting that they are an expression of utter tragedy, a tragedy in which we have all played our part, and so emotions must be given absolutely free reign too. To compose music that sits within, and seeks to interact with, such a darkly complex space, is a challenge indeed. A challenge, it seems, too many composers have attempted – and failed. We were subjected to just such a failure last Sunday at the Abbey: a performance of Arthur Somervell’s The Passion of Christ. It’s not a piece worth speaking of for long, except to say that it was typically Victorian, all wallpaper and soft edges. i don’t take sugar with my Passion, thank you, and Somervell’s was laced with saccharine at every opportunity; Jesus, from the cross, didn’t so much sing as croon. It was revolting, and one can only hope the Abbey makes better quality choices in future.

No such problems with the music of Tomás Luis de Victoria. Victoria has an uncanny gift for producing compositions that strike a perfect, delicate balance, teeming with complexity, abundant in life and interest, while ever keeping the emotions near to the surface. A sumptuous example of that is his setting of the Holy Week text O vos omnes:

O vos omnes, qui transitis per viam, attendite, et videte: Si est dolor similis sicut dolor meus. Attendite, universi populi, et videte dolorem meum.
(“O you that pass by, behold, and see: can there be any sorrow like my sorrow? Behold, everyone, and see my sorrow.”)

It’s found within Victoria’s Tenebræ Responses for Holy Saturday; the words are taken from the book of Lamentations (1:12), often associated with Christ on the cross. Much of the music is rooted in homophony; Victoria huddles the choir together in two pairs, soprano and bass, alto and tenor. To some extent, he also huddles the notes together – the sopranos explore a fairly narrow range – and there’s much meandering of the parts, a perfect representation of the circular nature of grief. and yet, at times, he compounds the emotion, suddenly launching the lower voices into their uppermost register (especially at “attendite” and “dolorem meum” – real cries of desperation), as well as peppering his harmonies with piquancy.

In music of this time, of course, a lot depends on the performers; my present favourite (until the Hilliards record it) is the one by Robert Shaw’s Festival and Chamber Singers. They avoid the pitfall of sounding too American, delivering a highly expressive but faithful account, nicely colouring the points of tension and release that come like waves crashing on a shore. At the end, they actually sound quite exhausted, which couldn’t be more appropriate.

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