David Hill conducts music of Victoria, Guerrero, and Pärt
as part of the Evensong service at Christ Church New Haven
Preces and Responses by William Durham Smith
Robert Parsons: Ave Maria
Tomás Luís de Victoria: Magnificat primi toni
Arvo Pärt: Nunc dimittis
Francisco Guerrero: Ave virgo sanctissima
Evensong at Christ Church is open to the public.
P R O G R A M N O T E S
Had Robert Parsons (c1535-1571/2) not met a tragic end in the prime of his life—he drowned in the River Trent—he would probably have achieved the historical stature of Thomas Tallis and William Byrd, who succeeded him as Gentleman of the Chapel Royal. As one contemporary eulogized, “Parsons, you who were so great in the springtime of life; how great you would have been in the autumn, had not death intervened.” Little is known about Parsons’s life, but there is evidence that he served as assistant to the Master of the Children Choristers of the Chapel Royal before his appointment as Gentleman in 1563. His small body of surviving work includes a variety of sacred settings, several secular songs, and some important contributions to the Elizabethan instrumental repertory.
Parsons’s part-writing is complex and highly refined. He employs frequent dissonances, always approached and resolved with impeccable care. His Ave Maria, which has become one of Parson’s best-known works, dates from the late 1560s and is a good exemplar of his style. Although Latin texts were permitted in the Anglican liturgy under Queen Elizabeth, there is evidence that this motet was addressed to Parson’s fellow recusant Catholics. It is even possible that the “Maria” of whom the text speaks is actually Mary Queen of Scots, who fled to England in 1568 and was regarded as the rightful monarch by English Catholics.
Tomás Luís de Victoria (1548-1611) received his musical training as a choirboy at Avila Cathedral, where he served under Spain’s leading composers and organists. He later studied singing at the Jesuit Collegio Germanico in Rome, and in 1572 he published his first collection of motets in that city. Even as a young composer, Victoria’s style was indebted to the great Italian polyphonist Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. The older master worked in a nearby church, and Victoria would certainly have known him and his music. Upon completing his studies, Victoria took a church position as a singer and organist. He also taught music at the Collegio, where he soon achieved the rank of maestro di cappela. In 1575, Victoria was ordained as a priest and assigned a chaplaincy that he held for the next ten years, a period during which he published a great deal of sacred polyphony. In 1585, however, Victoria could no longer bear to be so far from his homeland. He returned to Spain to serve as organist and choir director at the Monasterio de las Descalzas de Santa Clara, a convent located in Madrid. Victoria remained there until his death, despite several lucrative offers from Spain’s largest cathedrals.
Unlike his most celebrated contemporaries, Victoria only set sacred Latin texts. He is also unusual in that he published all of his completed works—and in exceptionally lavish volumes. Victoria set the Magnificat eighteen times, a corpus that includes at least two settings in each mode. The first sixteen settings all appeared in his 1581 publication, but in 1600 Victoria returned to the Magnificat text and produced two final settings, including tonight’s Magnificat primi toni. These late efforts betray the wisdom of a seasoned composer. They are lighter than his earlier works, which have been criticized for prioritizing scholarly counterpoint over aesthetics. Victoria avoids learned devices like canon and incorporates the triple-time dance meters of popular music. He is also more sure in his treatment of dissonance. Finally—the ultimate mark of the master—these last two Magnificat settings are economical and concise.
Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) is an Estonian composer who developed his unique voice under the suffocating oppression of Soviet rule. As a student at the Tallinn Conservatory, he composed music in the Neoclassical style and supported himself by supplying scores for film and theater. He later learned twelve-tone technique from illicit manuscripts, but was officially censured when he offered a serial work for public performance. In 1964 he turned to the music of Bach for inspiration; his work from that era juxtaposes Baroque and contemporary styles, and features traditional contrapuntal techniques. In 1968, however, Pärt found himself at an impasse. The music his had composed so far expressed neither his personal identity as a devout Orthodox Christian nor the oppressive circumstances under which he lived and worked. He also faced severe censorship from the Soviet government, which banned his early compositions.
For several years, Pärt dedicated himself to the study of ancient church music, especially Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony. Inspired by the simplicity and clarity of this repertoire, he found his voice again in 1976 with the development of the compositional technique that still defines him for audiences across the globe. This technique, named “tintinnabuli” by the composer himself, evokes the ringing of Orthodox church bells. Music composed in this style features a characteristic “tintinnabular voice,” which arpeggiates the tonic triad, and a melodic voice, which moves diatonically in stepwise motion. Pärt’s works in this style are highly serialized, and much of the music is determined by large-scale formal decisions. The “tintinnabuli” technique produces an unusual collage of consonant and dissonant harmonies, and the resulting soundscape is unique to Pärt’s music. Pärt has been described more recently at a “mystic minimalist:” mystic because he evokes the sounds and values of his Orthodox faith, and minimalist because he greatly restricts the musical materials at his disposal.
Pärt created his Nunc Dimittis setting in 2001 to fulfill a commission from Saint Mary’s Episcopal Church in Edinburgh. It premiered at the Edinburgh Festival in August 2001. The Anglican liturgy usually requires that the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis be sung as a pair, but Pärt allowed twelve years to pass between setting the two texts, and his Nunc Dimittis was not intended as a partner for the earlier work. Pärt manipulates consonance and dissonance to slowly build intensity. The music climaxes with the statement “lumen ad revelationem,” at which point Pärt shifts from the minor mode to the major.
Francisco Guerrero (1528-1599) is regarded as one of the greatest Spanish composers of the Renaissance, second only to Victoria himself. Guerrero resided in Seville for most of his life, serving at the Seville Cathedral first as a singer and finally as maestro de capilla, but he travelled widely and published several volumes of music in Rome. In 1590 he wrote a popular memoir about his recent pilgrimage to the Holy Land—although the receipts were not enough to keep him out of debtors’ prison the following year, the result of music publishing expenses and losses at the hands of pirates. Guerrero seems to have enjoyed adventure but lacked a certain sense of responsibility; he was once dismissed from a Cathedral position for failing to look after the six choirboys entrusted to his care.
Guerrero published eighteen Masses and approximately 150 other liturgical works, and his music was widely performed both in Spain and in Latin America. Unlike Victoria, Guerrero also composed secular songs; in fact, he often matched secular and sacred verses to the same melody. Guerrero first published his five-voice motet Ave virgo sanctissima in 1566. It became enormously popular and was widely touted as the quintessential Marian motet, a standard to which all other composers would be wise to repair. Guerrero himself created so many excellent works in praise of the Virgin that his contemporaries called him “El cantor de Maria.” This motet demonstrates Guerrero’s great skill, for it produces intense emotional contrasts within a canonic structure. Guerrero’s expert voice leading and harmonic control are evident throughout.
William Smith (1603–1645) is primarily remembered for his set of Preces and Responses for use in the Anglican Evening Prayer service, although he also composed verse anthems and set other liturgical texts. Little is known about Smith’s life. He lived in Durham, and was employed in several capacities—including chorister, lay clerk, and deacon—at Durham Cathedral. He composed in a complex, contrapuntal style, which caused no little controversy during his life. In the mid-1600s, the Cathedral was at the center of a bitter dispute between high- and low-church factions. Smith was castigated by those who favored simple, homophonic church music; one opponent condemned the “confusedness of voices” that resulted in the unintelligibility of Smith’s anthems, despite the fact that they were in English. All the same, his music was incorporated into all of the Durham choir books and was apparently in regular usage. The Preces and Responses have been popular since they were included in the 1932 volume Six Settings of the Preces and Reponses by Tudor Composers.
~Esther Morgan Ellis