Aleluya! A Candlelight Christmas—Early Masterworks & Villancicos from Spain & the New World — Dec 2008

For this concert program: Details | Translations | Notes

Program Notes

ALELUYA! A Candlelight Christmas

Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548–1611) was the greatest Spanish composer of the Renaissance. He lived and worked in Italy for a couple of decades as a composer and organist. He first studied at the Jesuit Collegio Germanico in Rome and eventually became its maestro di cappella. After some time he was ordained priest and joined the famed Congregazione dell’Oratorio newly formed by Filippo Neri (where the musical genre of the oratorio was born). In 1583 he returned to Spain and served the king’s sister for around sixteen years. When the empress died, Victoria remained at the convent where he had lived for the rest of his life.

Victoria, who composed only on Latin texts, created music that is both rich and moving. Known for a supposed poignancy and pervasive sadness, his music can in fact be sunny and joyful. All four motets on today’s program are for a four-part choir. Two of these are hymns, Salvete, flores martyrum and Christe, redemptor omnium, published in Rome in 1581 in Hymni totius anni secundum sanctae romanae ecclesiae consuetudinem (Hymns for the whole year according to the custom of the Holy Roman Church), and two are motets, O magnum mysterium and O quam gloriosum est regnum, published in Venice in his 1572 book of motets for four to six parts. Victoria’s music is more serious than that of many of his contemporaries, but is not devoid of word painting. For example, notice the sudden arrival of multiple rising scales for the word “gaudent” (they rejoice) in O quam gloriosum est regnum, or the touching way in which he sets the word “mysterium” (mystery) in O magnum mysterium. The moments of homophony are rare, as the texture is predominantly imitative. In the hymns the first stanza is sung in plainchant: it is the original hymn tune, which then is used as building material for the polyphonic sequel. In Christe, redemptor omnium, Victoria splits the longer text into sections for differing forces, including a trio for soprano, alto and tenor, which is really a duet for the upper voices with the tenor declaiming the hymn tune in longer notes below. O magnum mysterium is one of the most famous of his motets, and for good reason. (It is this writer’s favorite since she first sang it at age thirteen.) The harmonies are colorful and expressive, and there are moments that beg for special attention. For example, after the frenzy of imitation in the section “jacentem in praesepio” (laid in a manger), with an abrupt full rest all voices fall silent. Or take note of the magnificent full chords for “O beata [Virgo]” (O blessed [Virgin]). The piece changes from duple to triple meter for a lilting first alleluia, then reverts to duple meter for a more luxuriant second alleluia.

Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla was a Mexican of Spanish birth (ca. 1590, died 1664) who was chapel master at Puebla in Mexico from 1629 until his death. He was trained in the Spanish style; thus his sacred polyphony is essentially in the prima prattica except for some Baroque chromaticism, with a preference for double choirs, astonishingly vital rhythms, and bass lines with strong instrumental characteristics. Prima prattica was the compositional style codified by theorists such as Zarlino, as opposed to Monteverdi’s seconda prattica, which allowed what previously might have been considered “errors,” such as unprepared dissonances on strong beats for the expression of the text. A consummate master of polyphony, Gutiérrez de Padilla employed the full array of contrapuntal devices with skill and grace. The motet for double choir Deus in adiutorium, written as an opening to the service of vespers, combines the homophonic antiphonal choirs that we know mostly from Venetian music of the Gabrielis with the polyphonic involvement of all the parts. Gutierrez de Padilla also composed a number of vernacular villancicos (holiday songs, see below) and church songs for performance on feast days.

Antonio de Salazar (ca. 1650, died 1715) was born in Spain though he is known as one of the most famous Mexican composers. He was chapel master of Puebla Cathedral and later of the Mexico City Cathedral. It is not known whether he was ever in Oaxaca, though some of his music survives among the manuscripts of the Oaxaca Cathedral. Salazar was a master of contrapuntal technique, bringing unity to his works by means of recurring motives rather than imitation. His unusually conservative style is marked by subtle contrast, spare use of word painting, and transparent textures involving broad phrases and rhythmic flow. Like Gutiérrez de Padilla, Salazar also composed villancicos and canzonetas for feast days. The grand motet Joseph fili David, for two choirs, preserved in the Oaxaca Cathedral, alternates between imitative sections and, when appropriate to the text, homophonic sections, employing either eight-voice homophony or antiphonal four-voice choirs.

Juan Bautista Comes, born in Valencia (ca. 1582–1643), a Spanish composer, started his musical career as a choirboy in the cathedral of his native city around age twelve. Having advanced as singer, then organist, then chapel master, eventually he became maestro de capilla in Valencia Cathedral in 1613. In 1615 he was ordained and in 1618 he was appointed vice maestro of the royal chapel in the capital Madrid. However he apparently left his heart in his native city. After repeated visits formonths on end, he returned back home to Valencia permantly in 1628. A good portion of Comes’ pieces are polychoral, and about half of these are villancicos or tonadas (pieces with devotional Spanish texts). The choir will perform the “Kyrie” from the Misa de tres contrabajos, which is, in fact, for three SATB choirs.

Gutierre Fernández Hidalgo (born ca. 1547 in Spain, died in 1623 in Bolivia) was tutored by Juan Navarro and worked in various churches in Spain, including as maestro de capilla. In 1583 he boarded a ship for the New World, and within a year found himself the maestro de capilla of the Cathedral of Santafé (today’s Bogotá). In a controversial appointment he also became rector of the Tridentine seminary of San Luís. With the help of the bishop, he then forced all the seminarians to sing every day for him at the Cathedral, providing for himself a “volunteer” choir. But it didn’t last: when all the students fled, he lost his job. He repeated this ploy in Quito, being both maestro de capilla of the cathedral and priest of a parish. His parishioners balked and again he lost his job. He then served the cathedrals of Lima, Cuzco in the Andes, and La Plata, then went back to Cuzco and finally in 1612 back to La Plata, where he remained for the rest of his life.

Hidalgo composed all manner of church music, from masses to motets, from Magnificats to hymns. All his music survives in manuscripts; though he had planned on having it all published in Spain, that seems never to have happened. His music resembles the leading styles of Spanish music of the later 16th century. His music is imitative and occasionally canonic, as can be seen in his most famous piece, the Magnificat quarti toni. It starts with a typical four-part opening section. The ensemble then switches to the three top voices, then back to four, then finally, with the Lesser Doxology (“Gloria Patri et Filio”—Glory be to the Father and the Son), to a full six voices. In this last section, two of the voices declaim the chant melody in long notes and in canon. The Salve Regina is for five voices. Throughout the piece, one voice or another intones the first four notes of the plainchant to the word “salve” (hail). This recurring theme, which holds the composition together, becomes a friend we wait for expectantly. The second and third sections of the piece are for four treble voices (still with the chant motif); the fourth and last section is for the four treble voices plus tenor and bass. The last two verses are ascribed to Tomás Luís de Victoria in the original manuscript and do not include the four-note motif. Both Hidalgo pieces performed tonight survive in the Fernández Hidalgo Choirbook manuscript in the Bogotá cathedral.

Pedro Rimonte (Saragossa, 1565–1627) was a Spanish composer about whose life little is known. He served the Archduke Albert of the Low Countries and the Archduke’s wife, the Infanta Isabella, as chapel master and master of chamber music, in Brussels. In 1614 he was enticed back to Spain with a sizable gift, but he returned to Brussels by 1618. He composed both church pieces, such as masses and motets, and secular pieces, such as madrigals. He also composed quite a few villancicos. Most of these are in a volume published in Antwerp in 1614 called El Parnaso español de madrigales y villancicos for four to six voices.

A villancico of the 16th and 17th centuries is a piece with an alternation of coplas (stanzas) and an estribillo (refrain). The villancico was usually connected to one of the celebrations of the Catholic Church. Earlier it had been a secular genre, mostly concerned with love. The new church type served both a celebratory and a didactic purpose, namely to teach children and novices about the uses and beliefs of the Church. Villancicos were sung during church services, most often from the Office—matins, for example. However, many were amusing, especially those connected with the Christmas season. They also made fun of accents and dialects. For example, there are many such pieces known as negrilla (from “negro”), which have texts that use an imitation of the peculiar dialect of Spanish originally spoken by African slaves. This dialect is characterized by a confusion between certain letters, especially vowels and liquid consonants, a mixture of genders between nouns and adjectives, and a confusion between singular and plural. Negrillas were at times sung by choirboys with blackened faces. Villancicos can be quite intricate, with complex rhythms (influenced in part by African rhythms), hemiolas, and occasional scoring for multiple ensembles. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648 or 1651–1695), the famous Mexican Augustine nun, was a well-known writer of villancico texts.

Tonight’s program features one villancico by Pedro Rimonte (Luna que reluces), as well as a few mostly anonymous ones from around the New World (Nicaragua: A las doce de la noche, Chile: Señora Doña María, Cuba: Toque, San José ta contento and Cocorioco, Mexico: Las posadas, and Venezuela: Tres Reyes magos). The latter group are all for Christmas, as are most of the pieces of this genre.

Today’s program is thus mostly a mixture of motets and villancicos from the Spanish colonies, interspersed with Spanish liturgical pieces (magnificats and mass movements) and instrumental music. The variety of ensembles and groupings alone is noteworthy, as is the variety of styles, from the most restrained and conservative motets to the joyous and complex pieces, from the simple four-part choral villancico to the three-choir piece. We hope this beautiful program ushers in a joyous season for each member of the audience, as it has for the singers, who are pleased to present this music to you.

—© 2008 Alexandra Amati-Camperi, Ph.D.

Please do not distribute or use these notes without the express written permission of the San Francisco Bach Choir.