Spanish Christmas in Amersham

January 2017

The TVEMF Christmas workshop for singers and instrumentalists took place, as usual, at the Community Centre in Amersham, and once again we had the great pleasure of being directed by James Weeks. In our most recent previous encounter, at the Wesley Memorial Church Hall in Oxford, James had appeared in the role of evangelist for the relatively unknown Johann Rosenmüller (1610-84), a Saxon baroque composer who left Leipzig under a cloud in 1655 and spent nearly all of his subsequent musical career in Venice. For this occasion we moved backwards in time and westwards in space, exploring a programme of music by Victoria (1548-1611) and Francisco Guerrero (1528-99) in which Mary and the Nativity featured prominently.

We began with Victoria’s motet Quem vidistis pastores for six voices (SSATTB) in which the rustic shepherds are exhorted to say what they have seen, rather gently in the first part of the motet and much more urgently in the second part, when they respond with a sense of mounting excitement (James cautioning us at this stage not to convey the impression of mounting panic instead, as we segued into the final rapidly-moving and highly ornamental Alleluia). The second item of the programme, Guerrero’s Pastores loquebantur (SSATBB) recounted the Nativity from a different perspective. Instead of the shepherds being asked what they had seen, they recount what had been shown to them, their rapid journey to Bethlehem, vividly painted in the passage et venerunt festinantes, followed by the contrasting expression of their wonderment on viewing the Nativity scene. James drew our attention to the contrast between the styles of the two composers, observing that Guerrero’s was less rhetorical than Victoria’s, and reminiscent of Morales, with more polyphonic flow. The contrast is particularly well demonstrated by the slower-moving and more reflective Alleluia which concludes the second part of Guerrero’s motet depicting Mary’s meditation on the words which she had kept and gathered together in her heart.

We then moved on to a different genre, which James introduced to us as ‘polyphonic pop’, less colloquially referred to under the title Canciones y villanescas esprituales. The villanesca appears to have become popular in Naples in the 1540s and the genre soon spread to Venice, Padua and other cities of the Veneto. It is said that these compositions expressed a certain rustic naiveté by the employment-presumably intentional-of parallel fifths between the outer parts (Leeman Perkins, Music in the Age of the Renaissance, p.699). Guerrero’s collection, containing 61 such works, was published in Venice in 1589. Like most of his Spanish contemporaries (so the New Grove informs us) ‘he saw nothing inappropriate in fitting songs originally composed to sacred texts with alternative sacred texts; the collection demonstrates this, as it includes 18 contrafacta. We performed two of these, in which the infant Jesus is the principal figure (Niño Dios d’amor herido, SATB) and later in the programme, A un niño llorando al hielo, SSATB). Your reviewer’s admittedly cursory search has not uncovered a significant number of parallel fifths in the two works mentioned, and indeed it seems improbable that Guerrero was ever guilty of rustic naiveté, even in this popular mode of composition. Closer examination of works featuring shepherds may throw more light on the question.

The next substantial work was Guerrero’s eight-part Ave Maria (SSAATTBB). James referred to the bass parts as being truly melodic ‘and not a kind of proto-basso-continuo’ and it seems that Guerrero liked to make use of the resultant richness of texture since in the Agnus Dei of a number of his masses, e.g., Ecce sacerdos, In te Domine speravi and Simile est regnum caelorum, as well as Sancta et immaculata virginitas, that being the next piece which we sang, it is the bass, not the tenor, that is divided. Your reviewer (and anyone else who took part in the choral liturgy weekend at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge in September 2016) had the enjoyable experience of singing this Mass under the direction of David Allinson, who described it as a beautiful achievement and said of it that the composer ‘was sufficiently proud of it to place it at the head of his first book of Masses [1566]. A tribute to his esteemed teacher and predecessor, Morales, it expands and elaborates Morales’ four part motet into a shimmering five-voiced rhapsody’. Only the Agnus Dei is in six parts.

The most substantial and complex work was the final item of the programme and made no concessions to any post-prandial lethargy engendered by the hearty and convivial bring-and share lunch which is a feature of this annual event. Victoria composed Magnificats in all eight tones, but only two are polychoral, the Magnificat primi toni for two choirs and the Magnificat sexti toni, which was our final item, for three choirs (1, SATB; 2, SSAT and 3, SATB). It has sections employing all three choirs, each choir individually and various combinations of two choirs. We performed the work with singers taking all the choir 2 parts as well as S1, T1, S3 and, in one passage A3, with the remaining parts played by the instrumentalists. This and the other polychoral Magnificat, which were published in his 1600 collection, show differences from his earlier settings (published in 1576 and 1581); according to the New Grove they are more concise, include more triple time (Quia fecit, for choir 2, and fecit potentiam for choirs 1 and 2 are instances of this, as is the opening of the Gloria) and (an irresistible quotation) ‘display a new aversion to canon; there is only one and that is optional’.

Leaving readers to ponder the fascinating concepts of the optional canon and its aversion, it remains only to accord warmest thanks to James for selecting and directing such an enjoyable programme, Vicky Helby for shouldering the demanding burden of organising the event, David Fletcher for producing the immense volume of music and all the army of volunteers who ministered to our creature comforts.

Sidney Ross

© Sidney Ross 2017