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The Golden Age, 16th-century Spain.
A turbulent, tumbling mix of heroism, Catholic mysticism,
conquistadors and Inquisition.
And out of this turmoil came this extraordinary music.
Spiritual, stirring, sublime.
The sound of God's own composer.
This film marks the 400th anniversary
of the death of Tomas Luis de Victoria
and the masterpieces you'll hear
are among the greatest works of devotional music ever written.
And they'll be sung by one of the world's greatest choirs...
The Sixteen is conducted by its founder,
Harry Christophers, in the glorious setting
of the Church of San Antonio de los Alemanes,
here in Madrid.
Victoria was not only the greatest composer
of the Spanish Renaissance.
For me, he is actually the greatest composer
in the Renaissance, full stop.
He's, quite simply, a genius.
The highest states of mystical prayer were a gift granted by God.
Victoria must have had that sort of experience
to be able to produce that music
that is on a higher plane than other forms of music.
The music opens a window onto the world
of this intensely spiritual man, musician, priest and mystic.
This is an opportunity to celebrate his life and his creations,
some of the most glorious work of the late Renaissance
and the Spanish Golden Age.
Victoria has always been part of my musical life
but he remains something of a mystery.
Other composers, like the Italian Palestrina
or the Englishmen Byrd and Tallis, have always had a sharper profile.
But Harry Christophers believes that Victoria is a composer of genius
and that his works are only now
beginning to achieve their proper prominence.
One of the most amazing things, for me, about Victoria is, you know,
the way you can interpret his music.
The way you can be incredibly daring about dynamics,
and sometimes in performance, you know, we as a group,
we feel so overpowered by the emotion that his music can give us.
Within a very simple motet, you can create these incredible effects
that have the listener sitting well up on their seat
and they don't know what's going to happen next.
It's that sort of...
..drive of emotion that is so phenomenal about his music.
The Sixteen specialises in music of this period,
and for this programme the choir has travelled to Spain
to perform some of Victoria's greatest works
in this hidden, baroque jewel in the heart of Madrid.
The Church of San Antonio de los Alemanes
was built during Victoria's lifetime,
and in this remarkable oval building
every surface is painted with depictions
of the life of Saint Anthony and of Spanish royalty.
The acoustic here is ideal
for displaying the glories of this music.
Victoria grew to maturity in what was a turbulent
and exciting time in Spanish history.
Europe was still recovering from the seismic shifts
of the Reformation, when the doctrines, rituals and structures
of the Catholic Church had been challenged
at the very deepest level.
Music, painting, architecture were all crucial tools
in the Catholic revival,
what was also known as the Counter-Reformation.
It's small wonder that someone
with Victoria's talent and faith would flourish.
Victoria was a fervent Catholic
who longed for a closer relationship with his God.
And his music is also architectural,
responsive to the buildings it was written for.
He was able to write so that his voices soared,
like the churches, up to heaven.
The first piece the choir is going to perform
is Sancta Maria Succurre Miseris.
Veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary is at the core of Catholicism
and of Spanish Catholicism in particular.
Victoria wrote many settings of texts devoted to the Virgin.
His particularly fervent, sensuous word-painting
made him supreme among Renaissance composers.
Victoria's music elucidates the plaintive text,
"Holy Mary, succour the wretched,
"help the faint-hearted,
"revive the weeping."
Tomas Luis de Victoria was born in 1548
in the ancient, fortified city of Avila.
Avila lies 50 miles to the northwest of Madrid,
surrounded by the plateau of the Central Sierras.
Rising up against the austere, dry landscape of gigantic boulders,
it's a bleak but beautiful setting.
We have some tantalising details of Victoria's life.
We know, for instance, that he was the seventh of 11 children
and that his family was upwardly mobile.
Businessmen, naval commanders, ecclesiastics...
Two of his uncles were priests.
His father died when he was nine. Aged ten, he joined the choir
in the 12th-century cathedral here in Avila,
a centre of spiritual rejuvenation, especially mysticism.
Here he studied the rudiments of music, by singing and organ playing.
But, remarkably, it was also here that the legendary Spanish mystic Teresa of Avila,
later Saint Teresa, happened to live.
This warm-hearted, shrewd, gifted nun
became one of the iconic figures of the Catholic faith
and she knew the young Victoria.
Saint Teresa was a mystic.
She described her intense spiritual experiences
in physical, even sexual terms, and it seems that Victoria
sought to create a world in sound which has parallels
with her writings and beliefs.
What a marvellous building this is.
It's filled with the richest decoration but, somehow,
perhaps because of the quality of the stone, it feels as light as air.
And what a joy it must have been
to have heard the choir singing from here,
tracing with one's ear the play of distinct voices
in some masterpiece of polyphony.
Victoria, as a young boy, would have sat on one of these benches
reading his music from the large central lectern,
and in fact the cathedral still owns beautifully illuminated manuscripts
from the 16th century that Victoria himself would have read.
At this time, only men and boys were allowed to sing in the choir.
Harry Christophers uses women in his choir,
and the soprano voices are specially selected
for their bell-like clarity
in order to emulate the sound of boys singing.
A defining moment in any male chorister's life and musical career
is when his voice breaks.
This happened to Victoria when he was 17,
but he was considered talented enough for the King himself
to sponsor his further education.
Philip II of Spain paid out 45,000 maravedis, a large sum of money,
and Victoria left the small town of Avila and travelled to Rome
to study with the Jesuits, a powerful, indeed aggressive, force
in the world of education
and an order that saw itself as an army fighting to defend
the traditional practices and beliefs of the Catholic Church.
The Salve Regina is the most famous hymn to the Virgin Mary
and it's set by all Renaissance composers.
Victoria actually made one or two settings of this piece.
The one we're performing is for double choir.
Beautiful layers of texture that he uses,
just oscillating from one choir to the other.
In 1565, Victoria entered the Collegium Germanicum.
It was an international centre of excellence,
with particular emphasis on the German missionary priesthood.
It was run by a committee of six cardinal protectors,
who decided that the collegians should wear red cassocks,
which is why they became known popularly as "gamberi cotti",
Victoria was recommended to the college
by no less a person than Saint Teresa of Avila herself.
In the 16th century, Renaissance Rome was the cultural centre
of Europe, a thriving city for musicians and artists.
It was the place to gain an international reputation.
All the major composers of the time went there,
including Victoria's great Spanish predecessor, Cristobal de Morales.
And Victoria almost certainly met,
and may even have been taught by, Palestrina,
dubbed "the Prince of Music",
and perhaps the most important composer of the time.
In Rome, Victoria becomes fluent in Latin,
he teaches and is eventually appointed Maestro di Cappella
at the Collegium Germanicum, where he studied.
Crucially, in 1575, he's ordained as a priest,
a sign of his devotion to the Church.
And it's a true vocation.
He never composed anything other than sacred music.
And yet, he must have been homesick.
He left his heart in Spain,
and you can hear this in his motet of exile,
Super Flumina Babylonis.
400 years after Victoria's death,
how can we be certain the way we're performing is how Victoria intended?
Fortunately, there's a rich archive of Victoria's music,
and I've come to the Santa Ana monastery in Avila
to see some of his original printed scores.
The first book I'm shown contains four separate parts
that could be untied and handed out to the different voices.
It was printed in Venice in 1572 when Victoria was 26 years old.
So, is this a sign that he was already successful?
Do we have any examples of his handwriting, at all?
And these are instructions for the printer, is that right?
Victoria's music was sent out to European cathedrals and colleges,
certainly to Germany, Austria, Poland and Spain.
I asked Alfonso if this made Victoria well-off.
Is he the genius of Spanish Renaissance music, in your mind?
So, a modern harmonic sense?
-Well, Alfonso, thank you very much indeed.
Victoria wrote a lot of music for Lent.
And the service of Tenebrae is incredibly important
in that build-up to Good Friday.
Tenebrae, literally "darkness", so this was the evening service.
They're very direct expressions of emotion
and, for me, this is where Victoria is at his best.
In 1583, Victoria dedicated a book of Masses to his monarch,
King Philip II of Spain.
He wrote, "For to what better end should music serve,
"than to the sacred praises of that God
"from whom proceeds rhythm and measure?"
The luxurious nature of these publications reflects, in some way,
the high esteem in which Victoria was held during his own lifetime
and it also reflects
the wonderful, strange textures and colours of his music.
He asks voices to sing very high in their range, for example,
which must, at the time, have seemed new and daring.
At the great Prado Museum in Madrid, I've come to admire the work
of a contemporary of Victoria's from Rome.
A painter from Crete, who was also getting noticed.
He called himself a devout Catholic
and became known for his dramatic religious paintings.
His name was Domenikos Theotokopoulos,
who would later become famous in Spain as El Greco,
I particularly love this painting, the Annunciation,
and it's a work that inhabits much the same world as Victoria's music.
It has the same drama, the same sense of theatre.
A combination of intense spiritual aspiration
and the delight in the physical world.
El Greco said that colour was the most important element
in his work, and here are great blocks of it, pinks and blues
and browns and greens. And at the centre, a burst of light,
as the Holy Spirit comes through the canvas
to visit the, no doubt, terrified Mary.
Looking round at El Greco's work strikes a chord.
His paintings remind me that Victoria's music
was also recognised at the time as colourful,
or, to use the Greek word, chromatic.
This was an expressive tool, because Victoria was not just
a composer of pure music, he was also a word-painter.
Victoria often used text from the Song of Songs,
a book in the Bible that's a rich, sensuous love poem,
that was also used as an allegory
for Christ's relationship with his church,
and for many of the feasts of Mary.
For one of these, the Assumption, Victoria wrote a motet
and chose the very beautiful words,
"She, whose fragrance was above price,
"in garments delicately perfumed,
"like a spring day, she was surrounded
"by roses and lilies of the valley."
Particularly apt for this rather delicate, fragile Mary.
And then, much to my delight, at the top of the painting,
watching the whole scene, is a group of musicians.
I wonder what music was going through
El Greco's head when he painted this.
Vidi Speciosam is a very special motet
and we must remember that the Song of Songs is basically
pagan love poetry written, probably, 300 years before the birth of Christ.
There's no doubt about it, he clearly enjoyed writing them.
In many ways it was the closest to opera he ever got.
They're very, very sensual texts.
Tomas Luis de Victoria spent two decades in Rome,
where he established himself
as a highly successful and celebrated composer.
His work was being performed in churches all across Europe.
But he wanted his music to be sung further afield.
He supervised sets of his scores to be sent to Mexico,
to Lima, Peru, and Bogota, Columbia.
He had conquistadors in his family,
and the new world would have seemed exciting and exotic to him.
In Mexico, his scores were so popular they ran out of copies
and had to write parts out by hand.
It's fascinating to think that, nearly a hundred years
after Christopher Columbus's discovery of the Americas,
ships would come back to Europe
laden with gold, silver, copper, cocoa beans, spices...
But they'd also go back the other way,
and in their cargoes they would have had copies of Victoria's music.
Same ports, different trade.
And a gift from the Old World to the young Catholic congregations
of the New.
Also at this time, other composers would be transcribing
Victoria's work for their own use, often for teaching purposes.
This way, his music infused the homes and palaces of the rich,
for education, or private devotion.
One of his best-loved pieces, O Quam Gloriosum,
was arranged by others for voice and lute,
giving us a tantalising glimpse
into how music was performed and taught outside the church.
Sacred music wasn't just for the divine service
and for the performance by an all-male choir,
which, of course, it would have been in Victoria's time.
There are many examples of this sort of repertoire being done
where you have a very florid lute accompaniment to the single voice
and this would have probably been
for teaching the young princess how to sing.
It could also have been used for private devotion
in the chapel of any stately home.
Still in Rome, Victoria was becoming homesick.
In 1583 he dedicated his Missarum Libri Duo,
his Book of Masses, to Philip II, his king and emperor,
and expressed his desire to return home to Spain,
"to spend my time in the contemplations of the divine,
"as befits a priest."
We don't know why he decided to leave
what must have been a very successful career in Rome.
It seems that some instinct
was telling him to pursue a different, quieter path.
Maybe he was just tired of living abroad.
We do know that he was in demand.
He had offers from the splendid cathedrals
in both Saragossa and Seville.
Victoria's long-range courtship of Philip II
would pay off with a post in Madrid.
At his nearby royal palace, El Escorial,
the King would have enjoyed performances of Victoria's music.
At this time, Philip, already ruler of vast swathes of the known world,
was preparing his fearsome armada to invade England
and persuade the bolshie English back into the Catholic fold.
His second wife, Mary Tudor, Queen Mary of England,
had died 30 years previously and, soon after,
Philip had sought to marry her sister Elizabeth I, who refused him.
Now, Philip assembled his fleets to attack England.
He would be defeated, a significant omen
of the decline of the Spanish Golden Age.
Philip was afflicted with terrible gout
which meant that, for the most part, he was confined to quarters,
but, ever the committed Catholic, he was determined
that he should still be able to witness Mass from here,
his tiny bed tucked away into a corner of El Escorial.
If I open this small door that leads off his bedroom...
..what do we see?
The high altar of the Palace Basilica,
his very own en-suite chapel.
So, Philip could watch the priests celebrating Mass,
but the congregation couldn't see him.
And, of course, he must have heard the music
and, one hopes, taken some solace from it.
In fact, we think that Philip died
in this very bedroom, listening to the sound of the choir at dawn.
Among Victoria's extensive canon of work
is sublime music for special services,
and particularly remarkable is his work for Holy Week.
It's virtually unique for a 16th-century composer in its scope,
liturgical music which takes worshippers on a journey,
each piece of music fulfilling a specific purpose.
His Lamentations offer a particular intensity of expression,
passionate, sombre, mysterious.
The Lamentations of Jeremiah
have been set by all the finest Renaissance composers.
Victoria's set is quite amazing.
What constantly, for me, sets Victoria apart
from all other composers is that he absolutely gets to the bottom
of these texts. They are very, very personal interpretations.
They're very sustained settings.
They're incredibly difficult to sing because they need total control.
When you sing them, you have to feel you're kneeling on bare stone
and it's got to feel uncomfortable.
Unlike El Greco, who was sacked by Philip II,
Victoria enjoyed royal patronage for the rest of his life.
The King's family liked him
and he wrote music for their services on several occasions.
Whereas the King lived in his vast, specially designed palace,
with its magnificent chapel, his sister, Maria,
on her return to Spain after the death of her husband,
the Emperor Maximilian, led a very different life.
She moved to the secluded, intimate dwelling
of the convent of Las Descalzas Reales.
It was here that Victoria worked as chaplain.
At that time, it was a kind of safe house for royalty,
home to 33 strictly cloistered nuns,
Maria's daughter, the Infanta Margarita, being one of them.
They were called the Barefoot Nuns,
after the simple sandals they wore all year round.
This is where Victoria worked, very happily, for quarter of a century.
It was here that he played the organ, taught singing,
served as a priest, worshipped in the chapel.
We know that the elite of Madrid used to come to this convent
in order to listen to Victoria's music,
and we also know that he was still being published
because he travelled to Rome to oversee an edition of his works,
so he obviously still had the desire
that his music should be known and performed.
The priests here would have had to have been
very accomplished singers of plainchant and polyphony,
so Victoria was in his element.
By all accounts, he was a friendly, jovial man.
He didn't see his faith
as a means of cutting himself off from the world,
he became part of the community here,
playing the organ, taking daily Mass and still composing.
His royal patron, the Empress Maria,
so valued Victoria's work that when she died
she bequeathed to him a chaplaincy for life,
which secured his future.
She also chose to be laid in this marble tomb,
right here in the choir room,
rather than next to her brother in El Escorial.
Victoria responded by writing what is arguably his finest work,
a requiem not just for his patron but for an age,
representative, perhaps, of the dying embers of Spain's golden era.
The Requiem of 1605 is Victoria's final work.
It's a simply magnificent statement
of dignified and reverent spirituality.
Victoria's Requiem of 1605 is the greatest legacy of Victoria's output.
For me, it's the finest Requiem written by any Renaissance composer.
It's a beautiful setting of some very enlightening words.
Victoria's view of the world was a pretty rosy one,
and there was never any indication that he suffered from doubt.
His faith was always absolutely secure.
Understanding this and understanding, too,
the mystical dimension to his work
makes listening to his music a completely different experience.
The fashion for mysticism
of the type encouraged by his mentor, Teresa of Avila,
fits perfectly with the ecstatic nature of Victoria's music.
Teresa of Avila, for instance, recommended
that her nuns could follow their moods.
If they were feeling sad or anxious,
they could choose themes from the Passion,
visualising scenes from the Passion, as if present,
using their imagination to visualise small details,
such as the tears and the sweat of anxiety experienced by Christ,
and Victoria must have had that sort of experience.
Congratulamini Mihi is the, sort of, culmination, really,
of every facet about Victoria.
His mysticism, his scholarly aspects,
his life as a composer, his life as a priest,
it all seems to me to come to one into this motet.
Starting from a very, sort of, humble,
minimalistic tone colours at the beginning,
then just sending us into great ebullience with the final hallelujah.
Victoria lived the rest of his life in the convent
and would have spent several hours every day in this chapel.
He loved playing the organ, and when he died in 1611, aged 63,
he left his assistant this very instrument.
It must have cost a considerable amount, but he paid for it himself.
I was permitted to sit in the organ loft, but not to play it.
The great Requiem that Victoria wrote for his patron, the Empress,
rather touchingly, was used at his own funeral.
Although Spain's Golden Age was declining,
Victoria's music has lived on.
And, as he would have wished, it continues to be performed
in cathedrals and churches throughout the world.
My short visit to Spain has allowed me to build a picture
of the man Tomas Luis de Victoria,
and it's certainly helped to clarify for me his place
in the long eventful history of Catholicism in this country.
I'm awestruck by a man who can dedicate his whole life
and creative work to his faith, and do it with such a light heart.
He was obviously a man of inexhaustible energy
and this empowered him to chart his spiritual life
with great honesty and huge power.
And what a legacy of sacred music he left for us to enjoy.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
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Simon Russell Beale continues his Sacred Music journey in this special celebration marking the 400th anniversary of the death of the great Spanish Renaissance composer Tomas Luis de Victoria. In exploring the extraordinary world of this intensely spiritual man - musician, priest and mystic - Simon's travels take him to some of Spain's most stunning locations, from the ancient fortified city of Avila, with its medieval walls and glorious cathedral, to the magnificent El Escorial palace, where Philip II would listen to Victoria's music though a small door leading off his bedroom directly to the high altar of the Basilica.
In Madrid, Simon explores the dramatic religious paintings of Victoria's contemporary El Greco in the Prado Museum and visits the convent of Las Descalzas Reales, named after the barefoot nuns who worshipped there and where Victoria spent the final three decades of his life as choirmaster and organist.
The music is specially performed by Harry Christophers and The Sixteen in the church of San Antonio de los Alemanes, a hidden baroque jewel built in Victoria's lifetime in the heart of Madrid.