Tuesday, 13 March 2012

I was glad when they sang unto me...

Victoria's awe-inspiring 12-part motet Laetatus sum (a 'triple motet') is, for me, the musical equivalent of an El Greco painting, aflame with faith, brimming with bright colours and crowd scenes. It is Renaissance polychoral writing with feeling. The work's fervent mood is reflected in the way its two halves swell from quiet beginnings towards heady heights, with the topmost parts straining towards Heaven in a fever of repeating notes and phrases. It's serene yet dramatic, restrained yet spectacular. 

The work exemplifies the late Renaissance polychoral style, which had spread from the Venice of its founding fathers to the Spain of Victoria, where contrasting groups of voices are juxtaposed to create a sonorous effect, as if you are now listening in stereo rather than earlier Renaissance mono!

It begins with a beautiful series of imitations on an attractive idea that is then ingeniously repeated at half speed. I love the melisma on "ibimus". Clear, less polyphonic writing follows, fresh and confident, on a new idea, with a particularly splendid melody standing out at "Ierusalem quae aedificatur ut civitas" as the voices come together in a homophonic hymn of unity. That's an example of word-painting as it sets words that end by saying "that is at unity in itself". A simpler example of word-painting follows at "ascenderunt". The 'swelling' now gets underway as the fever grips and the polychoral effects really kick in, complete with echo effects, creating luminous major-key harmonies until a radiant chord brings a general pause. The second half starts sweetly and gently ("O pray for the peace of Jerusalem") but follows a similar trajectory as the first half before breaking into joyous dance at "Gloria Patri et Fili" before the extraordinary radiance of the final climax culminating in the closing 'Amen'. Breathtaking!

Laetatus sum in his quae dicta sunt mihi:
in domum Domini ibimus.
Stantes erant pedes nostri:
in atriis tuis Ierusalem.
Ierusalem quae aedificatur ut civitas:
cuius participatio eius in idipsum.
Illuc enim ascenderunt tribus, tribus Domini:
testimonium Israel
ad confitendum nomini Domini.
Quia illic sederunt sedes in iudicio:
sedes super domum David.
Rogate quae ad pacem sunt Ierusalem:
et abundantia diligentibus te.
Fiat pax in virtute tua:
et abundantia in turribus tuis.
Propter fratres meos et proximos meos:
loquebar pacem de te.
Propter domum Domini Dei nostri:
quaesivi bona tibi.
Gloria Patri et Filio :
et Spiritui Sancto.
Sicut erat in principio et nunc et semper:
et in secula seculorum. Amen. 

I was glad when they said unto me : We will go into the house of the Lord.
    Our feet shall stand in thy gates : O Jerusalem.
    Jerusalem is built as a city : that is at unity in itself.
    For thither the tribes go up, even the tribes of the Lord : to testify unto Israel, to give thanks unto the Name of the Lord.
    For there is the seat of judgement : even the seat of the house of David.
    O pray for the peace of Jerusalem : they shall prosper that love thee.
    Peace be within thy walls : and plenteousness within thy palaces.
    For my brethren and companions' sakes : I will wish thee prosperity.
    Yea, because of the house of the Lord our God : I will seek to do thee good.
Glory to the Father and the Son;
and the Holy Spirit.
As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be:
and for all ages. Amen.

The polychoral style was inspired by the huge interior spaces of St. Mark's Cathedral, Venice. The idea of setting two (or more) choruses echoing across magnificent public spaces was not going to go away once its power to move peoples' spirits became well-known and when a composer like Hubert Parry came to write his own setting of the same words for the coronation of Edward VII in 1902, the anthem I Was Glad, he naturally set them for double chorus (and organ or orchestra), using many of the same antiphonal effects used by Victoria three hundred years earlier. They still work their magic even now, whether at the coronation of our present queen or at her grandson's wedding.

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