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Dramatic writing

REX HARLEY attends a memorable performance
of the Victoria Requiem on 8 February 2003


Though he could not have realised so at the time, Tomás Luis de Victoria's Officium Defunctorum, performed not at the funeral but the memorial obsequies of his patroness, the Dowager Empress Maria, was also to be his last published composition. Musically, it bears the hallmarks of restraint, in keeping with the Empress's own modest ending, in retirement at the Royal Convent of the Barefoot Nuns of St Clare. Would all the manifestations of the Catholic Counter-Reformation had been so restrained!

Originally, it would have been sung by twelve priests and six boys. The Armonico Consort's vocal forces were slightly larger, with eight sopranos singing the divided top line. There is no doubt that boys' and womens' voices make a different sound, and purists would no doubt raise an eyebrow; but this is a piece which, of its nature, defies purism. Though many details of the original service are known, any contemporary performance involves a degree of reconstruction and conjecture, as David Buckley's programme notes make clear, both in placing certain motets and in the inclusion, or absence, of the spoken office. The original hearers of the work were, after all, the congregation present at a solemn liturgy, not the audience at a concert.

The compromise devised by the Armonico Consort, under its director Christopher Monks, sought to establish an authentic atmosphere for appreciating the music, outside the context of the spoken office. The venue -- St Mary's Church, Warwick, UK -- might not be the now vanished Church of Ss Peter and Paul in Madrid, but is a finely proportioned Gothic church, with high aisle and chancel, and a resonant but focused acoustic. For most of the performance, it was lit purely by candlelight, and the smell of incense lingered in the air. The setting was evocative without becoming kitsch. Certainly, the audience had about it a stillness and attentive air which, importantly, ensured that the sometimes extended periods of silence during the performance were appreciated as integral to the evening, not convenient gaps for throat-clearing and shuffling on seats.

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Copyright © 16 February 2003 Rex Harley, Cardiff, UK


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