On Sunday afternoon, thanks to the Seattle choir The Byrd Ensemble, I crossed several borders without passport or visa or patdown by border patrols. The first was the entry to St. Stephen’s Catholic Church in Southeast Portland, where the Byrds, in a concert presented by Cappella Romana, were performing. The second was the border to Spain, the source of most of the music on the program, which was titled “Spanish Music for the House of Habsburg.” The third was time itself: For the afternoon I was in the embrace of the 16th and early 17th centuries, places attainable only through the fragmental collective memory of a learned culture.
The big attraction was Tomás Luis de Victoria’s Requiem Mass, a long, mournful, and revelatory work of imagination and restraint, which the ten-singer choir delivered with a lovely unity of sound: as with most top choirs, the group voice is closely calibrated and takes precedence over the individual voice. The classically proportioned St. Stephen’s has rich and lively acoustics, and the choir’s singing, with its crisp balances and full bass tones, seemed sometimes like the sonorous boom of a pipe organ filling the hall. After intermission the program continued with another short Victoria piece, a pair by his contemporary Cristóbal de Morales, one by Alonso Lobo, and a finale by the great, slightly older, Italian counter-reformation composer Palestrina.
Europe in these years was not a happy place, disturbed as it was with wars and plagues and Inquisitions and the probability of early death, and the texts to this music reflect that underlying angst. Consider the translation for Morales’ brief Circumdederunt me: “The groanings of death have unsettled me: the sorrows of hell have enclosed me.” And yet the music itself conveys unmistakable beauty and solace, a pillow of comfort and belief, instantly recognizable from centuries removed.
It struck me that the music my son Joshua and I were listening to was not that far removed from the Spanish culture of 1492, the year in which Ferdinand and Isabella not only sponsored Columbus’s incursion into the Americas but also in which they banished Jews and Muslims from what had been a diverse and relatively open nation. The lively music of those two cultures was unlikely to have had much effect on the church music of Victoria’s time, Joshua pointed out, particularly since these composers were part of a counter-reformation bent on purging secular and non-Christian influences from the church’s music. So perhaps the music on Sunday’s program was a conscious conservative response to the more expansive musicality that must still have been lingering in the Spanish air. But as many of the exiled Spanish Jews migrated to eastern Europe their music had a profound effect on the music there, both folk and composed, eventually influencing the sounds of western Europe and, thus, the “New World” as well.
It’s the way history and art move, and the astonishment is that we can retrace its steps and, if not relive it, gain glimpses of understanding into it on a 21st century Sunday afternoon many thousands of miles removed from where it began. There is this truth, and it explains in part why we listen to music intended for another time and place and pattern of belief: You can’t wall culture in or out. You can’t isolate or purify it, no matter how fiercely you want to shut it in. It will mutate and cross and recombine. That’s what it does. That’s why we look, and read, and listen: to know where we’ve been, and how we got here, and where we might be going.
And, it must be added in this case, to please the ear.