by JEFF WINSLOW
I was just losing myself in the ornate, azure-flooded sanctuary of St. Stephen Catholic Church in southeast Portland, when exquisite harmony welled out from behind the pews. The Ensemble, a chorus made up of some of the city’s finest singers, had begun to sing Tomás Luis de Victoria’s “Salve Regina,” the first work in an October 20 program that alternated Victoria works sung at funeral services with traditional Gregorian chants for the occasion, and culminating in his requiem mass, “Officium Defunctorum a 6,” written shortly after the death of the Empress Maria of Austria in Madrid in 1603 and dedicated to her memory. The sound filled the church so powerfully that I could hardly believe I was hearing only six individual singers, yet at the same time I was so captivated, helped by Victoria’s intricate yet effortlessly flowing counterpoint, that while I felt an automatic urge to check, I couldn’t bear to break the spell by turning around to look.
By the time I did, they had moved on to a plainsong chant, and were beginning a gradual process that would eventually see them – there were indeed only six – reassemble in front for the latter part of the program. Even the plainsong selections, sung by two voices, filled the space as if coming from all over. Director Patrick McDonough, who also sang, modestly gave credit to the building when we talked after the performance, and no doubt it’s a great fit for them. But there’s no denying the power of the group, or its precision, which seemed to resound perfectly from every corner. At the same time, they projected a comforting warmth into the cool dimness, as if infused from the early autumn sunshine outside.
Some of the credit for that warmth must go to the composer. Victoria may have been a priest of the Counter-Reformation, but there’s little of the cool detachment — some would say squareness— one might therefore expect, and which is indeed a signature characteristic of his more famous colleague Palestrina. Instead the music has an almost visceral appeal. Mournful, accented dissonances in the form of suspensions (where the harmony shifts under an initially consonant voice) are common. In the Requiem, these occasionally come so fast in various voices that one gets a hint of centuries later harmonic practice. Sometimes the harmony shifts under a pair of voices, which seems to double the expressiveness. And Victoria was sensitive to the tension suspensions create, often allowing it to dissipate in long melodic lines that may seem to wander, but in enchanting ways. Listening to these lines, it’s not hard to believe the composer was an accomplished singer too.
Aside from these details, the harmony consists of standard major and minor chords, as was traditional in the day, and those mostly even in standard configuration (what musicians call root position). It also shuns technicolor innovations common in the secular music of the day, such as Gesualdo’s. But the concert was almost over before I noticed the limited palette. Somehow Victoria arranged and rearranged it in a way that’s always engaging and never repetitive, and he did know just when to insert some especially colorful detail. This artistry is a gift to any vocal group. The Ensemble took full advantage, returning the favor with sensitive phrasing and fine tuning throughout. I’m sure it was quite a workout for them, but they gave very little evidence of it. I could have listened, happily absorbed, for a lot longer.
A 20th Century Requiem
Fast forward nearly four centuries. An ensemble as large as The Ensemble is small, the Oregon Symphony, along with Portland Symphonic Choir, Pacific Youth Choir, Pacific University Chamber Singers plus vocal soloists, bring us another masterpiece of exquisite harmony and expressive melody, Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem,” this weekend. The forces are vast and the palette is too. From the opening panoply of ringing bells, seeming to accompany a procession of bodies being dragged to their final resting places, through brutal depictions of battle (entirely second-hand however – the composer, a dedicated pacifist, was a conscientious objector during WWII), to the final heavenly harmonic transformation, Britten threw everything he had into this 90- minute masterpiece that meant so much to him.
He wrote the “War Requiem” in 1961 to celebrate the re-opening of Coventry’s St. Michael’s Cathedral, which had been mostly destroyed along with much of the rest of the city in the horrific German air raid of November 14, 1940. The cathedral was rebuilt according to a new design that incorporated what little was left of the ruins. Similarly, Britten’s work focuses as much on the aftermath of calamity as on promises of future bliss. It is magnificent, disturbing, and ultimately, perhaps, cathartic.
It’s been a couple of weeks now since I heard The Ensemble sing the Victoria requiem, and I’ve been marveling lately at how their sensitive performance let me submerge myself gloriously in a 400-year-old work of music. I wonder how the “War Requiem” will seem to people a few hundred years from now. The question may be moot given the rapid pace of our technological development and its social consequences. But war seems set to continue indefinitely, if not (barring nuclear insanity) in the concentrated form the citizens of Coventry experienced. It’s not for me to say – after all, as an American just young enough to miss Vietnam, my knowledge of war is even more distantly removed than Britten’s – but I would like to think that, as with Victoria’s immortal requiem, people will still gather to perform Britten’s, and that listeners will still lose themselves in it, glory in its beauty, and find at least a part of whatever healing they may require.
Jeff Winslow is a Portland composer and pianist, and a board member for Cascadia Composers.
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