Magazine article The Spectator

Timeless Miracle

Magazine article The Spectator

Timeless Miracle

Article excerpt

Dotting through the list of composers' anniversaries in 2011, I was struck both by the number of people mentioned and by the utter lack of fame of almost all of them.

Where on earth do the compilers of the Classical Composers Database find these people, most of whom are too dead to write in and represent themselves? But, like all lists, this one is not without interest. The first named is D. Dinis (1261-1325), King of Portugal, who apparently was the earliest troubadour in the Portuguese language. I wonder if his political opponents dubbed him 'the minis'.

One or two household names do leap off the page. Franz Liszt was born in 1811.

Bernard Herrmann, the great composer of film music, was born in 1911, which was the year Gustav Mahler died: no doubt every big summer festival is going to feature him, so we can all wait for that. At the other end of the spectrum there are significant deaths in the (very) early music market: Philippe de Vitry (1291-1361) and Johannes Ciconia (1335-1411). But towering above all these - and I hope of real interest to those same festivals - is the Spanish polyphonist Tomas Luis de Victoria, who died in 1611.

For me, Victoria's output contains the most moving High Renaissance music that there is. Other composers of the period, especially Palestrina and Byrd, wrote music which is just as beautiful, and rather more of it, but there is in Victoria something so ordinary in a technical sense and yet so individual in expression that no one has been able to say quite how he did it. It is a kind of musical miracle. This year will no doubt bring many attempts at analysis of it, but if ever there was truth in the remark that music transcends words it should apply to Victoria. Not to all his writing, since he studied in Rome for 20 years and very evidently came under Palestrina's influence, but to the music he wrote when he returned to Spain to work as a priest in the royal household, and most particularly to his six-voice Requiem.

This ineffable masterpiece will be the work of preference this year, inevitably, even though it was not written for his own death, but for that of the Dowager Empress Maria, who died in 1603. Those years around 1600 were a time of upheaval in musical style, so that it becomes quite easy to categorise composers of the time according to how willingly they took on the new baroque-isms:

Monteverdi was obviously way ahead of the game, while the English generally look pretty old-fashioned. …

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