Splendours of Portugal

Ceremonial music of mourning and celebration


Overshadowed for some time by the greater availability of early Spanish music, Portuguese polyphony is only fairly recently becoming better known. There may be good historical reason for this, for in1580 Philip II of Spain seized the throne of Portugal, becoming Philip I of Portugal, and the country remained under Spanish rule until 1640. During that period Iberia was a dominant force not only in Europe, but was also colonising the New World and establishing Latin America. Philip, as well as ruling Iberia, ruled the Netherlands, and as husband to Queen Mary was also a rather absent King of England.

Tonight’s programme traces the history of Portuguese sacred music throughout this incredibly productive period, and illustrates many ways in which it does differ from the contemporary Spanish repertoire, while sharing the common features inherent in Iberia’s rich cultural heritage: the haunting minor mode melodies of the Sephardic Jews, the Islamic influence of the ‘Moors’ and the long tradition of highly rhythmic dance and folk music that infiltrated both secular and sacred vocal music.

Spain’s greatest renaissance composer, Thomas Luis de Victoria, actually spent most of his working life in Rome, absorbing much of the Italian contrapuntal style as typified by his great Roman contemporary, Palestrina, but the principal composers of Portugal were less well traveled. The city of Evora in Eastern Portugal became an important centre for composers during the 16th century and both Duarte Lobo (c. 1565-1646) and Manuel Cardoso (1566-1650) studied at the cathedral there under Manuel Mendes (c. 1547-1605) before moving on to Lisbon: Lobo as mestre da capela at the Cathedral and Cardoso joining the Carmelite order in 1597. Neither ever left Portugal.

Both composers wrote Requiems that seem modelled on the great setting by Victoria. Lobo did, in fact compose two: one in eight parts and one in six. Audivi vocem de caelo is also a funereal piece. In fact much Portuguese music is centred on the theme of death and mourning – perhaps a reflection on the turbulent and war torn state of the times. Cardoso’s 6 voice Requiem was published in 1625 with no organ part stipulated. Although by the 17th century unaccompanied singing had all but vanished from other parts of Europe, in Portugal the polyphonic style was to remain for some time to come, perhaps a reflection on the more insular nature of most composers’ lives. The scoring, with the chant part in slow notes in the first soprano voice is also reminiscent of the earlier Victoria setting, but the harmonic style is far more daring with many augmented chords and vivid suspensions. As to whether an organ part was ever added in performance is open to speculation. The music works very well unaccompanied, but equally it is clear that much polyphony in both the 16th and 17th centuries used the organ even when no part was included in the published score. Reinforcing the bass line further with the violone (similar in range to the double bass, but with frets and gut strings) adds to the richness and sonority of the music.

With the music of Joăo Lourenço Rebelo (1610-1661), we cross into the period that saw Portugal regain its independence. Born in the same year that Monteverdi published his ground breaking Vespers, he was to continue the style of lavish polychoral writing seen in the Magnificat and Laudate Dominum well into the mid 17th century. Historically speaking his greatest claim to fame would be the firm friendship he struck up with King João IV (1604-1656) the first king to be crowned after the restoration of the Portuguese monarchy; himself a composer remembered chiefly for a lovely setting of the Crux Fidelis. Rebelo’s music shows a great mastery of both the more conservative polyphonic style and more revolutionary chromaticism. The extraordinary Lamentations, in particular, at times pushes tonality almost to the limits, while Panis Angelicus combines passages of soaring melodic polyphonic lines with expressive chordal writing, culminating in a glorious finale complete with augmented harmony and sweetly resolving dissonances on the words: ‘O res mirabilis’.

© Deborah Roberts

March 2006