Empty Highways with Vivanco

When John Bradley asked us to write blog posts about our favorite motets, I was sure I would choose one from the Spanish renaissance. In November 2015, my first Polyhymnia concert was a Morales program, and the most recent showcased Victoria, including his magnificent Requiem. But after an experience this summer, I have chosen a Spanish motet that Polyhymnia has never performed, in the hope of persuading John to consider it in the future. It is Pater Dimitte Illis, by Sebastian de Vivanco (1550-1622).

My wife Carmela and I try to take in an early music holiday at least once per year, and we recommend www.lacock.org and www.runbysingers.org to anybody interested. We were looking forward to a treat in June near Ancona in Italy, to be run by friend of Polyhymnia JanJoost van Elburg. We booked to spend ten days at our home in Portugal before travelling to Ancona, with an itinerary involving six flights from four different airlines.

Then the pandemic struck and the course was cancelled. One by one our flights were also cancelled and refunds have been trickling in. But by the middle of May the very first leg from NYC to Lisbon was still standing, and we started to dream that we might be able to visit Portugal.

We needed a whole series of lucky breaks to make this happen, starting with our flight. We established that Portugal would let us in because of our EU passports and our Portuguese residence, the UK still counting as part of the EU for the time being. The US would allow us back, albeit with two weeks quarantine, because our visa type was on a list of exemptions. We rent out our home, but all of the bookings before mid July had been cancelled. Finally, Carmela was told she could telecommute from another continent.

It felt like winning the lottery and we duly enjoyed six weeks in wide-open spaces in Portugal. Compared to our NYC spring it seemed very safe, and everybody took common sense precautions. Everywhere was open and at times the absence of other tourists made us feel like royalty.

Halfway through the trip we spent two nights in Porto, a jewel of a city, driving in total 700 miles on empty motorways. When we set off we turned on the CD player in our car, only to discover that years out in the sun had warped all but two of our CD’s. So we listened to a continuous loop of two Spanish renaissance CD’s by Oxbridge colleges.

The first was by Victoria, comprising Missa Laetatus Sum and motets including Vadam, et Circuibo Civitatem, performed by Polyhymnia last November. The second was by Vivanco, featuring Missa Crux Fidelis and motets including Pater Dimitte Illis. 

We talked about why we had bought these two CD’s. In 2011 we were lucky enough to attend another early music holiday where a larger group performed the Requiemin Victoria’s home cathedral of Avila on the occasion of the four hundredth anniversary of his death. Vivanco sang with Victoria in Avila so Carlos Aransay chose Pater Dimitte Illis as part of the program, and Carmela and I both loved the motet immediately.

Listening to one CD then the other, it was fascinating to contrast Victoria with Vivanco. Victoria’s mass was similar to his Requiem in employing many long, sustained chords. Set in A flat, the sopranos seemed to spend measure after measure oscillating between an E flat and a F while the basses sang only A flat, E flat or D flat. All the ornamentation was in the inner parts. Like the Requiem, the effect is of majesty and of tension growing then releasing. It is masterful, but by the fifth listening it would have been good to hear some variety.

Vivanco is full of drama. He paints the words ambitiously and includes florid passages and contrasting dynamics. The effect is busier and, to our ears at least, wonderful. The mass is excellent, but Pater Dimitte Illis is a masterpiece. Every time it came around we turned up the volume and held hands. I only found this rather poor Youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ii_pUE2ZkBQ, and could not find a rendition on Spotify. Now there lies an opportunity for Polyhymnia!

One reason the motet is not often performed may be its complex voicing in triple choir. Choir one narrates, the second is Jesus and the third other characters such as Mary or a disciple, and Vivanco uses all twelve voices together when he wants a dynamic effect.

The tenor and bass in choir two can enjoy several poignant moments. The motet opens with their duet on “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Later, the discord introducing “My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” would have made Gesualdo blush.

The full sections are tremendous, and our favorites are two identical cadences, the second closing the motet on “Into Thy hands I entrust my spirit”. Vivanco evokes Christ rising to heaven in sublime majesty in these moments. The motet is set in E flat, and the cadence progresses from C minor through A flat major to E flat major. The highest soprano line closes by rising from a sustained E flat to the major third of a shimmering high G. It brought tears to our eyes each time.

Now we are back in New York enduring the summer humidity, but refreshed by the miracle of our trip to Portugal. And the sound of that wonderful closing chord every hundred miles or so on the road to Porto may be the memory we will cherish the longest.

I am looking forward to singing once again, in church and other choirs, but fear we must be patient for a while yet. In the meantime, I have been keeping up posts on my regular blog www.grahambobby.blogspot.com.

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