Look and see (Holy Week, Saturday)

Posted on: 10 April 2020, by :

For Holy Saturday. This is the seventh post in a series for Holy Week and Easter Day, 2020.

The liturgy of Tenebrae, in the tradition of the Roman Catholic church, was until 1955 celebrated at Matins and Lauds over three days, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. In addition to psalms and prayers, it included nine readings on each day, and each reading was followed by an appointed text to be sung, known as a responsory. Originally chanted, responsories were, during the Counter-Reformation, specially composed as elaborate multi-voice pieces, and of those that survive some of the most beautiful are by Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611).

O vos omnes, a text derived from Lamentations 1:12, is the fifth responsory for Holy Saturday. Victoria’s setting, sung in the first video, was published in in a whole collection of his music for Holy Week, the Officium Hebdomadae Sanctae (Rome, 1585).

O vos omnes qui transitis per viam,
    attendite et videte:
Si est dolor similis sicut dolor meus.
Attendite, universi populi,
    et videte dolorem meum.
Si est dolor similis sicut dolor meus.
O all you who walk by on the road,
      pay attention and see:
if there be any sorrow like my sorrow.
Pay attention, all people,
      and look at my sorrow:
if there be any sorrow like my sorrow.

Victoria had composed an earlier, equally beautiful setting of the same text, published as a motet in 1572 (performed in the second and third videos). Both of his settings are fittingly sombre for the occasion, especially Holy Saturday when the time between Christ’s death and resurrection is remembered. They are full of plaintive harmony to suit the sorrow referred to in the text, especially with dissonance and descending melodic contours for ‘dolor’ and ‘dolorem’.

In places other than churches, the practice of playing vocal compositions like this on instruments alone was growing, spurred on by the increased dissemination of music because of printing. Collections like the publication of 33 of Victoria’s motets (Venice, 1572) must have been regarded as perfect material, for this was a time before specifically instrumental genres like the sonata were invented. It was natural, when sacred music like this was appropriated for secular use, for some ornamentation to be improvised.

Victoria, O vos omnes, responsory for Tenebrae, first published in 1585. The Cambridge Singers directed by John Rutter (CD recording, 2009).

Victoria, motet O vos omnes, first published in Venice in 1572. Performed by the ensemble La Colombina (CD recording, 1997).

The same motet, performed by The English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble, recorded in April 2015.