Four Priest Composers
In my earlier days, I considered the priesthood as a possible vocation in life. After a few months in the seminary, however, I sensed that God had another plan for me. Nonetheless, I respect priests and their work of leading souls to heaven. They accomplish this task by administering the sacraments, offering guidance, and teaching. They also must be caring and above all, adept at inspiring. Some priests in history sought to inspire, not so much through sermons, but through beautiful music. They are priest composers. This article looks at four of them and their musical legacy.
Tomás Luis de Victoria (c.1548-1611)
Among the four priests in this article, Victoria is distinguished for composing only sacred music. Scholars rank him as the greatest Spanish composer of the Renaissance and on equal footing with Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina in the genre of Renaissance polyphony. As opposed to the more conservative Palestrina, Victoria’s music conveys profound mysticism. He achieved this quality by a masterful balancing of pleasing melody and dissonance. In general, his music avoids the excessive counterpoint of his contemporaries.
Victoria was born in Sanchidrián, in the province of Ávila, Castile, the seventh of nine children of parents whom he lost by the time he was eleven years old. His uncle, Juan Luis, became his legal guardian and saw to his education. Besides being a choirboy at the Ávila Cathedral, he most likely studied the organ as well, given his mastery of the instrument.
In 1565, he received a scholarship from King Philip II to study in Italy. In 1573, he advanced far enough in his studies to receive the position of choirmaster at the Roman Seminary. At the same time, he taught music at the German College. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1574 by Bishop Thomas Goldwell, the last bishop of pre-Reformation England. In 1578, he became a chaplain at San Girolamo in Rome for seven years. It was his most productive time as a composer. St. Philip Neri lived at San Girolamo at this time as well, so it’s most likely Tomás attended meetings at St. Philip’s Oratory, where other famous musicians congregated.
Tomás returned to Spain in 1587 and became chaplain to the sister of King Philip II, the Dowager Empress Maria, who lived at the Poor Clare monastery in Madrid with her daughter. After the Empress’ death in 1603, Victoria remained at the convent as organist and continued his priestly duties. He died in the chaplain’s quarters of the convent in 1611.
Requiem in Aeternum
Victoria’s last published work, the Requiem Mass for Empress Maria in 1603, is one of his greatest achievements as a composer. The following video features the Introit (entrance) of the Mass. The translation of the Latin text is as follows: “Eternal rest, grant unto them O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. A hymn to Thee is fitting, O God, in Zion, and a vow shall be paid to Thee in Jerusalem: give ear to my supplication; all flesh shall come unto Thee. Eternal rest, grant unto them O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.”
Victoria believed God blessed him with musical talent for a purpose. In his view, music fulfills three purposes: spiritual, pedagogical, and therapeutic. The composer's work fulfills a spiritual purpose by elevating souls to heaven on a wave of inspiration and prayer. He fulfills a didactic purpose if he advances his art to a higher level, and thereby become a guide for future generations. Finally, he softens the roughness of life with the balm of music; the well-being of the soul results in greater health for the body.
Musicologists note the strong fervor conveyed in Victoria’s music. His priesthood and prayerful routine likely contributed to this quality. He wrote to King Philip II in 1583, after spending eighteen years in Italy, of his desire to return to Spain; he wanted to spend less time composing and devote his thoughts “to the contemplation of heavenly matters, as befits a priest.” Though he continued composing, it is noteworthy that he placed such emphasis on prayer. Indeed, his contemplation was the very fountain of his creativity.
Gregorio Allegri (c. 1582-1652)
Allegri was born in Rome, and with two of his brothers, studied music at San Luigi dei Francesi. After his ordination, he remained for some years at the Cathedral of Fermo, where his musical genius blossomed. He composed a large number of sacred motets during this time. He came to the notice of Pope Urban VIII, who appointed him to the Sistine Chapel choir, where he sang contralto. He held this position until his death. His contemporaries regarded him as “singularly pure and benevolent.”
The best-known piece composed by Allegri is his Miserere mei, Deus, (Psalm 50), sung during matins of Holy Week at the Sistine Chapel. The Vatican thought this piece of music so special that they forbade copies, under threat of excommunication. It remained therefore shrouded in mystery. The first unauthorized copy was by none other than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who at fourteen years of age visited the Vatican with his father. Wolfgang listened to it on Wednesday of Holy Week at the Sistine Chapel and afterward made a faithful transcription of it from memory. He made a few slight corrections after hearing it again on Good Friday. The Pope summoned him to the Vatican three months later. Far from excommunicating him, Pope Clement XIV praised his musical genius and awarded him with the Chivalric Order of the Golden Spur. The following video features an abbreviated version of Allegri’s Miserere.
Allegri is notable for reasons beyond this memorable piece, however. He is one of the first composers of stringed instruments and scholars credit him with the earliest string quartet. His output includes two volumes of concerti for five voices, two volumes of motets for six voices, an edition of a four-part sinfonia, five masses, and many other works not published in his lifetime. Most of his published music, particularly his instrumental music is in the progressive Baroque concertato style; this style involves instrumentation sharing the melody with the choir. However, his compositions for the Sistine Chapel are more in the style of Palestrina, perhaps at the suggestion of the choirmaster.
Gaspar Sanz (1640-1710)
Gaspar Sanz is the most famous guitarist of the Baroque period. He was born Francisco Bartolomé Sanz Celma, in Calanda, Spain. He came from a wealthy family who could see to his well-rounded education. He studied theology, music, and philosophy at the University of Salamanca, and then traveled to Italy to further his musical education. He studied the organ with Cristofaro Caresana and spent a few years as the organist of the Spanish Viceroy at Naples. He learned to play the guitar from Lelio Colista. Afterward, he returned to Spain where King Philip IV appointed him as guitar instructor to his illegitimate son, Don Juan of Austria. He later held the post of Professor of Music at his alma mater.
His greatest legacy is a three-volume pedagogical work, Instrucción de Música sobre la Guitarra Española, featuring ninety of his compositions. Besides his work as a priest, teacher, and musician, he was renowned in his day as a poet and writer. He wrote a eulogy to Pope Innocent XI and translated a famous work by the Jesuit, Daniello Bartoli, L’huomo di Lettere, into Spanish.
Musical Style and Influence
Sanz shows great versatility in his compositions. As may be expected from a Spaniard, the dance and folk music inspire many of his pieces. Some are very soulful, as in the beautiful Españoleta, while others are more lyrical, such as Canarios. Other selections are more typically Baroque with the use of refined counterpoint, such as Pavanas. All of his music has the fragrance of Spain.
His musical notation is in tablature and employs a shorthand system in Italian to indicate chords, which are comparable to the recently developed Nashville system. He has extensive suggestions indicating proper ornamentation, which give modern guitar scholars much insight into baroque guitar techniques. Sanz has been a major influence on modern composers such as Joaquin Rodrigo; in his famous Fantasia para un Gentilhombre, Rodrigo expands six dances taken directly from Sanz’ book.
The following video features a slower version of the lyrical Canarios.
Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)
Some years ago, I heard a performance of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons in the Church of San Bartolomeo in Venice. Only one word can describe it: magical. Indeed, Vivaldi remains one the most endearing composers of all time. Nonetheless, few people know that he was an ordained priest and remained so all his life. His contemporaries nicknamed him il Prete Rosso, “The Red Priest,” due in part to his reddish hair. However, because of a severe case of asthma and possibly heart-related issues, he received a dispensation from saying Mass. Even so, he faithfully prayed his breviary each day, required of all priests, and kept his rosary near at hand.
After he withdrew from liturgical duties, Vivaldi worked as the maestro di violino at an orphanage in Venice called the Pio Ospedale della Pietà. The all-girl orchestra at the orphanage made great strides under his tutelage. He taught them how to play certain instruments and composed the majority of his works there over a thirty-year span. His duties required him to compose a new oratorio or concerto for every major feast day. He composed nearly 600 concerti along with many operas and sacred works.
His fame consequently spread across Europe, not only for his compositions but also for his virtuosity on the violin. A German visitor to Venice, Johann von Uffenbach, recalled in his memoirs: “Vivaldi played a solo accompaniment excellently, and at the conclusion he added a free fantasy [an improvised cadenza] which absolutely astounded me, for it is hardly possible that anyone has ever played, or ever will play, in such a fashion.”
When Emperor Charles VI visited Venice, he became fast friends with Vivaldi and invited him to Vienna. Unfortunately, the Emperor died shortly after Vivaldi’s arrival. This left the already impoverished composer with little hope of patronage. In less than a year, he caught a fever and died. He was sixty-three years old.
The Four Seasons
The Four Seasons is by far Vivaldi’s most famous and innovative creation. Musical scholars regard it as one of the earliest examples of program music. Program music narrates a certain text, such as a poem, in musical terms. In the case of the Four Seasons, there exist four sonnets, attributed to Vivaldi himself, in which the music mimics flowing streams, birds, a shepherd with his barking dog, buzzing flies, winter fires, and so forth. The following video features the largo movement of the Winter Concerto, arranged for classical guitar and cornet.
Vivaldi’s Musical Style and Influence
Vivaldi did not invent the concerto form, but musical scholars credit him with taking it to a completely new level. He helped established the structured format of the concerto, typically of three movements, fast-slow-fast. Like Mozart, he had a particular gift for melodic invention, as the music seemed to flow out him effortlessly. He was also a master of harmonic contrasts and tone-dynamics (soft, loud). However, it is the charm of his melodies, imbued with such joy and yearning, that has fixed his lasting reputation.
Micky White, a leading expert on Vivaldi and author of Vivaldi: A Life in Documents, believes that his priesthood had a direct bearing on his music: “He was ordained, he was a priest his whole life and his spirituality comes out in his music; all you have to do is listen to it.”
As his spirituality influenced his music, so he, in turn, had an enormous influence on J.S. Bach, who transcribed nine of Vivaldi’s concerti for keyboard instruments, and one (RV 580) for four harpsichords, 2 violins, and basso continuo (BWV 1065). Bach was particularly attracted to Vivaldi’s technique of alternating one or more solo instruments with the full orchestra throughout a movement. The following video features the first movement of Vivaldi’s Double Concerto in A minor (RV 522), which Bach transcribed for organ (BWV 593). One may note Vivaldi’s influence on the Brandenburg concerti, which Bach composed around the time of his transcription.
Throughout history, God has blessed certain individuals with the ability to create surpassingly beautiful music. Some of the most famous of these composers, such as Bach, Mozart, Haydn, and Brahms, believed that God assisted them in their efforts. Art, and in particular, music, often has a power to communicate where words falter. It is fitting, therefore, that gifted priests should communicate the ineffable language of heaven through music. Their lives of prayer did not hinder their artistic flowering; rather, their very contemplation became the wellspring of their creativity and our enjoyment today.
Which musical composition did you enjoy most?
This research center in Spain has many articles on Victoria
An article with additional facts on Victoria
An article on Gregorio Allegri
An article on Gaspar Sanz
Additional facts on Sanz
This is a marvelous version of Canarios on Baroque guitar
An article on Vivaldi
An interview with Micky White, expert on Vivaldi
Questions & Answers
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