Thursday, August 03, 2006

The greatest hit of the 16th Century

For many choirs, the Transfiguration means pulling out the motet, text from the Apocalypse and used on All Saints, that someone once described as "the greatest hit of the 16th century": The "O Quam Gloriosum," by Victoria.

Let's say you want to write a musical figure that immediately creates the sound of something spectacular that is rising ominously into the sky. It would surely look something like these opening bars:

The piece is in D major but before we get there we start with two As an octave apart, split right now the middle with the 5th above, a long note with no movement. Then movement begins without articulation. The basses join with a D, just as the alto move up one whole step and the tenor jumps up a fourth, to create a full D major chord that holds just as long before it moves yet again, with altos moving up a half step, sopranos moving up for the first time from the A to a B, and the tenors holding forth. G major!

Then: it stops, as if in mid-air. Silence. What comes next? Not a resolution at all but something completely unexpected, E minor!

We have only moved four bars but the ears that something really amazing is taking place: "O how glorious is the kingdom!" The modulations continue on and on, with this wonderful piece of polyphony growing ever more complex--see measures 18 through 22 if you love complicated vocal counterpoint--until we finally arrive at what some people in our choir have called a heavenly fashion show: "Amicti stolis albis, sequuntur Agnum, quocumque ierit"--vested in white stoles, they follow the lamb, wherever he may go. I've also seen it rendered: "dressed in white."

The full text:

O quam gloriosum est regnum, in quo cum Christo gaudent omnes Sancti! Amicti stolis albis, sequuntur Agnum, quocumque ierit.

O how glorious is the kingdom, in which all the saints rejoice with Christ; vested in white stoles, they follow the lamb, wherever he may go.

And where the piece goes is itself unending: the final chord leaves you hanging on A major. The piece is difficult but worth the effort! What a genius was Victoria, and how right Benedict XVI is to emphasize that these treasures must have a home in our parishes.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: