Music of Sebastianist Portugal

Published: 3rd July 2020

The frequency with which composers of the late Renaissance set texts of lamentation, mourning and supplication, not only for the period from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday but for use throughout the year, speaks both of the quotidian nature of death in their lives and the need to contemplate suffering, mortality and the possibility of salvation, but also of the artistic and expressive potential that such texts offered them.

Musical settings of disconsolate devotional and biblical passages also presented an effective and potentially covert vehicle for political commentary, and such is the case with works by many of the Portuguese composers living under the rule of the Spanish Habsburgs from 1580 to 1640. These musicians expressed through their compositions both the sadness of the people at being governed by a foreign power, and also the longing for the restoration of the Portuguese monarchy, a sentiment which found expression in the cult of ‘Sebastianism’, a belief that the young King Sebastian, who vanished in 1578 during an ill-advised military campaign in Morocco, might one day return to reclaim his throne. This was not to be (Sebastian was most likely killed in battle) and it would not be until the accession of John, Duke of Braganza (subsequently John IV of Portugal) to the throne in December 1640, following the plot enacted by the Forty Conspirators, that the throne would be reclaimed from Spain.

Manuel Cardoso’s setting for six voices of a portion of the Lamentations for Maundy Thursday is found in the composer’s final published collection, the Livros de Varios Motetes, Officio da Semana Santa, e Outras Cousas. This was printed in Lisbon in 1648 when the composer was an astonishing eighty-two years old, having spent much of his career as chapelmaster at the Carmelite convent in the city. Cardoso dedicated many of his publications, including the 1648 print, to John IV, and his quotation of the opening words of the Nunc dimittis in the dedication to this volume are most likely a reference to the king, heralded as Portugal’s ‘salvation’. The Lamentations in all likelihood pre-date John IV’s restoration to the throne, and as a favourite and close associate of the music-loving monarch (the king had a portrait of the composer in his music library), Cardoso can quite readily be supposed to have supported the Sebastianist cause.

A fellow resident of Lisbon, first as maestro de capilla at the Hospital Real and subsequently as director of music at the Cathedral, Duarte Lobo’s Missa Veni Domine, based on the motet of the same name by the Italian composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, is almost certainly a Sebastianist work: Lobo’s choice of this particular musical model for his mass setting was likely motivated by the allusive nature of its text, which asks God to return without delay in order to ‘ease the wrong done to your people, and call back to their land those who have been dispersed. Stir up your power, O Lord, and come that you might save us.

In light of the prevailing political situation, Lobo’s selection of this motet as the basis for his mass can easily be read as an expression of his feelings towards the occupying Habsburg dynasty. In keeping with the established practice of parody or imitatio mass settings of the later sixteenth century, Lobo makes use of musical material from throughout Palestrina’s motet: particularly notable is his choice of melodic quotation for the Benedictus, where he tellingly employs Palestrina’s music for the textual phrase ‘and call back to their land those who have been dispersed’ for his own setting of the words ‘blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’. The six-voice scoring is maintained fairly consistently by Lobo over the course of the six movements of the Mass Ordinary, with the relatively tightly-knit contrapuntal texture occasionally giving way to more declamatory passages of homophony, serving to underscore moments of particular textual importance. Lobo reduces the scoring to the four upper voices alone at two points in the mass: the second of these is the Benedictus, with the first occurring rather earlier on as one of two settings of the Christe eleison.

Lobo’s Audivi vocem de caelo is drawn from the funeral rite, and is one of two motets appended to the composer’s eight-voice Missa Pro Defunctis in his 1621 Liber Missarum print (also the source for the Missa Veni Domine). However, unlike Estêvão de Brito’s Heu Domine, a setting of funereal verses full of the pathos expected of such a text, Lobo’s motet highlights the more sanguine qualities of the words, which are equally associated with the Feast of All Saints. Through a combination of mellifluous polyphony and carefully chosen moments of homophonic clarity, as well as a striking solo for the uppermost voice, Lobo lends a pictorial quality to this work which marks it as the product of a considerable compositional talent.

The same may also be said of Pater peccavi, the other of the pair of motets found at the conclusion of Lobo’s 1621 volume. Here the prayer ‘Miserere mei, Deus’ is included as a repeated cantus firmus in the second Soprano voice, with its innately expressive melodic shape borrowed from a well-known earlier motet by Josquin Desprez. The four freely-composed parts weave a polyphonic web around this simple chant-like melody, serving to disguise the cantus firmus in a musical setting of great beauty and emotional depth.

Of more sparing musical means are the four-part motets Oculi mei, Emendemus in melius, De profundis and Versa est in luctum by Estêvão Lopes Morago: settings of supplications requesting divine intervention in the face of adversity, they vividly depict their texts in a style mixing homophony with more contrapuntal polyphonic textures. Morago, a Spaniard who spent nearly all of his life in Portugal, was a student, along with Estêvão de Brito (who by contrast was born in Portugal, but held positions as maestro de capilla of Badajoz and Malaga Cathedrals), of the older composer Filipe de Magalhães at Évora Cathedral, later becoming mestre de capela of Viseu, a post he would retain for 31 years until his retirement in 1630.

Very little is known about Aires Fernandez beyond a possible association with the Monastery of Santa Cruz in Coimbra, where almost all of his surviving works, including Circumdederunt me dolores mortis, are preserved in manuscript. Set by many other composers as part of the Officium Defunctorum (Office of the Dead), Fernandez’s work was also known to have been performed during Holy Week by the Royal Chapel of the Dukes of Braganza, and is justly renowned as ‘one of the great expressive masterpieces of sixteenth-century Iberian polyphony’. By contrast, the biography of Filipe de Magalhães is well-documented: educated at the cloister school of Évora Cathedral, where he himself taught the young Morago and de Brito, he later moved to Lisbon, joining the choir of the Royal Chapel as a singer and subsequently maestro de capilla. His Commissa mea pavesco, a text also set by a number of his Portuguese peers including his pupil Morago, is a moving and skilfully-crafted work, with expressive chromaticism, antiphonal effects and sinuous polyphony all serving to bring the words vividly to life.

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