EWARE OF BLOGS which constantly repeat phrases like: “You heard it here first” or “I was the first one to know this” or “I predicted this would happen.” Such authors betray a deep immaturity. The reality is, Yogi Berra was correct: “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” Today, however, I make this prediction: Philippe Verdelot’s “Victimae Paschali” will soon be taught in every music history textbook. It’s an incredibly enlightened, pioneering, and beautiful example of imitative polyphony. Josquin des Prez is usually considered the “trailblazer” when it comes to imitative counterpoint—especially with pieces like Ave Maria (which Dr. Calabrese wrote about brilliantly). But when folks discover this piece by Verdelot, I believe common assumptions will undergo reassessment.
* PDF Download • VICTIMAE PASCHALI LAUDES
—Score by Philippe Verdelot (d. 1535?) provided by Mr. Christian Ryan.
The Brébeuf Virtual Choir created a delightful recording of this hitherto “lost” masterpiece:
Seeing the wonderful creations of the Brébeuf Virtual Choir fills me with tremendous hope for the future of sacred music. Every few days, they come out with a new recording; these kids are on fire!
HE entire piece is a fantastic early example of imitative counterpoint; but in a certain sense, it might be regarded as a “plainsong harmonization.” Philippe Verdelot (d. 1535?) literally takes each phrase of the EASTER SEQUENCE (“Victimae Paschali Laudes”) and marvelously sets it, always straightaway in order. Later composers would seek a “less obvious” (or perhaps we might say “less tedious”) way of treating the plainchant melody. Consider the following two phrases: Agnus Redémit Oves and Christus Ínnocens Patri.
Notice the “uncomplicated” way Verdelot sets them. (Don’t forget: This is the beginning of imitative polyphony, so composers were still experimenting.)
Verdelot used Agnus Redémit Oves six times. He then uses Christus Ínnocens Patri five times:
The end of the first movement ends with a “pedal tone” in the Alto, and this will later become the favorite ending technique of masters such as Palestrina, Victoria, Marenzio, Lassus, and Guerrero:
To add symmetry, just as Verdelot ended the first movement with that pedal tone, he begins the second movement with a pedal tone. “Mirrors” would be quite important to later composers:
Speaking of symmetry, examine the voices which begin the first and second movements. Do you see how Verdelot reverses them to add variety? If you scroll to the bottom of this article, you’ll see Father Morales does the same thing…and so does Father Guerrero, and Father Victoria, and Palestrina, and so forth. Click on the following to see the opening measures of part 1 and part 2:
Finally, what could be better than jumping into 3/4 at the ending? Later composers (think of Father Victoria in O Magnum Mysterium) would also adopt this awesome technique:
About four months ago, when the Brébeuf Virtual Choir was considering recording this piece, they asked me to speak to them about it. I don’t know how much help I was—because most scholars have hitherto neglected Philippe Verdelot in a blameworthy way—but feel free to eavesdrop on our private conversation.
Comments by Dr. Fortescue
Regarding the Victimae Paschali Laudes, here’s what Father Adrian Fortescue said:
Certainly the clanging melody (like the blare of trumpets) is one of the very finest pieces of plainsong we have. It seems the perfect musical expression of Easter. And its immemorial connection with the words makes it almost incredible that anyone should ever want to replace it by a modern composition. The changing metre, occasional rhyme, and picturesque text of the “Victimae paschali” make it a most characteristic example of a sequence.
Father Fortescue would not object to Verdelot’s masterful setting, because we’ve seen that it’s basically a “harmonized” version of the authentic plainsong. By the way, here’s what Father Fortescue said about Sequences in general:
In nothing does the prudence of the Tridentine reformers so shine as in their treatment of the question of sequences. At that time there was a perfect plethora of these compositions. The great number had little or no value either as poetry or devotional works; the whole idea of the sequence was merely a late farcing, and it lengthened the Mass unduly, making a great interval between the Epistle and Gospel, where already the Gradual and Alleluia were long enough. Would it not be simplest to sweep the whole thing away? Yet there were a few sequences that it would have been really a pity to lose. So the commission abolished the vast crowd of inferior ones and kept the very best, just five. Its idea was not to keep the sequences of the chief feasts (Christmas and Epiphany lost theirs) but to keep those that were finest in themselves. Of course this is largely a matter of taste. One may still regret some that have gone. One would have liked to keep at least one of those of the original inventor, Notker Balbulus; or one may wish that Venantius Fortunatus’ magnificent processional hymn for Easter, “Salve festa dies” had survived as a sequence. [But the Victimae paschali laudes is, of course, still finer. However, it is really a pity that room for “Salve festa dies” was not found in some part of the office.] But on the whole there can be no doubt that the five we have are the finest. Without cumbering every Mass with long poems, we have the principle of the sequence and the very best of the old ones.