Holy Week at the Chapel of the Dukes of Braganza : A Capella Portuguesa, Owen Rees


This recording is a celebration of the vast outpouring of masterpieces which survived the destruction by earthquake of the Lisbon libraries solely due to the dedication of the Vila Viçosa copyists.

It is a collection of Renaissance polyphony celebrating Easter Week in Renaissance Portugal by some big names, Palestrina, Lobo, and Victoria but also includes composers I’ve never heard before: Manuel Mendes (c1547-1605); Gabriel Díaz Bessón (before 1590-1638); Juan de Esquivel Barahona (c1563-after 1613); Giovanni Giorgi (d1762); Fernando de Almeida (c1600-1660); João Lourenço Rebelo (1610-1661); Ginés de Morata (fl1550-1550); Juan de Castro y Malagaray (c1572-1632).

The following excerpted description of the music and history is taken from the recording Booklet essay © 1996, by Bernadette Nelson, Hyperion,  “Holy Week at the Chapel of the Dukes of Braganza.”


The ducal palace of the Braganza family, heirs to the Portuguese throne from the mid-seventeenth century onwards, is situated in Vila Viçosa, a small town near the Spanish border in southern Portugal. The palace was built at the beginning of the sixteenth century by Dom Jaime, fourth Duke of Braganza, and survives as the best witness to the former richness and glory of this royal house. One of the most thriving eras was during the time of the fifth and sixth Dukes of Braganza in the sixteenth century, when several Portuguese humanists were at court. Before Dom João (eighth Duke) succeeded to the Portuguese throne in 1640, following sixty years of Spanish rule under the Habsburg monarchs, over three hundred people were employed at the palace, including a very large band of musicians: more than a hundred are recorded there between 1583 and 1626 – a greater number than in any of the cathedrals in Portugal.

The liturgy of Holy Week, with its series of penitential texts and reflections on the suffering and death of Christ, inspired some of the most expressive pieces of vocal music ever written. Motets, Lamentations and responsories by Spanish and Portuguese composers working in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in particular – composers such as Victoria, Cardoso, Esquivel and Juan de Castro y Malagaray – remain as testimonies to the taste at that time for emotional and often dramatic musical statements written in response to the sentiments of the texts.

This music remained fashionable well into the eighteenth century and continued to be performed in the leading choral establishments such as the royal chapel in Lisbon even when Italianate tastes and manners took a firm hold (this happening particularly under the directorship of Domenico Scarlatti (mestre da capella, c1720-1728) who began to recruit large numbers of professional Italian musicians).

Tangible proof of the continued taste for sixteenth- and seventeenth-century music is found in the series of Vila Viçosa choirbooks which include a wide range of choral works dating from this period for up to eight voice parts. Although some of the music in these books – by Victoria, Palestrina and Cardoso – is known through other sources (both printed and in manuscript), a very large proportion is unique. It is thus thanks to the diligence of the copyist that we are still left with an important repertory of works which would otherwise have been destroyed in the Lisbon earthquake.

An additional curiosity is the music by a number of composers such as Francisco António de Almeida, Manuel Soares and the Italian Hieronimus Bezzi who played a decisive role in these compilations of Holy Week music: not only did they compose items in a pastiche stile antico, or seventeenth-century manner, but they also even completed – or added contrapuntal parts to – compositions by older composers.

The music on this disc has been selected from the Vila Viçosa choirbooks, beginning with items from the multifarious sequence of music traditionally sung during the blessing, distribution of palms, and procession on Palm Sunday, one of the most impressive and elaborate ceremonies in the liturgical year.

The liturgy of Holy Week enjoyed a particularly privileged position and, in 1604, special papal dispensation was obtained which permitted the celebration of the daytime Offices of Holy Week to extend well into the night.

Listening to this recording is also a wonderful way to start the day.

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