A resident of London, Stephen Hough is widely regarded as one of the most important and distinctive pianists of his generation. At the invitation of the National Gallery in London, he composed music for the exhibition The Sacred Made Real: Spanish Painting and Sculpture, 1600–1700, which opened there in October 2009 and is on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington from February 28 through May 31, 2010. That composition, Requiem Aeternam (after Victoria), is playing as you view the slideshow of the works of art in the exhibition.
In Stephen Hough's words:
It was a thrilling idea—these artworks are some of the greatest cultural treasures in existence. They are immensely powerful and cannot simply be looked at in passing. They demand a response—indeed they were originally created with the intention of leading the viewer to a direct religious experience... most often of repentance and preparation for a holy death. Despite the frequent images of blood and violence there is a profoundly tender humanity radiating from each statue and canvas. A passionate and compassionate confrontation with the same life and death which faces us all... across the divide of centuries, class and race.
But it was also a daunting commission. As I mulled it over it seemed to me that there were two possible pitfalls: either I would write something with too strong a personal voice which would clash with and then be dwarfed by the 17th century masterpieces; or that I would write something so insipid and faceless as to be redundant at best, and at worst render these monumental works comfortable and "domestic"—like sheets of pastel wallpaper on the bedroom walls of a fierce, ancient castle. To use religious choral music from the same era seemed too obvious, and a text would be too specific, but I wanted a period flavour in some way. I decided to take the great 1603 Requiem of Tomas Luis de Victoria (his last work—often described as a Requiem for the Renaissance itself) and re-cast, re-work, re-imagine its six voices for string sextet. I selected five sections to make five movements: the 4th movement (Versa est) is a simple transcription with nothing altered; the 1st movement (Tadeat animum) takes the 4-part original and floats it around the six instruments in antiphonal waves; the 2nd movement (Kyrie eleison) keeps all the notes the same but changes their register—removing the linear mosaic of the vocal lines and making them soar and plunge in jagged, overlapping intervals. The other two movements are more radically altered. The 3rd movement (Graduale) treats the original material as clay to be shaped in totally different ways; and the final, longest movement (Libera me) reproduces the polyphonic sections fairly faithfully, but takes the original plainsong interludes as if themes for variations in various modern styles.
(Flagellation and Victoria at the National Gallery, October 17, 2009, Telegraph.co.uk)