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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Tomás Luis de Victoria

When I was starting out in this business, as a schoolboy trying to fathom the wonders of music, I found myself lumping composers together in pairs. Bach was like Handel, Haydn was like Mozart, Beethoven was like Schubert, Debussy was like Ravel, Stravinsky was like Bartók... Of course the more I got to know the repertoire, the more I realised that these pairings were a bit silly and not at all true, but when I was a boy it was a way I had of sorting, in my head, the enormous amount of music I was discovering.

In my last year of high school - at the Sydney Conservatorium - we had a brilliant young musician teaching us music history; his name was Richard Gill. I learned many things from Richard which I treasure to this day, but one of the composers he exposed me to was someone I immediately paired with Palestrina, the great composer of high Renaissance Catholic church music. This composer - Tomás Luis de Victoria - I'd never encountered before. His music reminded me of Palestrina but at the same time it was different. Darker, more passionate, more..."raw".

Richard Gill

The recording Richard played for us at school was this one [listen]: Victoria's Tenebrae Responsories, recorded in 1960 by the Choir of Westminster Cathedral, London, conducted by George Malcolm, a recording which emphasises the rawness of the composer's emotional palette. In this post I want to survey Victoria's life and his stunning music. Together with Palestrina he is at the pinnacle of late Renaissance sacred music, but in many ways he stands apart and says his own things in his own way.

One of the things which immediately sets Victoria apart is the fact that he was Spanish, one of a number of fine composers to come from Spain in the Renaissance. He was born in Ávila, right in the middle of the Iberian peninsula and about 100 km north west of Madrid, in 1548. He was the seventh of his parents' eleven children, and both parents had important social and noble connections in their respective families.

The walls of Ávila (photo taken by me in January, 2018)

In Ávila, Victoria learned music while a choirboy at the city's cathedral, a major musical centre at which important musicians of the day were employed. Victoria's education probably continued at the Jesuit boys' school of S Gil, but after his voice broke in his mid-teens his life changed dramatically.

Victoria is honoured in Ávila with this small street named after him (photo taken by me in January, 2018)

From the familiarity of Ávila, Victoria was sent to the centre of the Catholic world - Rome - to study at the Jesuit Collegio Germanico, or German College, where there were many international students. There he was specifically enrolled as a singer but he also undertook theological studies and became fluent in Latin. It's almost certain that at this time he would have made the acquaintance of Palestrina, who worked nearby; he may even have been Victoria's teacher. As Grove - the principal source for this article - points out, Victoria was one of the first composers from Spain to master the subtleties of Palestrina's style, something evident in his earliest publications. [listen]

Victoria rapidly became known not only as a fine singer and composer but also as an organist. From 1569 he was employed as a singer and organist at one of the major Spanish churches in Rome, and by late 1571 he was teaching music to students at the German College.

Rome (1493)

Victoria is unique among the major Renaissance composers in two respects. Firstly, he seems to have devoted himself entirely to composing sacred music; no secular music by him is known at all. (Palestrina, on the other hand, wrote a large number of secular madrigals.) And secondly, he seems to have right from the start intended that his entire output should be published. Throughout his life he supervised major publications, often including works which had been published before, and these have provided posterity with excellent sources for his works.

His first publication appeared in 1572 when he was 24, a collection of 33 motets for 4, 5, 6 or 8 voices. The double choir Ave Maria I linked to above was included in this volume, as was this four-part motet for the feast of St Thomas. [listen]

In 1573, the year after the first volume of motets was published, the German College in Rome underwent a major reorganisation, separating the Italian boarders from the German seminarians. The ceremony marking this saw Victoria's pupils and friends gather to sing his 8-part setting of the psalm Super flumina Babylonis (By the waters of Babylon), which had been written specially for the occasion. It's one of the most exquisite examples of his art, and was published in 1576. [listen]

Hacker: By the Waters of Babylon (1888)

After this reorganisation of the the College, Victoria was retained as music teacher to the German seminarians. He was eventually appointed the music director of the College, a post he held until mid-1577. In 1575 he graduated to the priesthood with minor orders and was ordained in an English church in Rome by Bishop Thomas Goldwell, the last surviving member of the pre-Reformation English Catholic hierarchy.

In 1576 Victoria published another volume of sacred music which contained Masses, psalms and other liturgical settings. At around the same time he joined a newly-formed community in Rome called the Congregation dell'Oratorio, led by Filippo Neri. He later became chaplain at another Roman church.

Tiepolo: St Filippo Neri and the Virgin Mary (1740)

This period, the early 1580s, saw Victoria composing and publishing a great deal. From 1581 to 1585 he published no less than six extraordinary volumes of church music, comprising more than 170 works (some of which appeared in more than one volume). It's worth surveying examples from some of these books as they display the incredible diversity and richness of Victoria's work.

The volume of 32 hymns published in 1581 (and republished in 1600) includes this four-stanza hymn to Jesus, Tibi Christe. Victoria leaves the first and third stanzas to be sung in plainchant, while setting the second and fourth stanzas for voices in four parts. The second stanza is set in common time while the final stanza is set in a lilting triple time. [listen]

A volume of nine Masses appeared in 1583, five of which had been published before. This included the first, and smaller, of Victoria's two setting of the Requiem Mass (the Mass for the Dead), a setting for four voices. This Requiem has been long overshadowed by Victoria's later, more famous setting, which is a pity, because it's very beautiful. This is how it opens. [listen]

The 1583 Mass publication also included the four-part Missa O quam gloriosum, which Victoria based on one of his own motets. This is its Sanctus movement. [listen]

Then, in the same year, another volume of motets - 53 of them this time - most of which had appeared in earlier volumes. One of those which was new had a connection with home, O lux et decus Hispaniae (O light and grace of Spain), a hymn to the patron saint of Spain, St James. [listen]

Two years later, in 1585, two more volumes appeared. One contained 37 motets, 25 of which had been published before and three of which were by other composers. The other is one of his most famous and more frequently-performed collections, the music for Holy Week which includes the Responsories for Tenebrae (one of which I referred at the start of the article) and the Lamentations of Jeremiah.

Victoria's life in Rome was busy, both in terms of his musical involvements and his work as a priest. He was involved in work connected with visiting the sick and supporting the destitute. Clearly he was under some degree of stress.

Anguissola: King Philip II of Spain (1573)

The volume of Masses published in 1583 was dedicated to King Philip II of Spain. In the dedicatory preface, Victoria (then aged 35) expressed a desire to return to his native Spain, as he put it, "to put an end to my labour of composing, to rest for a time in honest leisure and to be able to compose my soul in contemplation, as befits a priest". The King rewarded the dedication by making this possible. He appointed Victoria chaplain to his sister, the Dowager Empress Maria of Austria, the grand lady of Spanish - and Habsburg - royalty who since 1581 had lived in retirement in a monastery in Madrid.

33 cloistered nuns also lived there, and Mass was celebrated daily in the chapel, attended by priests who were required to be well-trained in music (including the singing of plainchant and complex polyphony). Victoria served the Empress from around 1586, and he was also appointed music director of the monastery's chapel.

In 1592 Victoria published a collection of seven Masses. One of these is the eight-part Missa Salve regina, based on one of his own antiphons. This is its Gloria movement, which displays a feature of Victoria's late masses, namely a tendency from time to time to move into triple meter out of the more sedate common time. [listen]

And then again, in 1600, there appeared Victoria's second last publication, another volume of Masses. This volume, which contained 14 new works, was special in a number of ways, not least because of its modern style and it was very popular in the years following its appearance. At the start of what we now call the Baroque, Victoria in 1600 understood much about what younger composers (such as Claudio Monteverdi) were doing. The 1600 publication includes a part for the organ, and there is much evidence to suggest that Victoria's earlier music (and those of his contemporaries) was often performed with instruments doubling the voice parts, even if these aren't mentioned in the score. Local practice surely varied enormously.

This volume was also the first that Victoria published in Madrid - his other volumes had been printed in Venice or in Rome - and among its glories is a splendid "battle mass", based on a much older battle chanson by Clément Jannequin. Called the Missa pro Victoria (or Victory Mass) and written for two choirs totalling nine parts, it's a splendidly flashy work, and remarkably modern for its time. [listen]

Victoria's life in Madrid was highly attractive to him. It provided him with an enviable lifestyle and income, it meant his works were regularly heard by the highest levels of society, and he was given generous leave, such as the three years he spent back in Rome in the early 1590s, supervising publication of his music, among other things. While he was in Rome, in 1594, Palestrina died, and Victoria took part in the funeral. He returned to Madrid the following year.

In 1603, the Dowager Empress Maria, Victoria's patron, died. The music he wrote for her funeral has become justly famous, his second Requiem setting, for six voices, which was published in 1605. (It's usually referred to as the Officium defunctorum - Office for the Dead - of 1605, to distinguish it from the earlier four-part Requiem.) It rightly crowns his life's work and is an austere, moving tribute to a great lady: daughter of Emperor Charles V, wife of Emperor Maximilian II and mother of two other Emperors, two Queens and three Archdukes. The funeral rites took place over some days, and Victoria's magnificent music was at its heart. [listen]

Anon: Empress Maria of Austria (1557)

Victoria remained a chaplain to the convent after the Empress's death and lived out his remaining years there. He died in the chaplains' residence in Madrid on 20 August 1611 at the age of 63. He was buried there but today the location of his grave is unknown.

As a boy I lumped Victoria and Palestrina together, and there is no doubting the similarity of their styles. But with the passing of the years I have learned to hear in Victoria's music an earthiness and a passion which I don't always hear in the perfect clarity and poise of his famous Italian contemporary. Victoria's Spanish origins and his slightly younger age gave him a different, more modern style, and his 20 Masses, 18 Magnificats, and more than 150 other sacred works constantly reward further study and - let's be honest - just sheer indulgence in their sonic beauty.

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in December, 2014.

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