Renaissance composers – Tomás Luis da Victoria

Tomás Luis da Victoria was born in 1548 Avila in central Spain as the seventh of eleven children, to parents of a stable and well connected family. The product of a good education, Tomás was fortunate to be accepted into a local school founded by the Jesuits and progressed to the Jesuit college, the Collegio Germanico in Rome, enrolled as a singer and possibly coming into contact with another great name in Renaissance composition, Palestrina who was Maestro di Capella at the nearby Roman Seminary.

In 1571 Tomás himself became a teacher as he was engaged as choirmaster at the Collegio Germanico and for the next six years directed choirs in the city. He became ordained into the priesthood in 1575 and left the Collegio in 1577 to join a community of lay priests in the newly formed Confederazione dell’oratorio di San Filippo Neri. In 1578 he was appointed as chaplain at San Girolamo della Carità and stayed there until returning to Spain around 1587 to become chaplain to the Empress Maria in Madrid. Working in a convent suited Tomás very well and he served the dowager Empress until her death in 1603 and continued to lead a peaceful life as organist and chaplain, concentrating on developing the choir and composing until his own death in 1611.

Victoria (occasionally spelled “da Vittoria” due to his extended residence in Rome) has become known as one of the most prominent composers of the Renaissance. His output was consistent throughout his life and was notable for being exclusively liturgical with the composer striving to write religious music intended to serve the purpose of the solemn and ritualistic space in which it was set rather than as art music detached from the church.

Although leaving us less music than Palestrina he did make a concerted effort to publish. His entire works were edited and republished by Felip Pedrell (19/02/1841 – 19/08/1922) in eight volumes which display the scope of his work handsomely:

  • Volume One: Forty four Motets
  • Volume Two: Ten Masses
  • Volume Three: Eighteen Magnificats and a Nunc Dimitiss
  • Volume Four: Five Masses
  • Volume Five: Thirty four Hymns
  • Volume Six: Five Masses
  • Volume Seven: Ten Psalms and ten Marian Antiphons (anthems to Mary)
  • Volume Eight: Biography and other short works

Victoria is regarded as one of the greatest contrapuntists of his time, his music noted as being dramatically colourful, lively and intense. Although comparable in style to that of Palestrina, Victoria’s output is noted as being more mystical and intense, possibly in sympathy with the religious atmosphere pervading counter-reformation Spain at that time. In contrast to this, one contemporary commentator, John IV of Portugal stated in his “Defensa de la Musica Moderna of 1649 that ‘…although there is much in his Holy Week volume that exactly suits the text, nonetheless his disposition being naturally sunny he never stays downcast for long’.

O Magnum Mysterium

The polyphonic technique of Victoria really sums up the sound of Renaissance choral work for me, perhaps even more so than Byrd who’s work sounds somehow lighter on the ear than Victoria, more contrived as a pleasant sound for the benefit of the listener rather than what the composer might have wanted to write. Victoria sounds more visceral to my modern ear which I put down to his extensive root/fifth in the bass and tenor and this is shown off nicely in this piece which is a personal favourite.

Click here to listen.

Motet Vidi Speciosam

This piece stood out for me as aside from taking a strikingly romantic setting (Song of Songs/Solomon) Victoria shows the way that the motet form is going with the addition of a subtle and sympathetic accompaniment from (in this instance) horns and organ. This is deceptively complex stuff which displays Victoria’s skill and technique well as the voices turn and weave around each other without sounding jumbled or unnecessarily challenging.

Click here to listen.

During his reflective period of 1968-1976 Arvo Pärt became increasingly fascinated with early choral compositions which were to influence his output in the 1970s and 80s. Moving away from his early neoclassical and serial period, Pärt’s compositions can be seen to be directly affected by his investigations into Renaissance polyphony, including that of Victoria, taking his cue from their ability to produce profound and meaningful music in a deeply religious context, one not having to be subservient to the other. Victoria was also an influence on Pärt’s contemporary, John Tavener, another contributor to the modern Holy Minimalism movement, although neither composer tackled counterpoint in the same way as their sixteenth century muse.