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Composer Biography: Tomas Luis de Victoria (c1548-1611)

Also Tommaso Ludovico da Vittoria (the Italian version of his name)

When people think about the 16th century, there are three names that come to mind: Giovanni Pierluigi Palestrina (c1525-1594), Orlando de Lassus (1532-1594), and Tomas Luis de Victoria. It’s interesting to note that the other two are Italians—Victoria was a Spaniard, although he spent time in Italy and may have studied under Palestrina.

Sometimes called the “Spanish Palestrina,” Victoria had a very polished style, and his Masses, along with those of Cristobal de Morales (c1500-1553), Francisco Guerrero (1528-1589, biography coming shortly), and Palestrina, were popular in the recently colonized New World. It’s no coincidence that three of those four composers were Spanish.

Victoria was born into a distinguished family in the province of Avila, possibly in the town of Sanchidrian. His parents, Francisco Luis de Victoria and Francisca Suarez de la Concha, married in 1540. He was the seventh child of eleven children.

There were important relatives on both sides of the family, including three cousins on his mother’s side—Cristobal was a naval commander, Hernando was a Jesuit pioneer in Mexico, and Baltazar was a merchant in Florence who became a nobleman when he married Grand Duke Cosimo I de Medici’s sister-in-law. An uncle on Victoria’s father’s side (and after whom Tomas was named) was a lawyer who pled cases before the royal chancery at Valladolid. This uncle entered the priesthood after his wife’s death and in 1577 was installed as a canon of Avila Cathedral. Avila Cathedral is going to come up frequently in this story.

Victoria’s father died in 1557, and another priest uncle, Juan Luis, took charge of the orphaned family.

Victoria’s classical education took place at Saint Gil, a school for boys in Avila that was founded by Jesuits. It was a school of such high reputation that St. Theresa of Avila (1515-1582) insisted that her own nephews attend the school

In Avila, Victoria was choirboy at the Cathedral. You’ll recall that his namesake uncle was a canon there. After his voice broke, Victoria was sent to the Jesuit Collegio Germanico in Rome, around 1563, although some sources suggest 1565. The school was a German seminary in Rome, founded by St. Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556) to combat Lutheranism.

At the Collegio Germanico, there were two kinds of students: those in training for the German missionary priesthood, and a larger group of English, Spanish, and Italian boarders, whose fees helped to maintain the college. Victoria was among the latter and was specifically enrolled as a singer.

At the college, young Victoria achieved fluency in Latin, and had a very rewarding time there. In his first collection of motets in 1572, he acknowledged his debt to one of the chief benefactors of the college. Victoria surely knew Palestrina, who was maestro di cappella of the nearby Seminario Romano, and may have been taught by him. He succeeded Palestrina there as choirmaster in 1571 and held the same post at the Collegio Germanico from 1573 to 1578.

He was a singer and organist at Saint Maria di Monserrato from 1569 until at least 1574 and he joined a chaplaincy at Saint Giralamo della Carita in 1578 and stayed until 1585. During those years, he published five sumptuous volumes containing hymns, Magnificat settings, Masses, an Office for Holy Week with 37 pieces in it, and an anthology of motets. In the last of these five collections, there were also two motets by Guerrero and another by the Italian Francesco Soriano (c1548-1621).

By the time he was 20, it was time for Victoria to start earning a living. From 1568 until 1571, he may have been maestro at the private chapel of Prince-Bishop of Augsburg, Otto Truchsess von Waldburg (1514-1573).

From 1569 until 1574, Victoria was a singer and organist at Saint Maria di Monserrato, the Aragonese church in which the two Spanish popes are buried. He earned a single scudo (worth about $0.06) for one month’s salary.

 

 

In 1571, he was engaged to teach music at the Collegio Germanico to interested boarders at a salary of 15 giulios (a giulio was about 1/100th of a scudo). In 1573, college authorities decided to separate the Italian boarders from the German seminarians, and there was a parting ceremony. Victoria composed a piece for it, Super flumina Babylonis, and Victoria’s pupils and others sang the eight-part psalm. (The psalm, number 137, speaks of the sadness of Jews exiled from Jerusalem.) After the separation, Victoria taught the German seminarians, with Latin as their mutual language. He was appointed maestro di cappella and paid two scudi a month, increasing to three in 1574 (from $0.12 to $0.18).

In 1574, the college was given the Apollinare and the adjoining church as their new home, on the condition that the student body sing the entire Office on at least 20 days of the church year. Victoria stayed until the end of 1576. He graduated into the priesthood and was ordained deacon by the last pre-Reformation English bishop, Thomas Goldwell (d.1585).

From 1579 until 1585, his income came largely from five Spanish benefaces conferred by Pope Gregory XIII (1502-1585), which earned him 307 ducats a year (a ducat is worth 1.09 scudi, so $20.08). He further increased his income by occasionally serving at Saint Giacomo degli Spagnoli, who gave him four scudi ($0.24) for Corpus Christi services. In 1579, he received six scudi ($0.36), and 60 baiocchi (not quite $0.04) and in 1580, nine scudie and 60 biaocchi (about $0.58). In 1582, he and a number of choristers received nine scudi ($0.54) for singing at the celebration of the victory by Spanish naval forces at the Battle of Terceira in the Azores. 

In 1577, he was ordained as a priest and joined the Oratory of Saint Filippo Neri. He also took up a chaplaincy at San Girolamo della Carita. In the dedication to Philip II in his Missarum libri duo (1583), Victoria expressed a desire to return to Spain and lead a quiet life as a priest. In response, the king named him chaplain to his sister, the Dowager Empress Maria, daughter of Charles V, wife of Maximilian II, and mother of two other emperors, and who, from 1581, lived in retirement with her daughter, Princess Margarita at the Monasterio de las Descalzas de Sainte Clara, in Madrid.

The convent was established in 1564 by Juana de la Cruz, sister of Saint Francisco de Borja, and was liberally endowed by Charles V’s daughter Juana, who married John III of Portugal. The 33 cloistered nuns there heard Mass daily in an elegant small chapel, attended by priests who were required to be accomplished singers of plainchant and polyphony. Victoria served the dowager empress at the convent from 1585 until her death in 1603, with an annual salary of 120 ducats ($7.20). He stayed on, serving the Empress’ daughter and as maestro of the convent choir until 1604.

Life at the convent was pretty good and no cathedral job could tempt him. In 1587, he turned down invitations to Seville and Saragossa. But that doesn’t mean that he lived in ignominy. The elite in Madrid often went to services at the convent, where Victoria’s works were a regular feature.

In 1591, he became godfather to his niece, Isabel de Victoria, his brother’s child.

In 1592, he was granted an extended leave to supervise the printing of hisMissae liber secundis in Rome, which he dedicated to Empress Maria’s son Cardinal Alberto.

In 1593, his motet Surge Debora et loquere canticum was performed by his alma mater, the Collegio Germanico, in his presence during Mass and Vespers at Saint Apollinare to celebrate the defeat of the Turks at Sisak. He joined the cortege at Palastrina’s funeral in 1594 and returned to Madrid in 1595.

In 1598, he engaged a man to produce 200 copies of a collection of polychoral Masses, Magnificat settings, motets and psalms in partbooks, all of which eventually appeared in 1600. The printer was paid 2500 reales (about $188 in today’s money—a reale was a “piece of eight” and worth roughly the equivalent of a Colonial dollar), in three installments, was allowed an additional 100 copies to sell, 12 months after publication. The Masses of this collection were very popular at the time, but are rarely performed today. The nine-part Missa pro Victoria was a favorite work of Philip III, the eight-part Missa Ave regina coelorum and Missa Alma Redemptoris mater were so popular in Mexico City that, by 1640, they had to be recopied by hand because the original part books had worn out.

When Empress Maria died, she bequeathed three chaplaincies to the convent, one of which went to Victoria. Most of his income derived from numerous simple benefices, which had grown, by 1605, to 1227 ducats ($73.62) through the addition of pensions from the dioceses of Cordoba, Segovia, Siguenza, Toledo, and Zamora.

From 1601 until his death, Victoria held the less arduous post of organist at the convent chapel. As a chaplain, he enjoyed a luxurious life, including a personal servant, meals served in his private quarters adjacent to the convent, and a month’s holiday every year. Chaplains were required to participate in the daily singing of two Masses. When Victoria first arrived, the choir had 12 priests (three to a part) and four boys. Instrumentalists were engaged for special celebrations, like Easter and Corpus Christi. In 1604, a royal decree provided for a bassoonist, who was to play in all musical services, and for two clergymen chosen for their excellent voices and to replace three of the foundation’s 12 chaplains. At the same time, the number of choirboys increased to six. They were required to practice daily and to learn plainsong, polyphony and counterpoint from the maestro--Victoria.

Victoria or his agents sent sets of his music to such distant places as Graz, Austria, Urbino, Italy, and Bogota, Columbia. In accompanying letters, he asked for contributions to cover printing costs and in at least one instance, solicited money to secure the release of a younger brother from prison! His strong family ties were especially evident during the last years of his life when two of his brothers and two of his sisters also lived in Madrid. One of the brothers, Agustin, had one of the three chaplaincies of the Descalzas convent.

Victoria wrote 20 Masses, of which 11 are parody Masses on his own motets. He didn’t write any parodies on secular motets, not even the very popular L’Homme arme, like most of his contemporaries. There are 16 Magnificat settings, eight that begin with Anima mea and include only the odd-numbered verses, and eight beginning with Et exultavit and include only the even-numbered verses—the other verses are to be performed in their plainchant form. Six of the 16 Magnificats were in print by 1576 and the rest by 1581.

He wrote 32 hymns in four voices, in which, the opposite of in Palestrina’s works, he leaves the odd-numbered stanzas in plainsong and writes polyphony for the even-numbered ones. Although he didn’t write any madrigals (secular motets), his motets show the influence of them. He also wrote about 50 motets (sacred madrigals), 13 antiphons, eight psalms, and three sequences. (Antiphons, psalms, and sequences are movements of the Ordinary of the Mass—not the Kyrie, Sanctus, etc., which are the Propers of the Mass—that are sung to punctuate various activities during the Mass service, such as before and after the Gospel readings.)

Victoria wrote exclusively Latin sacred music. Most was printed in his lifetime. In 1600, a sumptuous collection of 32 of Victoria’s most popular Masses, Magnificats, psalms, and motets was printed in Madrid.

When Mendelssohn sang Victoria’s St. John’s Passion on Good Friday in 1831, he wrote to his teacher and complained. He really didn’t like the scene where the crowd calls for Christ’s execution, thinking it not energetic enough. This same music has been criticized more recently as being too dramatic.

Like Palestrina, Victoria wrote in a serious, devotional style, often responding emotionally in the texts with dramatic word-painting. Some of his more poignant pieces are characterized by a sort of mystical fervor. Also like Palestrina, Victoria strove to write religious music that truly served the purpose of the liturgy, providing a stimulus to prayer and an accompaniment to ritual while remembering that music was not the most important part of worship. This attitude endured in Rome long after the rest of the Catholic world yielded to the brilliance of Baroque church music in the next century.

His hymns often use soaring contrapuntal lines against a plainsong cantus firmus (where the chant melody is produced by the tenor line in a long drawn-out manner while the other parts flutter around), while the Masses are mostly of the parody type. (For more on parody, see Composer Biography: Bartolomeo da Balogna.)

Victoria was less prolific than Palestrina or Lassus, with a habit of reissuing works that he’d already published. He succeeded in publishing the entirety of his work, unlike Palestrina and most other composers of the period.

Poignancy and mystical fervor weren’t the only hallmarks of Victoria’s work, although they are the predominant ones. He was the master at overlapping and dividing choirs with multiple parts and a gradual lessening of rhythmic distance. Not only does he incorporate the voices in an intricate way, but the organ is treated like a soloist rather than accompaniment or support. King John IV of Portugal (1604-1666) mentioned Victoria’s liberal use of instruments doubling vocal parts, and confirmed that the practice was widespread in Spain.

Victoria claimed that he composed his most creative works under his patron Otto, Cardinal von Truchsess (1514-1573). During his years with King of Spain Philip II (1527-1598), Victoria expressed exhaustion from composing. Most of the works he dedicated to Cardinal Michele Bonelli (1541-1598), Philip II, or Pope Gregory XIII (1502-1585) weren’t properly paid for. All of these may account for his somewhat small output.

Victoria doesn’t use counterpoint, like many of his contemporaries, keeping his lines simple and with homophonic textures (the melody predominantly in one line), but still including rhythmic variety and occasional intense and surprising contrasts. He uses dissonance more freely than Palestrina, sometimes using intervals that are prohibited by the strict application of 16th century counterpoint, such as ascending sixths or diminished fourths. He sometimes uses dramatic word painting, like that usually found in madrigals.

 

 

Copyright Melanie Spiller 2014. Do not copy without permission.
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His use of chromatic harmonies lies in the direction of what later periods called passing modulations (changing from one key or modality to another by using notes common to both) rather than sudden chordal contrasts. Another striking characteristic is his use of repeated notes, which was a quasi-dramatic device used effectively much later, by early 17th century composers, particularly Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), to stress the importance of a word. Victoria’s best-known motet O vos omnes contains many examples of this practice.

His music moves by step more often than leaps, and he uses spaced harmonic euphony that produces a sense of timelessness by only gentle dissonance and the absence of marked rhythm. Joquin dez Pres’ (c1440-1521) Mass Pange lingua used this too, but in Victoria’s work (and Palestrina’s), it’s all-pervading, incantatory—some might say it is the ideal music of mystical faith, totally purged of human emotions and vanity.

There are 20 authenticated Masses by Victoria, all published in his lifetime. Fifteen of these are parodies and four are paraphrases (Ave maris stella, De Beata Maria, Pro defunctis of 1583, and the Mass sections of the Officium defunctorum). He modeled eight Masses on his own motets, but sparsely, rather than treating it as a theme. He also based Masses on his own antiphons and psalms.

His most famous work is the Office of Holy Week (1585), which includes polyphonic settings of all the Proper chant texts from Palm Sunday to Easter. Much of this music displays a mystical passion that has been compared with the writings of St. John of the Cross (1542-1591).

Victoria wrote three Masses based on his own Marian antiphons, Salve Regina, Alma Redemptoris, and Ave Regina, and he wrote the Missa Laetatus sum based on his own psalm.

Three other parody Masses were based on works by Guerrero, Morales, and Palestrina. Probably his most famous Mass, the Missa pro Victoria is one of several Spanish battle Masses based on Frenchman Clement Janequin’s (c1485-1558) motet La guerre (The War). Victoria wrote the piece in 1600, breaking from traditional church music by using an organ as one of the voices.

The remainder of his masses are imitation masses, based on his own motets, including Missa O magnum mysterium’s Kyrie, which is based on his own O magnum mysterium motet. At the opening of the Kyrie, Victoria preserves the paired entrances of the motet but changes them from almost exact imitation into a dialog between two subjects. Compared to Palestrina’s work, Victoria’s Kyrie is remarkably brief. In the other movements of the Mass, Victoria reworks material from his motet in a new way, exemplifying the high value placed on variety that was a consistent feature of polyphonic Mass cycles.

Victoria’s “swan song” as he himself termed it, was a six-voice Officium defunctorum, written for the funeral of the Empress Maria in 1603 and published in Madrid in 1605 with a dedication to Princess Margaret.

Victoria’s Passions were performed in the Sistine Chapel during Holy Week for over 300 years. They’re probably the most known polyphonic settings of the Latin words. (I can hear you screaming “What about Bach’s settings????” You have to remember that Bach was a Lutheran. Things might have relaxed a little nowadays, but back then, it was a very clearly drawn line. Only music written by Catholics were performed in Catholic churches and at the Vatican.)

Victoria is considered the first Spanish composer to master Palestrina’s style of polyphony, but his music departs from it in several respects: Victoria’s tends to be shorter, with fewer florid melodies, more frequent cadences, more chromatic alterations, and more contrasting passages in homophony and triple meter. All of these characteristics are evident in his best known work, the Magnificat, O magnum mysterium.

Despite their perfection, Victoria’s Magnificat settings never found as much favor in Spain or its colonies as did those of Morales or Guerrero. They were, however, quite popular in Italy long after their printed copies were exhausted.

Victoria’s Lamentations are aptly sorrowful, and reveal his Spanish sensibilities. In accordance with both Spanish and Roman traditions, they’re mainly chordal, but Victoria varied the textures and contrasted high and low voices with great ingenuity. The responsories are mainly homophonic (with a single voice carrying the melody and the rest providing supporting chords), but the St. Matthew Passion, for Palm Sunday contains some contrapuntal writing, including canon.

His Holy Week Offices contain the famous Tenebrae Responsories that have heartrending and intense melodies while the text repeats.

Victoria’s posthumous reputation has largely rested on some of his earliest motets, and on the Officium defunctorum, composed on the death of Empress Maria. O vos omnes and Vere languores nostros have a poignancy rarely encountered in other music of the period.

Despite his ability to create a somber mood, his reputation was sunny. Victoria reveals his cheery disposition in the parody Masses that he based on his own motets. There were seven like this: Ascendens Christus, Dum complerentur, O magnum mysterium, O quam gloriosum, Quam pulchri sunt, Trahe me post te, and Vidi speciosam. The Masses are parodies of the motets for Ascension, Pentecost, the Circumcision, All Saints, the Conception, any Lady feast, and the Assumption. Five of these end with joyful Alleluias.

He composed four settings of Salve Regina (two for four voices, one for six voices, and one for eight), and two each of Alma Redemptoris, Ave Regina, and Regina caeli (one on five and one in eight voices for each). Yay! I love the Marian plainchant antiphons the best, and it’s clear that Victoria did too. How different the four settings of the Salve Regina are from each other is also noteworthy because they are all in the same mode, based on the same plainsong. They were popular in their own day and continued to be popular into the 17th century. They were also popular in Italy in his own lifetime.

Like his Magnificats, Victoria’s hymns have been less popular than they deserve to be. He provided polyphony for the even-numbered strophes where Palestrina did the same for the odd ones. Victoria, unlike Guerrero and Palestrina, never used canon. In fact, sometimes, he’d reduce the number of voices from four to three, and then bring the fourth voice back for a full sound at the conclusion.

Victoria didn’t begin the development of psalm settings or antiphons for two choirs, but he certainly furthered its popularity. All of Victoria’s published psalms are polychoral. The Laetatus sum is for three choirs and is also unique in that it begins in triple meter, where other psalms only end with triple. His Liber primus of 1576 contains Nisi Dominus (Psalm 126) and Super flumina Babylonis (Psalm 136), two of his most often-performed works. He set all the verses in polyphony (the fashion of the time was to alternate with plainchant), and to avoid any monotony in these through-composed pieces, he also alternated choirs. In the longer psalms, he included some verses for a single choir of soloists.

When he reprinted his psalms in 1600, he added an organ part that duplicates, and on occasion simplifies, the vocal parts for the first choir. The substitution of the organ for the first choir made it possible for smaller musical establishments to perform it. For larger venues, the organ added an extra bit of flavor.

Victoria died near the convent in the chaplains’ residence in 1611. He was buried at the convent, but his tomb has not been identified.

Sources:

“The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979.

“The Encyclopedia of Music,” by Max Wade Matthews and Wendy Thompson. Lorenz Books, Leicestershire, 2012.

“The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music,” edited by Stanley Sadie. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1994.

“A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. W.W> Norton & Co., New York, 2010.

“The Pelican History of Music, Part 2: Renaissance and Baroque,” edited by Alec Robertson and Denis Stevens. Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1973.

“The Pelican History of Music, Part 1: Ancient Forms to Polyphony,” edited by Denis Stevens and Alec Robertson. Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1960.

“A Dictionary of Early Music, from the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche. Oxford University Press, New York, 1981.

“Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music,” by Don Michael Randel. Belknap Press of Harvard University, Cambridge, 1978.

“The New Grove High Renaissance Masters,” by Jeremy Noble, Gustave Reese, Lewis Lockwood, Jessie Anne Owens, James Haar, Joseph Kerman, and Robert Stevenson. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1984.

“Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton & David Fallows. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1997.

“Music in the Renaissance,” by Gustave Reese. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1959.