Tomás Luis de Victoria: Composer of the Sacred

Considered one of the greatest composers of the “golden century,” Victoria knew how to unite his exceptional artistic gifts to the deepest and purest Catholic piety. It was during the growing Renaissance neo-paganism.

Newsdesk (July 6, 2021,13:05 PM, Gaudium Press) He was born in Avila around 1548. His parents, Francisco Luis de Victoria and Francisca Suarez de la Concha, named the boy Tomás. He would later add his father’s surnames, as was the custom in ancient Spain.

From an early age, Tomás Luis de Victoria had to face serious difficulties. His father died when he was only nine years old, and the family went through financial problems. Then his uncle, the priest Juan Luis de Victoria, took under his tutelage the ten children of his late brother. He provided a good intellectual and spiritual formation – which Tomas would later complete at the Jesuit school of San Gil in Avila. Some historians hypothesize that Saint Teresa of Jesus (1515-1582) recommended this school to the boy and maintained relations with his family, to which she was also related.[1]

In the cathedral of Avila

“Spanish cathedrals were the main centers of musical life in Spain from the Middle Ages until well into the 19th century.”[2] It was in the cathedral of his city where, in 1557, Tomas began his musical career as a young singer. In fact, his musical talents had already manifested themselves much earlier. That, together with his family’s economic needs, led to his joining the choir, which paid its members.

However, more than just singing, Victoria was fully entering that realm, one might say supernatural and mystical, of polyphonic music. The promoter of this polyphonic music was the great master Cristóbal de Morales (1500-1553). It was also around this time that Tomás learned to play the organ, which he immensely enjoyed and played to perfection until his death.

First pieces

In 1569, Victoria decided to leave the Collegium Germanicum and went looking for independent work – which he found as chapel master and organist in Santa Maria di Monserrato. Here he composed his first work: Motecta, a compilation of 33 motets,[5] most dedicated to the Blessed Virgin. Among them was his famous Ne Timeas, which had an excellent response in Rome and throughout Italy. His productions were so new, so brilliant, that great masters recognized the qualities of that young seminarian, who was only 23 years old.

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In 1571, St. Francis of Borja (1510-1572), the general of the Jesuits, appointed him professor of Gregorian chant at the Collegium Germanicum. Here he was a student only two years before and also at the Roman Seminary.

Ordination and a providential encounter

Finally, after ten years of preliminary studies, Victoria solemnly received the sacrament of Holy Orders. Thus, he fulfilled his greatest desire: to bring God to earth and raise people to heaven. And he could do it to a great extent because, in a way, his melodies were already doing it.

What is certain is that, despite his obligations as a priest, he never diminished his musical activities, which never compromised the practice of sacred functions.

However, in 1578, Tomás’s life would undergo a significant change. Even before he left Spain, Victoria had heard about a Florentine priest named Philip Neri (1515-1595). He was the founder of a religious congregation, the Oratorio, which he got to know at first hand in Rome. Attracted by his surprising vitality, deep piety, and perhaps also by his excellent taste in music, Victoria succeeded in getting a position as chaplain of one of the Oratory houses. He lived there with St. Philip Neri for more than seven years. These “retreat” years were among the most productive of his life, both spiritually and musically, as he published six musical collections, each with more than 20 motets and Masses.

The Officium Hebdomadae Sanctae

It was at the Oratory of St. Philip Neri where Victoria composed his masterpiece: the Officium Hebdomadae Sanctae, undoubtedly the result of deep piety and contemplation. A set of 37 polyphonic pieces written on the new Tridentine text of the Holy Week services, known as the Office of Darkness.

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In this work, Victoria interpreted, in an incomparable way, all aspects of the liturgy of the Holy Week. Especially on Friday of the Passion, he used new methods of composition. For example, in the responsory Amicus Meus – a passage that narrates the betrayal and suicide of Judas – he placed tonic syllables in setbacks. That gives the idea of the terrible confusion that seized Judas and led him to consummate his sins on the gallows.

Every composer, even if implicitly and unintentionally, stamps something of himself in his music. In the Officium Hebdomadae Sanctae, Victoria shines through, full of love, detached from worldly things, mystical indeed. The Passion of Christ is no doubt superior to any brushstroke. Victoria managed to express this supreme mystery like no one else. Anyone who listens to it is led to think that the author sought to console the Redeemer with his melodies.
“To You, God, Supreme Trinity, praise every spirit. To those whom you save through the mystery of the Cross, be the guide through the centuries,”[6] were the only words he dared to write of dedication.

The “swan song”

In 1605 he published his Officium Defunctorum, a Requiem Mass dedicated posthumously to the deceased Empress Maria. In it, he communicates not only the seriousness of death and its sorrows but also the reward that has been promised to the faithful in heaven.

Curiously, he defined this composition as his “swan song,” a prediction that he fulfilled, for it was indeed his last work. Finally, on August 27, 1611, at the age of 63, Tomás Luis of Victoria surrendered his soul to the One whose glories and pains he had sung so well during his lifetime.

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Unlike most of his contemporaries, Victoria has the merit of having written exclusively for the Church. Not a single composition in his work is not sacred music, which is not the case, for example, with Palestrina. In contrast to other composers, Victoria did not write much, although he put music to nearly the entire liturgy.

Great and glorious is the legacy that Tomás Luis de Victoria left in the Church. But greater still was the fact that he was a faithful son of the Church, a consoler and interpreter of the Hearts of Jesus and Mary.

By André Luiz Kleina

Compiled by Ena Alfaro

1] ANDREU, Ana Maria Sabe, Tomás Luis de Victoria, pasión por la música. Ávila: Institución Gran Duque de Alba, 2008, p. 31-40.

Saint Teresa mentions in the Foundations a priest who had helped her in Valladolid named Augustín de Victoria. This was the older brother of Tomás Luis de Victoria, who was later chaplain with him at the convent of the Descalzas Reales in Madrid.

2] ANDREU, Ana Maria Sabe. op. cit. p. 41.

3] ANDREU, Ana Maria Sabe. op. cit. p. 70.

4] Chapel Music is a group of musicians, generally paid, who perform in the sacred places under the direction of a conductor or Chapel Master.

5] In current terminology, Motete (or Motet) means a polyphonic religious composition.

6] ANDREU, Ana Maria Sabe, op. cit. p. 218.

7] Cf. STEVENSON, Robert. La música en las catedrales españolas del Siglo de Oro. Trad. Maria Dolores Cebrián. Madrid: Alianza, 1993, p.422.

8] (1528-1599) Spanish musician. He was a pupil of Cristóbal de Morales and one of the greatest composers of the 16th century.

9] Empress Maria d’Austria (1528-1603). Daughter of Charles V and wife of Maximilian II of Germany

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