For centuries now a great deal of music has been dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and for obvious reasons. From medieval times to our era, maestros have composed and go on composing countless liturgical compositions (motets, masses, antiphonies…). How many of our Holy Communions and other votive offerings do not round off with us singing the Hail Mary?
In addition to the specific liturgy in itself, the Liturgy of the Hours is full of prayers and recitations to the Virgin. The hour of Vespers almost always closes with the singing of the Magnificat, while that of Complines features one of the four so-called Marian antiphons. More precisely, these are Alma Redemptoris Mater (from the first Sunday in Advent to Candlemas), Ave Regina Coelorum (from Candlemas to Holy Wednesday), Regina Coeli (from Easter Sunday to Pentecost) and Salve Regina (from Pentecost to the first Sunday in Advent). Our music today is going to be an example of the first of these, since once again we recover here the path of Advent, full of hope.
In the History (with capital letters, why not?) of polyphony, it is safe to say that there were four composers who brought it to its highest peaks: the Franco-Flemish Josquin Desprez, and, one generation later, the three great men who were also contemporaries: Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (Italian), Orlande de Lassus (Belgian, though originally Franco-Flemish) and our maestro for today, Tomás Luis de Victoria.
It is clear that the Company of Jesus accompanied and shaped Victoria throughout his life. He was born in Avila, most probably in 1548. We also know with reasonable certainty that in the same city in 1554 he went to study in the boys’ college of San Gil, which the Jesuits opened that same year. The distinguished organist Antonio de Cabezón played many times in the capital of Avila, so it is very possible that Victoria, by listening to the great maestro, started to study organ technique, to which he dedicated himself to the end of his days. Around 1558 he went to join the cathedral choir as choirboy, a position in which he remained until he was nineteen.
With that, an important moment arrived, given that Victoria had already realised that he wanted to become a priest and could not find a better way of preparing for this than by going to Rome; it was there that he was also able to hone his technique as a composer. He entered the Collegium Germanicum, which was run by the Jesuits and it appears that he did so at the same time as Palestrina’s two sons, who were also studying in the institution. He would later go on to become singing master for the college and, in 1572 he replaced Palestrina as chapel master for the Roman Seminary. His works began to be published and he was already considered a great maestro when his mission was accomplished with his becoming priest in 1575.
A letter from his fellow polyphonic composer Francisco Guerrero shows us, however, that Victoria was seeking a position in Spain, given that he had already completed his stage in Rome. Philip II awarded him the chaplaincy for the Empress Mary of Austria, a position he undertook in 1587. He turned down offers to become chapel master of other more distinguished churches and remained in the Descalzas Reales Convent, where the Empress had withdrawn. The convent had been founded by Joanna of Austria, Philip II’s sister, who was the only woman who had been able to enter the Company (she did so under the pseudonym of Mateo Sánchez, to the knowledge of Saint Ignatius). Once the Empress had died, Victoria ended his days as church organist. Paradoxically none of his compositions for this instrument have survived. He died in Madrid in 1611.
It is no wonder, therefore, that Ignatian mysticism and spirituality were always present for Victoria when he devoted himself to composing music.
One of such pieces is the antiphony Alma Redemptoris Mater. It was published in 1572 in Venice in the first volume of his works, which already established his reputation. It was dedicated to Otto von Truchsess von Waldburg, patron of the Collegium Germanicum. Clearly this antiphony was very important for Victoria and for the liturgy that surrounded him, given that he managed to compose two versions of it.
It was written for five voices and the maestro (as he was used to doing and could do no less) always paid great attention to inflections in the text so that words and music formed a perfect whole. Right from the beginning Victoria’s polyphony sounds with his characteristic patterns, as this piece is a very typical composition of his, with his familiar lustre and his constant underlying joy. With only five voices, we observe how Victoria takes the Palestrina style and shapes it to his own special tone. King John IV of Portugal knew Victoria’s work like no-one else and he said that it leaned more to joy than to sadness, with a music that always tended to shine. Thome, as he called himself when he referred to himself in writing, was friendly, earthy, always cheerful and optimistic. Chronicles describe him as someone who tended to go around telling jokes and this is something we can appreciate in his music, full of zeal, wisdom, optimism and a joy that is even palpable in his works for Holy Week.
We feel it in this antiphony, in which the polyphony flows, with moments of imitation but which Victoria intercepts in order to pay heed to the words stella maris and, later in the second part, Virgo prius. In those moments blocks of chords lend more solemnity to the composition. As one critic said of him, Victoria is “an imposing genius whose work barely even registers in the radar of normal musical life.” Victoria, scholar, mystic, priest, singer, organist and composer, never abandoned his Iberian roots, up through which some rich textures come to blossom, in a perfect sense of line and a wisdom we can savour in each and every one of his notes.