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Victoria's Missa O magnum mysterium

Author: Tony Damer

In our Christmas 2019 concert, A Spanish Christmas, we sang Victoria's most celebrated Christmas miniature O Magnum Mysterium (first published in Venice in 1572) alongside his setting of the Mass based on his own motet.

It is a point of debate as to quite how Spanish a composer Victoria really was, having spent over twenty years of his adult life working in the international musical environment which Rome offered at the time, absorbing Roman fashions into his music.


He enjoyed close professional associations with the great Roman composers of the Counter Reformation such as Palestrina, Nanino and Marenzio. In the final analysis, however, his musicianship sprung from the cultural bedrock of Avila cathedral where he received his training, and he returned to Spain for the last twenty four years of his life, as the almost reclusive chaplain and organist to the Dowager Empress Maria (Philip II’s sister) at the Convent of the Descalzas Reales in Madrid, a very comfortable pew to occupy for so many years.


But whilst Victoria the man may have been happy for the world to come to him, his work travelled to every corner of the known world through a highly successful series of publications, seeing almost his entire output published in his lifetime.


Two things are striking about the interrelationship of the two works. Firstly, twenty years elapsed between the publication of the motet and that of the Mass in 1592, in Rome. Secondly, the relationship between the motet and the Mass is not as immediately recognisable as was often the case in Victoria’s other Mass settings. The motet (designated as a motet for the feast of the Circumcision in the 1572 print, but more generally used as a Christmas piece) is justly famous and a miracle of concise expression, conveying at its opening a sense of awe, almost unease as the scene at the crib unfolds with a hint of lowing cattle at “ut animalia”. There follows an ecstatic almost trancelike point at “O Beata”, at the recognition of the Virgin Mary, which then snaps into a joyous triple time alleluia followed by all four voices tumbling over each other to a joyous conclusion, redolent of the shepherd’s breathless arrival on the scene; and all this conveyed in the magical fusion of text and music in a little under three minutes (depending on how breathless your shepherds are!).


Though the Mass was published twenty years later than the motet it is not known when it was actually composed, but it bears the signs of being a more mature work which doesn’t depend on its model for its joyful inventiveness. Of the twenty extant Mass settings by Victoria, this is one of the seven which he based on his own motets. It is surprisingly sparing in its direct use of material from the motet. There is no wholesale quotation; to the naked ear there is only the occasional echo of the original and those are principally in the Kyrie and Agnus Dei – the longer movements are more free composition than parody. Surprisingly he doesn’t once allude to the climactic “O Beata” section of the motet. The Agnus Dei is stated just once in the 1592 publication rather than the customary threefold prayer, but employs a popular trick of the day by adding a further soprano line which sings in strict canon at the unison.

NB: These notes may be re-used as long as appropriate acknowledgement is included in your choir’s programme document 

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