(Avila, 1548 - Madrid, 1611)

from James Mitchner: "Iberia"

I did not come to Avila, which I remember as a uniformly evocative town, to recall Santa Teresa; I came to pay homage to one of the finest artists Spain has produced, the equal in his field to Cervantes in the novel or Velázquez in painting. I had found him for myself in one of the tardiest discoveries on record. When I was a student the music of Palestrina struck me with force; it was exactly what I had been looking for and I have never since tired of listening to The Mass of Pope Marcellus, which must be one of the finest pieces of choral music. But once in Germany when I bought a Polydor record of some Palestrina music, I found that the second side had been filled out with a short composition by another Italian composer, Tommaso Lodovico da Vittoria, of whom I had not heard. It was an "Ave Maria" of such exquisite construction that I found myself playing it eight times for every once that I played Palestrina. Of all the musical settings for this prayer, and I am not forgetting Bach and Schubert, I found Vittoria's the finest, and when I looked about for other compositions by this minor Italian, I found other pieces which seemed to me about as good as choral music could be, and I began to wonder why Palestrina was so well known and his countryman so little.

I am ashamed to say that ten or fifteen years passed before I discovered that my Tommaso Lodovico da Vittoria was not an Italian at all but a Spaniard from Avila named Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611), who customarily added Abulensis (of Avila) to his name, and that he had written a dozen great works which stand with the best of his age, or of any age for that matter. In time I acquired recordings of his Officium Defunctorum (Mass for the Dead, 1603), which critics usually select as his masterpiece, his motets and especially his Responsories for Tenebrae (1585), those deeply moving evening prayers. The Officium Defunctorum has additional interest for anyone who has visited Avila; Victoria wrote it for the funeral of the Empress María, daughter of Carlos V and sister of Felipe II, and its first performance occurred in the convent where Victoria served as a chaplain, that of the Descalzas Reales, first of the Teresan convents in Madrid.

As Victoria becomes better known, the grandeur of his production is increasingly recognized. He was the equal of Palestrina in all except homophony, and this he seems to have avoided consciously. The richness of his construction and the dramatic manner in which he interweaves as many as six threads of sound, uniting them occasionally in majestic chords, form one of the joys of sixteenth-century music and I would suppose that for many who know music generally, the discovery of Victoria will be one of the few remaining delights. There could be no better approach than a recording of his majestic Christmas responsory "O Magnum Mysterium" (O Great Mastery, 1572), which is divided into three contrasting parts: the animals observe Christ lying in their manger; people voice their astonishment at a virgin birth; and all explode into one of the finest hallelujahs ever written. Because of its variety and power, the "Mysterium" is a favorite of professional singers and numerous good recordings exist.

As I walked through the narrow streets of Avila, listening to the voices of Victoria's choirs as they sang the music I had come to know so well, I reflected on the curious fate that had overtaken Spanish music. Victoria died in 1611, on August 27, a day held in reverence by mystics throughout the world as the anniversary of Santa Teresa's vision of being struck in the heart by a lance of fire held by an angel. He left Spanish music the equal of any being composed in Europe; each basic building lock required for future construction had been fashioned and there was no structural reason why Spanish music should not have matured as did Italian and German and every reason why it should have surpassed French and English, but in the decades that followed, it retreated slowly, step by step from its capable beginnings until it foundered in trivia.

updated 18.05.2008