Composer and organist Tomás Luis de Victoria was born in the walled city of Ávila, birthplace of the influential Spanish mystic Teresa of Ávila (1515-1582). Like many of his contemporaries, Victoria ventured to Rome at an early age to learn his art. It has been speculated that he received some training from the great Italian master Palestrina; Victoria was certainly one of the few composers in Rome able to master the subtleties of Palestrina's style. In 1575, he was ordained into the priesthood, but he continued to compose throughout his life, holding a variety of posts in Italy and, from 1587 until his death, his native Spain. Victoria's many masses, motets, and other religious compositions brought him a great deal of fame, no doubt enhanced by his ability to publish most of his works: all but one of the eight volumes of his collected works consist entirely of music published during his lifetime.
Although many of his works are imbued with Spanish mysticism and a deeply-felt spirituality, Victoria more often favored music of a joyful nature. Such is the case with his lively Quem vidistis, pastores?, rich with imitation and lush suspensions. Victoria makes the most of the six parts, playing the upper three voices against the lower three to great antiphonal effect. Dividing the work into two contrasting parts (prima and secunda pars) was a common practice in Renaissance motet-writing. Here, Victoria links the two sections with a refrain on the last two lines of text. While the musical material is identical in both, he adds interest by re-voicing the melodic lines.
The justly famous motet O magnum mysterium uses a sublime text from the Christmas Vespers. Victoria's use of a serenely interweaving polyphony at the opening bars leads to a hushed chordal declamation at the words "O beata Virgo." An extended "Alleluia" section, first in triple meter, then in duple, concludes the motet.
O magnum mysterium,
O great mystery,
et admirabile sacramentum,
and wonderful sacrament,
ut animalia viderent Dominum natum,
that beasts should see the newborn Lord,
iacentem in praesepio.
lying in a manger.
O beata Virgo, cuius viscera meruerunt
O Blessed Virgin, in whose unblemished womb
portare Dominum Iesum Christum. Alleluia.
was carried the Lord Jesus Christ. Alleluia!