O Magnum Mysterium (Tomás Luis da Victoria)

Aurelio Porfiri

The Renaissance was one of the most glorious eras of sacred music, when vocal art reached extraordinary heights, heights that will hardly be surpassed. In this era, the art of Palestrina shines very high as the model of sacred polyphony. Other composers too show their enormous talent often serving the Church and also the courts. Let’s not forget that alongside the extraordinary production of the liturgy there was also a great flowering of secular music, which was embodied especially in the madrigal, a form that saw its highest results precisely in this period.

But sacred music was the main area of focus for the composers of the time. We cannot fail to include the Spanish priest Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611) among the great ones, who is still today among the best known names and among the most performed composers. In fact, of the three identified as the top of the Roman school, namely Palestrina, Orlando di Lasso and Victoria, the latter is identified as the most mystical. This writer was told in the past that Lasso wrote music for the courts, Palestrina for the papal court and Victoria for God, a synthesis that is certainly imprecise that wants to account for complexity in a slightly superficial way. What is certainly true is that there exists in the music of the Spanish composer, who in fact devoted himself completely to sacred music, an intense and profoundly spiritual quality, a “Spanish” mysticism, in the sense of the great saints of that era who are a fundamental element of Catholic mysticism, like John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. According to a certain tradition, Victoria would have been in contact with the latter but this is denied by what we read in an article by the musician and Carmelite Antonio Bernaldo de Quirós Álvarez who among other things says: “It is already proven that Santa Teresa and Tomás Luis de Victoria did not have a direct contact. Due to the difference in age and time of their birth. Teresa was born in 1515 and Victoria in 1548. She, therefore, was thirty-three years older than Victoria. (Maybe Victoria and Teresa’s father could have been from the same band of friends, since they were of the same age, more or less, co-parishioners of San Juan, and didn’t live far away).” But, even if there was no direct encounter, it can be considered that the deep mysticism of the great Teresa, like the other great Spanish saints and the renewed spirituality of the Catholic Counter-Reformation, had certainly penetrated into the heart of the Spanish musician, making him one of the most great composers of the Renaissance era.

Among the most famous pieces by our author is O magnum mysterium, for four mixed voices. This motet is undoubtedly one of the most extraordinary examples of those qualities we discussed above, with the extraordinary mysticism and spiritual intensity that is tangibly perceived in Victoria’s music, that you can almost touch it. With his extraordinary compositional ability he makes us live in a supernatural world, a world in which faith is not simply relegated to private devotion but becomes intense, passionate love but in a sublime way. In the dedication of his motets’ collection Cantica Beatae Virginis to Cardinal Michele Bonello, Victoria said: “If someone seeks utility, nothing is more useful than music, which by gently penetrating hearts through the message of the ears, seems to benefit not only the soul but also the body.” In fact, this idea of music spans many centuries and is then enhanced by modern music therapy. Unfortunately this aspect is not understood in our times. Our generation does not understand that music can have beneficial effects on the body as well as evil effects, if we continue to promote styles and genres that are not suited to the dignity of divine worship. This will have far reaching consequences.

The text of the motet O magnum mysterium is taken from one of the responsories for Christmas Matins but also used for the feast of the Circumcision of the Lord: “O magnum mysterium et admirabile sacramentum ut animalia viderent Dominum natum iacentem in praesepio. O beata virgo cuius viscera meruerunt portare Dominum Jesum Christum. Alleluia” (O great mystery and wonderful sacrament, that the animals see the newborn Lord lying in the manger. O Blessed Virgin, whose womb deserved to bear the Lord Jesus Christ. Alleluia). The text of this responsory introduces us with great effectiveness into the mystery of Christmas, and into the same category of “mystery.” Father Tarcisio Stramare a theologian who recently succumbed to Covid-19, speaks to us about the relationship between mystery and liturgy: “Beyond the clarification of the meaning of the term ‘mystery,’” what is important is the identification of the individual mysteries and the reference to their respective “facts” which contain them. Here, the discourse shifts to the Liturgy, which is its “implementation” and, therefore, for us the “detector” to identify the mystery itself and to trace the “fact” that lies at its origin. In the same way the reading of the Old Testament must be done in the light of the New, that is, of Christ, so the reading of the New Testament must be done in the light of the Liturgy, in which and through which Christ continues his presence and his work. This close relationship presupposes and demands a corresponding “methodology, certainly practiced in the life of the Church, but not as well felt.” We should not forget what the Benedictine Odo Casel says in his Das cristliche Kultmysterium (1959) in which, among other things, he states: “Mystery is above all God in himself, God as the one who is infinitely distant, the holy and inaccessible, to whom no man can approach without dying, in comparison to which everything is impure, as the Prophet says: ‘I am a man with impure lips and I live among a people with impure lips; yet I saw the King, the Lord of hosts, with my own eyes.’ And this most holy Being reveals his mystery, he lowers himself to his creature and manifests himself to him, but still ‘in the mystery,’ that is, in a revelation full of grace made to the souls chosen by him, humble, pure of heart, not to the foolish and presumptuous. Thus Revelation too remains a mystery, because it is not manifested to the profane world but hides itself from it to reveal itself only to the believer, to the elect.”

The motet we are talking about is included by Victoria in one of his collections printed in Venice in 1572: Thomae Ludovici de Victoria. Abvlensis. Motecta. Que partim, quaternis, partim, quinis, alia, senis, alia, octonis vocibus concinuntur. The collection is printed by Gardani. In the dedicatory Victoria among other things says: “But, since nothing can ever disappoint or deceive those who act honestly, it would be really necessary for me, whose purpose was no different from the glory of God and the common benefit of humanity, to deeply hope to achieve approval to achieve all my goals, whatever they are.” It is very interesting that the author correctly identifies what are the purposes of a liturgical composer, the glory of God and the benefit of humanity, that is, the sanctification of the faithful.

The scholar Bernhard Meier in his The modes of classical vocal polyphony categorizes O magnum mysterium in the second mode transported to the fourth higher, with frequent cadences in G and D. Already from the exposition we are pervaded by that deeply spiritual atmosphere, which goes from voice to voice … I was always struck by the relationship between static and dynamic in this piece. Sometimes here polyphony gives space to homorhythm in a way that seems to me very different from other motets by the same author or from the same period. It almost seems that mystical contemplation at times almost wants to perpetuate itself in the stillness of voices. In fact, polyphony seems to bring a certain humanity as in the words iacentem in praesepio, in which the spiritual outpouring becomes intense, but with a heat that burns like an inner fire and that is sublimated into a faith that burns inside. O beata Virgo is rhetorically declaimed in homorhythm, just as we observe a use of rhetoric in the first part of the Alleluia, in ternary rhythm. The ternary rhythm is associated with dance, but here we must be careful, because some try to emphasize this aspect of the dance as if it were a profane party, but the dance we are talking about here is a sacred dance, a spiritual dance that is not looking for the frenzy of the body but the lightness of the spirit.

With this motet we have a splendid meditation on the mystery of the Incarnation, a meditation that must be done on our knees and with our hands joined.

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