Of all the great late Renaissance Spanish composers Victoria was, to my mind, the greatest. His music is perfectly suited to its purpose which was not only to adorn the Liturgy AMDG but also to express the Catholicism of the Counter-reformation as defined by the Council of Trent. He wasn’t a particularly prolific composer only twenty Masses have survived fifteen of which are parodies (‘parodies’ in the context means Masses based on a pre-existing work), one is freely composed, and four are ‘paraphrase’ Masses – they’re based on plainchant.
As you might suspect from its name Missa Ave Maris Stella is one of the fifteen parody Masses it’s based directly on the Marian plainsong Hymn ‘Ave maris stella’. It’s a truly lovely work that de Victoria first published in 1576 and then reprinted it (along with the Missa O quam gloriosum in 1583). It’s for four parts (SATB) and is in transposed Dorian mode – which equates to G Minor, and it is this use of the minor key that accounts for it sometimes being described as ‘soulful’. I’m not sure that I’d use the word ‘soulful’ to describe this Mass while its true that it expresses deep feeling there’s no sorrowfulness here. Victoria’s intent when he was composing it was to express the idea in music of our lifting up our eyes to the heavens and fixing our gaze upon a star, the ‘Star of the Sea’ that is one of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s titles.
He does this by taking the melodic beginning of the chant (rising a fifth (D – A) and proceeding upwards from there through B-flat) which is quite a striking variation on what one would normally expect from a piece in the Dorian mode and compels the sound and our musical gaze ever upwards until it rests upon the ‘Stella Maris’. You’ll hear this rising theme throughout the Mass – it’s de Victoria’s way of highlighting the basis of his Mass. Victoria’s paraphrasis of what is a very memorable chant in all voices at first glance makes it a typical late late Renaissance imitative composition but as you listen and examine it more closely you can see that de Victoria is also making use of a far older technique than imitation – cantus firmus. During the paraphrase you can hear the melody appearing from time to time in longer notes. The effect of this is to allow phrases from the chant to bring themselves to our attention by stepping out in front of the other voices. Doing this meant that de Victoria could weave a more varied and interesting musical tapestry that would normally be found in a parody Mass and it is this touch of genius combined it the artful and alluring melodic twists and turns that make this Mass such an intense pleasure to listen to.
Video and description source: Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548 1611): Missa Ave Maris Stella – YouTube Published on 22 Sep 2013 by markfromireland