The Marian Music of Tomás Luis de Victoria Part 15: Missa De Beata Maria Virgine

Morales Madonna and Child 02-In this, the final posting in my series of fifteen exploring de Victoria’s Marian music I deal with his setting of the Mass ‘Missa De Beata Maria Virgine’. Victoria’s ‘Missa De Beata Maria Virgine’ (Mass of the Blessed Virgin Mary) was first published by Angelo Gardano in Venice in 1576 and then again by his brother Alessandro in Rome in 1583. It’s one of Victoria’s paraphrase Masses (a paraphrase Mass is a Mass based on plainsong). In this case the plainsong(s) in question is the twelfth-century Gregorian plainsong Mass IX, ‘Cum iubilo’ – which was the Mass designated for Feasts of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and Credo I. Obviously enough Victoria builds upon plainsong throughout the Mass but what’s unusual about this Mass is how he did it. Which is is that he based the separate movements of the Mass on different plainsong melodies, and sometimes on different modes. When a composer sets a Mass in this way the result is what’s called a ‘non-cyclic’ Mass.

These ‘non-cyclic’ Masses were difficult to compose and Victoria only ever composed two of them – the Missa pro defunctis (Requiem)  and this one the Missa De Beata Maria Virgine. I said that such Masses are difficult but perhaps a better word for these Masses is that they’re intricate. The fact that he was using different melodies and modes meant that de Victoria had to keep track of an awful lot of musical information. He had make tonal changes as well as changes to the written pitch and clefs. The pitch and tessitura were of course influenced by the plainsong cantus firmus which means that the factors that Victoria would have had to take into account while he was composing were:

1. The Mode.
2. The Ambitus (in Gregorian chant the ambitus is the range of a voice, instrument or piece).
3. The Final (the concluding scale degree of the melody in a Mode, the Tonic).
How Victoria solved this problem was to leave the cantus firmus untransposed and to write his original composition around the cantus firmus at whatever pitch he thought necessary and notating it in the most convenient clef the results of this process are as follows:

1. The Kyrie is in mode 1, which Victoria transposed up a fourth so that its final (or Tonic) is on G.
2. The Gloria is in mode 7, with its final on G.
3. The Credo is mode 4, its final is on E.
4. The Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei are all in mode 5, their finals are on F.

If all of this sounds like a lot of work – it was, but the alternative would have been a Mass which could not actually have been sung with musical forces that Victoria had available to him. The question now arises of why did Victoria do it? Why use different plainsong melodies and different modes in the first place? Surely Victoria could have taken some other piece of music and parodied it? Well, no he couldn’t. De Victoria was absolutely obedient to the dictates of the Church, as part of the Catholic musical establishment he was part of the post-Council of Trent counter-reformation and the post-Council of Trent Church disapproved strongly of using secular melodies as the basis of settings of the Mass. So what Victoria had available was … chant, plainsong and being the master that he was he rose magnificently to the challenge. The result is a deceptively simple sounding piece of music that’s full of warmth, energy, and contrasts while being simultaneously calmly contemplative. It’s a piece that repays repeated listening as Victoria weaves his soaringly beautiful polyphonic magic around a set of diverse cores. Enjoy :-).


Score Available from here

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