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Text Setting in Victoria’s "O magnum mysterium" and "Missa O magnum mysterium"

Updated: Jun 27

Note: this article is adapted from a research paper I wrote while in a doctoral seminar led by Dr. Patrick Macey at the Eastman School of Music.



Tomás Luis de Victoria is widely regarded as one of the foremost composers of church music in the sixteenth century, and is most famous “for the intensity of some of his motets and of his Offices for the Dead and for Holy Week.”1 Victoria was a devout Catholic, and, as he stated in the dedications of his works published during his lifetime, he considered it his responsibility to use his God-given talent for the glory of God by developing his skills as a composer and writing music for the church.2 The care and attention to detail with which Victoria worked may be illustrated in his setting of the texts for one of his most celebrated works,3 the motet O magnum mysterium, and the Missa O magnum mysterium, a parody mass of his earlier motet. His setting of each text contains multiple devices to help illustrate meaning specific to that text. Furthermore, relationships between text and motive in the motet and mass may provide perspective on Victoria’s interpretation of the Mass text.


Victoria was born in Avila, Spain, in 1548. His formal musical training began when he was a choirboy at the Avila Cathedral, “under the maestros de capilla Gerónimo de Espinar (1550–58) and Bernardino de Ribera (1559–63).”4 After his voice broke in 1563 or 1565, Victoria moved to Rome and enrolled as a singer at the Collegio Germanico, a Jesuit school founded in 1552. During his years at the Collegio Germanico, he gained fluency in Latin, and possibly studied with Palestrina, “maestro di cappella of the nearby Seminario Romano.”5 From 1569 to 1576 Victoria worked in various positions, among them as organist at Santa Maria di Monserrato, and music teacher and later maestro di cappella of the Collegio Germanico. In 1572, he published his first book of motets (including O magnum mysterium), and in 1575 he was ordained as a deacon and later as a priest in the Catholic Church.

From 1578 to 1585, Victoria was a chaplain at Santa Girolamo della Carità, and published five volumes, “one each of hymns, Magnificat settings and masses, an Office for Holy Week and an anthology of motets; the last-named contained two motets by Francisco Guerrero, who was a personal friend, and one by Francesco Soriano.”6 He remained in Rome until the mid-1580s, when he returned to Spain as chaplain to María, sister of King Phillip II, at the Monasterio de las Descalzas de Santa Clara, a convent in Madrid. In 1592, Victoria returned to Rome to oversee the printing of his second book of masses (including the Missa O magnum mysterium), and did not return to his duties at the Monasterio de las Descalzas de Santa Clara until 1595. In 1600, he published an anthology of Magnificat settings, motets, polychoral masses and psalms, including the Missa pro victoria, the Missa ‘Ave regina coelorum,’ and the Missa ‘Alma Redemptoris mater.’ Victoria served as a chaplain and organist at the Monasteria de las Descalzas de Santa Clara until his death in 1611.7


According to Thomas Rive, of Victoria’s twenty masses, fourteen may be classified as parody masses. Rive classifies six of Victoria’s parody masses in the Dorian mode: Ascendens Christus, Dum complerentur, Gaudeamus, O magnum mysterium, Salve and Surge propera; he classifies five of Victoria’s parody masses in the Ionian mode: Alma Redemptoris, Ave Regina, Laetatus, pro Victoria, and Quam pulchri sunt; and classifies three as Mixolydian mode masses: O quam gloriosum, Simile est regnum, and Vidi speciosam.8 Though his masses may be classified by mode, Victoria’s harmonic language often seems more tonal than modal. His frequent use of chromatic alterations in his later parody masses make “the Dorian mode sound increasingly like a minor key and the Ionian more and more like a major key.”9 However, according to Rive, the harmonic language of the Missa O magnum mysterium proves atypical: “with the Dorian mode masses, we find that with the exception of O magnum mysterium, the great majority of alterations made in the masses to material derived from their models tend in the direction of clear definition of minor tonality as distinct from Dorian mode procedure.”10

According to Robert Stevenson, “A prominent stylistic trait in masses from all periods of Victoria’s career, and in other works, too, is the kind of tonal fluctuation represented by melodic progressions such as F–G–F#, F#–G–F♮ and E–F–E[-flat], which are not found in, for example, the works of Palestrina or Guerrero.”11 Modal ambiguity and tonal fluctuation, especially as manifested in alternation between major and minor thirds and cross relations, are a key part of Victoria’s colorful harmonic language, and are frequently utilized for purposes of text setting in both Victoria’s O magnum mysterium and also his Missa O magnum mysterium.


According to David Music, the text of O magnum mysterium “seem[s] tailor-made for expressive musical setting:”12

O magnum mysterium,

et admirabile sacramentum,

ut animalia viderunt Dominum natum,

jacentem in praesepio:

Beata Virgo,

cujus viscera meruerunt portare

Dominum Christum.


O great mystery,

and wonderful sacrament,

that animals might see the Lord’s birth,

lying in the manger:

Blessed Virgin,

Whose flesh was worthy to carry

the Lord Christ.


Victoria’s setting was intended for the Feast of the Circumcision, on January 1. It is in the G Dorian mode, and is set in duple meter, with a section of triple meter at the beginning of the “Alleluia.”

The opening of the motet creates an affect of mystery appropriately illustrative of the text, and features paired imitation of soprano and alto, tenor and bass. The very first entry of the motet belongs to the soprano, singing “O magnum” alone. The text is set to long note values descending and ascending by a leap of a fifth, creating a sense of vastness, and the lack of any third in the melody creates a sense of mystery via modal ambiguity. The text “mysterium” is set to ascending and descending motion by semitone; the semitone motion describes an affect of mystery, and mirrors the motion of the opening descending and ascending leap. The alto enters on “O magnum” in the second half of m. 2, imitating the motive first given by the soprano, so that its descending leap occurs simultaneously with the soprano’s mirroring stepwise motion on “mysterium.” The resulting interval is a minor tenth, creating a sense of vastness, serving its musical and accompanying textual function as a modifier of the word “mysterium.” Similar musical events unfold in mm. 10-11 with the entrance of the bass, but with four voices, so that the interval between soprano and bass resulting from the bass’ descent by fifth is a full two octaves, once again illustrating the vastness of the mystery described by the concurrent semitone motion in the soprano and tenor voices.

As David Music observes, “Perhaps the most interesting aspect of [this work] is the way in which [Victoria] sought to express the opening words of the text, …illustrating the “great mystery” of the Incarnation through the use of modal ambiguity.”13 For example, D minor is suggested from mm. 1-9, but in mm. 10, with the entrance of the bass, F is changed to F-sharp in the soprano, creating a D-major sonority. The juxtaposition comes as a surprise, creating a sense of harmonic uncertainty.14 In m. 12, the harmony moves again to D minor, and oscillation between F-sharp and F-natural continues, as in m. 13 of the soprano part.15 The almost eight-measure wait for the entrance of the tenor and bass, along with the cadence to D minor and sudden shift to D major in mm. 8-10 “are master strokes that aptly depict the mystical nature of the text.”16

In m. 39, a rest precedes the text in m. 40, “O beata Virgo.” This “dramatic pause”17 establishes a sense of reverence in preparation for the subsequent text referencing the “Blessed Virgin.” In mm. 40-42, the long note values, homophony, and lack of melodic motion add to the sense of awe and respect for Mary. Mm. 40-42 take mm. 10-12 as a point of imitation: in the bass, the motive from mm. 10-11 (which is also the opening motive in the soprano and alto parts in mm. 1-3) returns at its original pitch level; the soprano repeats its melodic material from mm. 10-12; the tenor repeats its motion from A to B-flat and back again; and the alto sustains D, as in mm. 10-11.18 This reference to the opening motivic material and its association with the text “O magnum mysterium” conveys a sense of mystery appropriate to the text referencing the virgin birth.

In his 1995 Ph.D. dissertation The Parody Masses of Tomás Luis de Victoria, Patrick Brill identifies various “themes” (motives) in O magnum mysterium (see Table 1 in the Appendix). Motives a and a2 (a1 will not be referenced) share descending fifth motion followed by semitone motion. Motives b, b1, b2, and b3 share a descending leap by third, followed by ascending stepwise motion; motive b3 is in triple time. Motive c is defined by ascending stepwise motion outlining a fourth, followed by descending stepwise motion.19 These motives will be referenced during the subsequent discussion of text setting in the Missa O magnum mysterium.20


Table 2 illustrates motive distribution throughout the movements of the Missa O magnum mysterium. The three most prominently used motives in the mass are the c motive, with appearances in eleven lines of text, the b motive, with eight appearances, and the a and a2 motives, with seven appearances each; five appearances of b1, one each of b2 and b3 are also present. Of particular note, motive a, from the text “O magnum mysterium,” appears at several important points during the Mass: at the beginning of the Kyrie and Sanctus movements, at “Et incarnatus est” and “Et in Spiritum Sanctum” in the Credo, and at “miserere nobis” and “dona nobis pacem” in the Agnus Dei. An inversion of the b motive may open the Gloria,21 while b1 opens the Credo. The c motive appears in the Christe, appears both in the middle of and also at or near the end of the Gloria and Credo movements, and also appears at the beginning and midpoint of the Agnus Dei.


In the following discussion, two aspects of text setting will be explored in the Missa O magnum mysterium: text setting of material borrowed from the motet O magnum mysterium, and text setting of non-borrowed material. Text setting of borrowed material in each movement will be discussed first. In these discussions, the goal is not to list every instance of borrowed motivic material,22 but simply to highlight motivic borrowing that seems interesting in light of its implications for text setting, specifically. A discussion of text setting of non-borrowed material will follow for the Gloria, Sanctus and Credo movements.


While not all instances of borrowed motivic material in the Missa O magnum mysterium may be shown to connect related texts or topics between the motet and the mass, several examples may illustrate that Victoria may have considered such allusions when choosing motivic material for his setting of the mass. The Kyrie I of the Missa O magnum mysterium is set using the a motive. In this context, the semitone motion inherent to the a motive serves to create an affect of pleading appropriate to the text of the Kyrie. This affect is further supported by the use of syncopation, as in the soprano on the second beat of m. 6, and in its “Kyrie” statement in m. 7. Here, as in the opening of the motet, Victoria displays modal ambiguity via cross relations: in mm. 1-4, only F-natural is sounded, but in m. 5 of the soprano, an F-sharp appears, followed by an F-natural in m. 6; in m. 6, the alto sings C-natural, but in m. 7, sings C-sharp; in m. 8, the tenor sings F-natural, but in mm. 9-10 sings F-sharp.

The Christe is set using the c motive, from the motet text “portare Dominum.” The c motive, with its stepwise ascending motion, is less austere and severe than the a motive used for the Kyrie, and is appropriate for a plea addressed to Christ, the human connection to God. The use of the c motive is also appropriate for its association with text about Christ in the motet. Once again, cross relations are prominent: in m. 15, the tenor sings a C-natural in beat 1, followed by a C-sharp in beat 4; in mm. 16-17, the alto first sings an F-sharp, then sings an F-natural, while the soprano sings a B-natural in m. 16 and the alto and bass sing B-flat in m. 17; in m. 17, the alto sings E-natural, but in m. 18 sings an E-flat.

The Kyrie II is set using an inversion of the a motive, along with the b2 motive. It is interesting to note that the tenor part of the Kyrie II in m. 21 seems to adopt an element of the tenor from the Christe in mm. 14-15, singing ascending, stepwise eighth-notes outlining a perfect fifth on the same pitches. Here, as in the Kyrie I, cross relations add to the sense of mystery and to the plaintive affect expressed by the text: in m. 22, the soprano sings F-natural and F-sharp; in m. 26, the tenor sings F-natural and F-sharp, followed by F-natural in m. 27; in m. 27, the soprano first sings B-flat, then B-natural, then returns to B-flat in m. 28, and the alto sings E-natural in m. 27, but E-flat in m. 28. As identified by Julia Thorn, it is interesting to note that mm. 21-30 in the soprano part of the Kyrie II come from mm. 30-36 and 69-71 of the soprano in the motet; mm. 21-30 of the alto part come from mm. 30-37 and 73-74 of the alto in the motet; mm. 23-30 of the tenor part come from mm. 32-36, 28-29, and 37-39 of the tenor in the motet; and mm. 23-30 of the bass part come from mm. 32-39 of the bass in the motet.23 The cadence in mm. 28-30, borrowed from various parts of the motet, will reappear in subsequent movements of the Mass.


As mentioned previously, the Gloria opens with what may be an inversion of the b motive.24 The Gloria is primarily set syllabically, so that instances of melisma become salient. Cross relations are frequent, as in m. 3, when the tenor sings C-natural followed by C-sharp; in m. 5, when the soprano sings F-natural and F-sharp, followed by F-natural in the bass of m. 6.

Descriptive text setting abounds in the Gloria. The Gloria is set syllabically until the text “Glorificamus te” at m. 10, which is set melismatically and utilizes the a2, “Alleluia,” motive. The word “Glorificamus” reaches a local melodic highpoint in m. 11 of the soprano, and the use of the “Alleluia” motive is appropriate to the affect of praise expressed by the text. Similarly, the texts “propter magnam gloriam tuam” (mm. 16-18) and “Deus Pater omnipotens” (mm. 22-24) are also set using the a2 motive, appropriately referencing “Alleluia” for texts expressing an affect of praise. In mm. 30-33, “Domine Deus, Agnus Dei” in the alto and tenor is set to the c motive from the motet text “portare Dominum,” linking references to Christ in the motet and mass via motivic connection.


In m. 20, “Rex” occurs on a local melodic highpoint in the soprano, an appropriate locus for a reference to the heavenly King. In mm. 20-22, “caelestis” is set melismatically, and contains an octave leap to the same highpoint reached on the word “Rex.” In mm. 28-30, a shift to homophony creates a textual emphasis on the words “Jesu Christe.”

In the “Filius Patri” section (mm. 33-40), Victoria prepares for a change of character in the “Qui tollis,” at mm. 41. The “Filius Patri” music features a wide range in the alto voice, and particularly in the tenor and bass voices: from A4 to G4 in the alto; from G2 go G3 in the bass, including a leap by octave in m. 37; and from D3 to D4 in the tenor, including a leap by octave in m. 37. The setting of the word “Patris” is consistently melismatic in this section, and the melismas often cover large intervals: from B-flat down to D in mm. 35 of the tenor; from G down an octave to G in the bass in mm. 35-37 of the bass; and from B-flat up to G in mm. 37-38 of the alto.

The “Filius Patri” section also features cross relations and modal ambiguity: in m. 34, the bass sings F-natural and then F-sharp, and in the following measure again sings F-natural along with the tenor and soprano; in m. 36, the tenor sings an F-sharp, but in the following measure, the bass and alto both sing F-natural; in m. 37, the soprano sings B-flat and then B-natural, then in the following measure sings B-flat again, while the alto sings E-natural in m. 37, and E-flat in m. 38; finally, the bass and alto sing F-natural in m. 38, but the soprano sings F-sharp in m. 39. The cadence from mm. 38-40, a repetition of the final cadence (mm. 28-30) of the Kyrie, is left somewhat modally ambiguous by the frequent cross relations in the preceding measures and by the absence of a third in the harmony.

The wide vocal range, sprawling melismas, and modal ambiguity of the “Filius Patri” section, along with the separation created by the cadence from mm. 38-40, make the subsequent music of the first “Qui tollis” section, in mm. 41-46, sound dramatically different. In the first “Qui tollis,”25 the range of the alto, tenor, and bass is more restricted, being limited to a fourth in the alto and tenor, and a fifth in the bass. As in the “Filius Patri,” the range of the soprano in the “Qui tollis” is limited. While the “Qui tollis” music does feature melismas on the words “mundi” and “nobis,” the setting is primarily syllabic. Furthermore, the melismas in the “Qui tollis” section are much more limited in range than the melismas in the “Filius Patri” music: “mundi” in mm. 43 and 44 of the alto and mm. 47-48 of the soprano covers only a minor third; “nobis” in mm. 44-45 of the soprano covers only a fourth. The melodic motion in this section is generally quite slow, and features several repeated notes, as in mm. 41, 42 and 46.

Finally, the music of the “Qui tollis” features only two cross relations. The first is between C-sharp and C-natural in mm. 43 and 44, and the other is between E-natural and E-flat in mm. 44-45. Both of these cross relations occur during the text “miserere nobis,” and the alterations occur as semitone neighbor tones expressive of the plaintive, pained quality of the text. B-flat is never altered to B-natural in this section, creating a sense that the music is firmly in the minor mode. This, along with the slow melodic motion, limited range, and restrained melismas, makes the “Qui tollis” contrast greatly with the preceding “Filius Patri.” The music of the “Qui tollis” is much more reserved, more somber and dark, appropriate to the text expressing Christ as “You who bear the sins of the world.”

The setting of the second “Qui tollis” also features limited range, but in mm. 48-50, at the text “suscipe deprecationem nostram,” the range of the bass expands to an octave, with all voices in fast, declamatory, and homophonic setting. The declamatory style makes the text “accept our prayer of forgiveness” quite emphatic, and the homophony is expressive of the word “nostram.” “Qui sedes” features a lyrical, ascending leap by minor sixth to a high E-flat in the soprano, ascending to such a high range, perhaps, to express the heavenly environs alluded to in the text “ad dexteram patris.” The text “miserere nobis” at mm. 53-55 features syncopation in the soprano, descending stepwise motion in the bass starting from a very high range, and a cross relation between F-natural and F-sharp. These devices create an affect appropriate to the pleading, desperate cry expressed by the text.

The quasi-homophonic setting of “Jesu Christe” in mm. 64-66 creates textual emphasis and slows musical activity in preparation for a cadence in m. 66. A wonderful moment occurs in mm. 67-69 expressing the mystery of the Trinity, one God in three Persons. At this point in the text, God the Father and Son have been referenced, but the Holy Spirit has not. A shift to triple meter occurs as the Holy Spirit is finally referenced at the text “cum sancto Spiritu;” the shift to triple meter is expressive of the Trinity as the final person of the Godhead is named, while the homophony of “cum sancto Spiritu” in mm. 67-69 illustrates the oneness of the Trinity expressed in the text. In the text “in Gloria Dei Patris,” fast-moving melismatic motion on the word “Dei” in the soprano and bass in mm. 70-71 expresses the glory of God.


The Credo, like the Gloria, is set primarily syllabically, so that melismas become special features of the texture. As in previous movements, cross relations occur rather frequently. In the first six measures, for example, three cross relations exist: between B-flat and B-natural in mm. 2-3, and between F-natural and F-sharp, and E-natural and E-flat in mm. 5-6. As in the Gloria, descriptive setting of text is common. The text “Qui propter nos homines,” which continues “et propter nostram salutem, descendit de caelis,” is set with descending motion in mm. 33-35, illustrating the word “descendit.” It is set using the a2, “Alleluia” motive, appropriate to the reference to heaven. In mm. 40-42, the word “caelis” is set melismatically after the entirely syllabic setting of the preceding text in the “Qui propter” section. The melismatic setting aptly describes the heavenly realm.

Victoria creates a division at the “Et incarnatus est” by preceding it with a repetition of the final cadence (mm. 28-30) of the Kyrie and the cadence from mm. 38-40 of the Gloria in mm. 40-42 of the Credo. As the voices enter with the text “Et incarnatus est,” open fifth and octave sonorities along with semitone motion reference the opening of the motet and hint at the a motive with a freely adapted version of the shape. This allusion connects the concept of the “great mystery” of the virgin birth to the text “and was made incarnate by the Holy Spirit.”

The text “Crucifixus” (mm. 53-54) is downplayed, appearing only briefly in the tenor and bass parts, thus keeping the emphasis on mystery and minimizing the crucifixion topic for this Christmas-season, Feast of the Circumcision Mass.26 The text “etiam pro nobis” (mm. 55-56) is set to the c motive in the soprano line, while a shift occurs to homophony, so that the singers say “[crucified] for us” all together, placing textual emphasis on “for us.” According to Robert Stevenson:

Circumcision, with its premonition of the shedding of blood on the cross, has always been recognized as a less joyous feast than Nativity. Because Circumcision foreshadows Crucifixion, it is entirely appropriate for … [mm.] 40-44 of … O magnum mysterium [to] duplicate at the lower fourth mm. 52-56 of Vere languores [a Maundy Thursday motet by Victoria]. In the Circumcision motet, the text at mm. 40-44 refers to the Blessed Virgin, who was by the Most High judged worthy to bear (portare) the Child Jesus within her own self. In the Maundy Thursday motet, the text at mm. 52-56 refers to the wondrous wood and nails adjudged worthy to bear (sustinere) the King of Kings during his hours of agony.27

If Stevenson’s hypothesis is accurate,28 Victoria’s use of the c motive, from the motet text “portare dominum,” would be entirely appropriate during the “Crucifixus” section of the Credo, linking both Mary’s bearing Christ to the cross’s bearing Christ, and also the circumcision, via the motet’s dedication for the Feast of the Circumcision, to the crucifixion.

A rest is placed before “Et resurrexit” in mm. 60, illustrating the three-day wait before the resurrection. As Thorn points out, this section is set in triple meter, appropriate to the text “arose on the third day,”29 and linking it to the joyful affect of the triple-meter “Alleluia” in the motet. The text is set to the ‘c’ motive, appropriate to the topic of resurrection with its rising motion. In mm. 82-92, the setting of “Et in Spiritum Sanctum, Dominum, et vivificantem: qui ex patre Filio que procedit, qui cum Patre et Filio simul adoratur et conglorificatur” (“And in the Holy Spirit, Lord and source of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and Son together is worshipped and glorified”) is illustrative of the text, and occurs over an adapted version of the a motive.30 Up until the word “simul” (“together”), the lower three voices are set in a homophonic and quasi-homophonic style, and often imitate the rhythms of the soprano voice, with which they seem out of phase by two beats.31 The parts remain out of phase until the word “simul”, when all four voices sound together in homophony and illustrate the meaning of the text.

In mm. 106-108, rests occur between “Et exspecto” and “resurrectionem.” The rests are illustrative of the wait for the resurrection, and “resurrectionem” is set to the descriptive rising c motive, with its reference to “Et resurrexit.” At “Et vitam venturi saeculi” in mm. 111-114, the ascending c motive and the triple meter refer back to the “Et resurrexit” and “resurrectionem” motive and to the “Alleluia” in the motet, appropriately relating “the life of the world to come” with Christ’s resurrection and victory over death, and with an affect of praise.


In the text “Deum de Deo, lumen de lumine…,” the word “lumen” in the soprano in m. 22 is approached by a leap of a fourth, creates syncopation, and is set to a local melodic highpoint. The textual emphasis is appropriate, making the word “light” bright and conspicuous. In mm. 28-30, a shift to homophony occurs for the text “consubstantialem Patri.” This shift to homophony is related to the homophonic shift for the words “cum sancto Spiritu” in the Gloria, and is illustrative of the unity of Father and Son expressed in the text.

In mm. 93-95, the text “qui locutus est per Prophetas” (“who spoke through the prophets”) is set using several repeated notes in all voices, and exclusively repeated notes in the soprano. The repeated notes make the declamation imitative of speech, illustrating the action referenced in the text. The setting of the text “baptisma” in the soprano voice occurs over a long melisma covering eleven beats in mm. 102-105. Perhaps this especially flowing melisma is illustrative of the waters of baptism. To bring the Credo to a close, Victoria sets “Amen” with long melismas in the soprano over an octave’s range. In the antepenultimate measure, B-flat is sounded in the soprano, but in the penultimate measure, the soprano sings B-natural. The B-natural is sung again in the final measure, and for the first time in the Mass, Victoria ends a movement with a tertian sonority instead of with open fifths, fourths and octaves. The only other movement to end with a tertian sonority is the Agnus Dei, the final movement of the Mass, which also ends on a G major sonority.


The Sanctus begins with the a motive, perhaps to create an affect of mystery in preparation for the elevation of the host (see Example 1). The “Hosanna” is set in triple meter, linking it to the “Et resurrexit” and the “et vitam” in the Credo, and the “Alleluia” in the motet, all sharing a joyful affect. It uses the b motive from the motet text “et admirabile [Sacramentum],” referencing the “wonderful Sacrament” in preparation for the elevation of the host during the sacrament of the Eucharist.


“Dominus Deus Sabaoth” in mm. 10-16 is set to extended descending stepwise lines in all four voices: the range of the bass and soprano lines extends across one octave in each voice, that of the alto extends a minor sixth; and that of the tenor extends across a major tenth. This descending motion may be symbolic of Christ’s coming into the earthly realm through the sacrament of the Eucharist. The word “caeli” in mm. 17-19 is set melismatically, as was “caelis” in mm. 40-42 of the Credo, describing the heavens in a florid manner different from the syllabic setting of the text in the preceding measures. Victoria creates textual emphasis on the words “Gloria tua” through persistent repetitions in mm. 21-29. These repetitions lead to a G major cadence in mm. 28-29, effectively stopping forward motion and preparing for the dramatic shift to triple meter for the “Hosanna.” Appropriately, the final “in excelsis” of the “Hosanna” section occurs at a melodic highpoint in the soprano part.


The “serene”32 Benedictus is set for three voices, creating a noticeable textural change from the preceding movements. The resulting quieter, more austere texture creates a reserved affect appropriate to the sanctity of the Eucharist, and the use of the b, “et admirabile [Sacramentum],” motive creates a conceptual link between Christ and the “Sacrament,” illustrating that Christ comes as the Sacrament, as the host during the elevation. The text “qui venit”, in mm. 4-13, is set to the b motive, and the setting of “qui venit,” with its incessant repetition of the b motive, creates a hypnotic effect33 perhaps meant to evoke a spirit of contemplation or meditation during the elevation of the host.

The text “in nomine Domini” (mm. 14-27) is set using the ‘b1’ and ‘b3’ motives.

Semitone motion is prevalent in mm. 17-20, referencing the affect of mystery from the a motive.  Cross relations are abundant in this section: in mm. 15-17 in the soprano line, between F-natural and F-sharp; in m. 19, tenor, between B-flat and B-natural; in mm. 20-21, soprano, between B-natural and B-flat; in mm. 20-22, alto, between E-flat and E-natural; and in m. 22, tenor, between F-natural and F-sharp. These cross relations add to the sense of mystery appropriate to the moment of transubstantiation (see Example 3).


The Agnus Dei is set for five voices: two soprano parts, alto, tenor and bass; the two soprano parts are written in canon at the unison. Slow melodic motion, long note values and suspensions, especially in the opening line of text, create an affect of reverence for the Lamb of God. The motive in mm. 1-3 of the bass, mm. 3-5 of the tenor, and mm. 5-8 of the bass is from the bass line in mm. 61-63 of the motet, on the text “Alleluia.” However, the opening of the Agnus Dei more prominently features a rising tetrachord motive reminiscent of the c motive: it may be found in mm. 1-3 in the soprano 1 and alto, mm. 3-5 in the soprano 2, and in mm. 5-9 of the alto. These “constantly rising semitones” create a “yearning effect”34 appropriate to the final appeal to Christ for mercy and peace.

In mm. 1-9, out of thirteen simultaneities, all but two are major: G major in m. 2; D major and G major in m. 3; G major with a 4-3 suspension, followed by C major in m. 4; F-sharp diminished, followed by G major with a 4-3 suspension in m. 5; C major in m. 6; F-sharp diminished, followed by G major with a 4-3 suspension in m. 7; G and C major in m. 8; and D major in m. 9. In m. 10, however, on a strong cadence, G minor is sounded under the text “peccata.” The resulting effect is dramatic: ascending, yearning tetrachords on the c motive, sung in almost exclusively major sonorities, create a hypnotic atmosphere for the plea to Christ; the final ascending c motive tetrachord starts to rise in the alto voice in m. 9, with B-natural sounded in the soprano 2 line above it, and the bass and soprano 1 become silent, creating a more austere, 3-voice texture; in the beat preceding the apex of the alto’s final ascending tetrachord, the bass and soprano reenter, and move with the alto to the culmination of its ascending motive on a strong G-minor cadence, while the soprano sings a B-flat for the first time in the Agnus Dei. This dramatic effect of sudden darkness serves to illustrate the sins expressed by the text. This type of musical effect, with its reliance on modal shifting, is “typical of Victoria.”35

The “qui tollis peccata mundi” section, from mm. 9-mm. 18, may be loosely based on material from the b motive:36 in m. 9/3, B-flat descends to G, which is followed by ascending stepwise motion, outlining the basic motion of the b motive. This music is full of cross relations, perhaps expressing mixed emotions about the text stated: on one hand, the statement has tragic associations, since its fulfillment depended on Christ’s sacrifice; on the other hand, the statement is joy-filled, as it speaks of salvation. The “qui tollis” contains the following cross relations: B-flat to B-natural in mm. 9-10 in soprano 1 part, followed by B-flat in the soprano 2, tenor and bass in m. 11, and B-natural again in mm. 12, soprano 2; E-flat to E-natural in the alto voice, mm. 10-11, followed by E-flat in the bass in m. 12; F-sharp in the tenor line of m. 12, followed by F-natural in the alto in m. 13; E-flat in the bass and alto in m. 13, followed by E-natural in the alto in m. 14; B-flat and B-natural in mm. 15-16 in the soprano 1 line, followed by B-flat and B-natural in mm. 17-18 of the soprano 2 line.

The entire Agnus Dei is repeated, and during the repeat, “miserere nobis” is replaced with “dona nobis pacem.” During these sections of text, the music is saturated with the a and b motives, and alternation of major and minor thirds is prevalent (see Example 4). Along with the presence of the c motive at the beginning of the movement, the motivic saturation of these three prominent motives creates a culmination effect appropriate to the end of the Mass. The a motive occurs in mm. 23-25 in the bass and mm. 25-27 in the soprano; the b motive occurs in mm. 21-23 in soprano 1, mm. 23-25 in soprano 2, and mm. 26-27 in the tenor and bass. Cross relations occur in mm. 23 and 24, between F-sharp and F-natural, in m. 25, between F-sharp and F-natural, in mm. 26-27, between F-sharp and F-natural, and in mm. 27-28 between B-flat and B-natural. The resolution to major sonorities at the end may suggest that mercy has been granted, and peace finally attained.


In his O magnum mysterium and Missa O magnum mysterium, Victoria took great care in his setting of the text. Examples of text setting in the motet and Mass show Victoria’s great attention to detail, and examples of text setting on borrowed material in the Mass show that Victoria may have considered intertextual relationships between motet and mass during the composition process.

In summary, descriptive text setting devices utilized in the Mass include the following: melodic highpoints for the words “Glorificamus,” “Rex,” “caelestis” and “Qui sedes [ad dexteram patris]”) in the Gloria, “lumen” in the Credo, and “in excelsis” in the Sanctus; melismatic writing for the words “Glorificamus Te,” “caelestis,” “Patris,” “Filius Patri,” and “[in Gloria] Dei [Patris]” in the Gloria, for “caelis,” “baptisma” and “Amen” in the Credo, and for “caeli” in the Sanctus; descending motion for the words “Miserere nobis” in the Gloria and “Qui propter [nos homines, et propter nostram salutem, descendit de caelis]” in the Credo; ascending stepwise motion for “Et resurrexit” and “resurrectionem” in the Credo; rests to illustrate the three-day wait for Christ’s resurrection at “Et resurrexit,” and to illustrate “Et exspecto” in the Credo; sudden shifts to homophony to illustrate the meaning of the following words or portions of text: “nostram” and “cum sancto Spiritu” in the Gloria, and “etiam pro nobis,” “consubstantialem Patri,” and “simul” in the Credo; and textual emphasis on the words “Jesu Christe” on two separate occasions in the Gloria, on the words “lumen” and “etiam pro nobis” in the Credo, and on “Gloria tua” in the Sanctus.

The use of modal ambiguity and cross relations is featured in several parts of the Mass. Of particular note are the following instances: cross relations in the opening of the Kyrie illustrate the plaintive affect expressed by the text, and help to establish an affect of mystery that seems to pervade the entire Mass; modal ambiguity and cross relations in the “Filius Patri” of the Gloria help set up a dramatic shift to a more clearly minor mode in the subsequent “Qui tollis;” a cross relation in the Gloria’s “miserere nobis” illustrates the plaintive, pleading affect of the text; the dramatic effect at the entrance of “peccata mundi” in the Agnus Dei is reliant upon a modal shift prominently featuring the cross relation between B-natural and B-flat in succeeding measures; cross relations feature quite heavily in both the “qui tollis” and “miserere nobis” sections of the Agnus Dei, expressive of the sin and cry for mercy in the text; and at the end of the Agnus Dei, to close the Mass, is a final modal shift, resolving the darkness of the Mass with a G major sonority, one of just two tertian sonorities to close a movement of the Mass.

Among the many intertextual relationships illustrated, some connections deserve a brief summing up. In the Gloria, Victoria creates an intertextual connection between the word “Alleluia” from the a2 motive and texts expressing praise: “Glorificamus te,” “propter magnam gloriam tuam,” and “Deus Pater omnipotens.” In the Credo, Victoria creates an intertextual connection between the mystery of the Virgin birth to the text “Et incarnatus est,” by use of the a, “O magnum mysterium,” motive; he may also create a conceptual link between Christ born by both Mary and also the cross, and between the circumcision and the crucifixion by his use of the b motive, “portare Dominum,” for the text “[crucifixus] etiam pro nobis.” Finally, Victoria creates a conceptual link between the b motive, “et admirabile [Sacramentum],” Christ, and the sacrament of the Eucharist: the b motive is used to set “Hosanna” in the Sanctus, perhaps referencing the “wonderful Sacrament” motive in preparation for the elevation of the host; and in the Benedictus, the b motive is used to set “qui venit,” referring to Christ’s coming “in the name of the Lord” and linking Christ with the concept of sacrament during the elevation of the host.

In the dedication of his Missorum Libri Duo of 1583, Victoria writes the following:

What I originally had in mind was not to be satisfied with knowledge alone, and stop short at the point of bringing pleasure to ear and intellect only, but that I should go further and to the best of my ability be of service to my contemporaries and to posterity. And so, after considerable toil expended in the study to which nature herself drew me with quiet encouragement and persistence, in order that the fruits of my talent extend over a wider field I undertook for preference the setting of that which is universally celebrated in the Catholic church.37

Victoria’s compositions surely fulfilled his desire to “be of service to [his] contemporaries and to posterity.”38 His work in the Missa O magnum mysterium “not only… expanded the principle of parody/imitation by using music from both the source motet and another work, in this case a work [the O vos omnes complex] also used in the Missa Salve regina, but, he also incorporated an earlier technique used to unify a mass, that is, head motives.”39 According to Rive, Victoria’s treatment of the Dorian and Ionian modes in his parody masses may also have contributed “to the emergence of tonality…. in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.”40 Victoria’s brilliant text setting and his colorful harmonic language, flavored by modal ambiguity and vivid cross relations, are central aspects of Victoria’s style, and have helped make O magnum mysterium “one of Victoria’s best known works”41 and the Missa O magnum mysterium “one of Victoria’s most admired works.”42


  1. Robert Stevenson, “Victoria, Tomas Luis de,” Grove Music Online, Oxford Music Online, 9 Oct. 2010 <>.

  2. Thomas Rive, “Verdict on Victoria,” Caecilia 91 (1964): 91-95.

  3. Eugene Cramer, Studies in the Music of Tomás Luis de Victoria (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001): 236.

  4. Stevenson, “Victoria.”

  5. Stevenson, “Victoria.”

  6. Stevenson, “Victoria.”

  7. Stevenson, “Victoria.”

  8. Thomas Rive, “An examination of Victoria’s technique of adaptation and reworking in his parody masses – with particular attention to harmonic and cadential procedure,” Anuario Musical xxiv (1969): 133-134.

  9. Stevenson, “Victoria.”

  10. Rive, “An examination” 136.

  11. Stevenson, “Victoria.”

  12. David Music, “O magnum mysterium: Three mystical Renaissance settings,” The American Organist 40/11 (2006): 75.

  13. Music, 77.

  14. Music, 77.

  15. Music, 77.

  16. Music, 78.

  17. Music, 76.

  18. Patrick Macey, email to the author, 30 November 2010.

  19. Patrick Brill, The Parody Masses of Tomás Luis de Victoria, diss., U Kansas, 1995 (Ann Arbor: UMI, 1996) 256.

  20. Though Brill’s list of motives is referenced throughout the discussion, the author did not rely on Brill’s identifications of borrowed material in the Mass for the present discussion. Furthermore, some identifications disagree with Brill or were not referenced in Brill’s dissertation. Hence, the several identifications that happen to coincide with those made by Brill are not cited as Brill’s in the discussion.

  21. Patrick Macey, personal interview, 29 November 2010.

  22. For thorough discussions of instances of borrowed motivic material in the Missa O magnum mysterium, reference Julia Thorn, Renaissance Mass Types: An Archetypal Model of the Cantus Firmus and Imitation Mass Forms, diss., U Alabama, 1997 (Ann Arbor: UMI, 1998) 37-58; and Eugene Cramer, Studies 39-46; and Brill, 255-278.

  23. Julia Thorn, Renaissance Mass Types: An Archetypal Model of the Cantus Firmus and Imitation Mass Forms, diss., U Alabama, 1997 (Ann Arbor: UMI, 1998) 38. Thorn’s dissertation includes several more, highly detailed examples of borrowing in the Mass.

  24. Macey, personal interview.

  25. It should be noted that this passage in the Gloria, from mm. 41-44/2, and mm. 43-46/1 (“Et incarnatus est”) and mm. 88/4-90/3 (“Qui cum Patre”) of the Credo, are drawn from what Eugene Cramer calls the ‘O vos omnes complex’ of works (the O vos omnes motet, and the related Missa Salve regina) in his Studies 40-42.

  26. Macey, personal interview.

  27. Robert Stevenson, “Tomas Luis de Victoria: Unique Spanish Genius,” Inter-American Music Review 12/1 (1991): 77.

  28. See Eugene Cramer’s caveat in Studies 84.

  29. Thorn, 44.

  30. Macey, personal interview.

  31. This texture is reminiscent of the opening measures of the Gloria.

  32. Thorn, 47.

  33. Macey, personal interview.

  34. Macey, email.

  35. Macey, email.

  36. Brill, 276.

  37. Rive, “Verdict” 94.

  38. Rive, “Verdict” 94.

  39. Cramer, 43.

  40. Rive, “An examination” 150.

  41. Cramer, 236.

  42. Cramer, 39.




Brill, Patrick. The Parody Masses of Tomás Luis de Victoria. Diss. U Kansas, 1995. Ann Arbor: UMI, 1996. 255-278.

Cramer, Eugene Casjen. “Some Elements of the Early Baroque in the Music of Victoria.” In De música hispana et aliis, 2 vols., ed. Emilio Casares and Carlos Villanueva, Vol. 1. Santiago de Compostela: Universidade de Santiago de Compostella, 1990. 501-538.

Cramer, Eugene Casjen. Studies in the music of Tomas Luis de Victoria. Burlington, Vermot: Ashgate, 2001.

Cramer, Eugene Casjen. Tomas Luis de Victoria: A guide to research. Garland reference library of the humanities, v. 1931. New York: Garland Pub., 1998.

Macey, Patrick. Email to the author. 30 November 2010.

Macey, Patrick. Personal interview. 29 November 2010.

Múntane, Gomez, and María del Carmen. “Spanish music in the days of Phillip II.” Goldberg: Early music magazine 5 (1998): 48-61.

Music, David. “O magnum mysterium: Three mystical Renaissance settings.” The American

Organist 40/11 (2006): 75-78.

Rive, Thomas. “An examination of Victoria’s technique of adaptation and reworking in his

parody masses – with particular attention to harmonic and cadential procedure.” Anuario Musical xxiv (1969): 133-152.

Rive, Thomas. “Verdict on Victoria.” Caecilia 91 (1964): 91-95.

Stevenson, Robert. “Tomas Luis de Victoria: Unique Spanish Genius.” Inter-American Music Review 12/1 (1991): 77.

Stevenson, Robert. “Victoria, Tomas Luis de.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. 9

Thorn, Julia. Renaissance Mass Types: An Archetypal Model of the Cantus Firmus and Imitation Mass Forms. Diss. U Alabama, 1997. Ann Arbor: UMI, 1998. 37-58.


Brault, Léandre, dir. Motets y cantos de renacimiento. Los Pequeños Cantores de Montreal. LP. RCA Victor, 1963.

Hill, David, dir. Tomás Luis de Victoria: O magnum mysterium [and] Ascendens Christus in altum. Westminster Cathedral Choir. Hyperion, 1986.

Ho, Edith, dir. O magnum mysterium. Christmas at the Church of the Advent, Boston. The Choir of the Church of the Advent, Boston. LP. Afka, 1981.

McCarthy, John, dir. Victoria. Two Masses. The Choir of the Carmelite Priory, London. LP.

L’Oiseau-Lyre, 1964.

O magnum mysterium (motet and mass). Les Petits Chanteurs de Saint-François de Versailles. LP. Jade, 1984.

Summerly, Jeremy, dir. Victoria: Masses. Oxford Camerata. Naxos, 1992.

Welch, James, dir. Victoria: The Masses O quam gloriosum and O magnum mysterium. The

Welch Chorale. LP. Allegro, 1952.


Victoria, Tomás Luis de. Missa “O magnum mysterium”: á 4 voix mixtes / Victoria. Paris:

Éditions musicales de la Schola cantorum, 1951.

Victoria, Tomás Luis de. Missa, O magnum mysterium: 1592 / Tomás Luis de Victoria; [edited by J. David Wagner]. Alexandria, Indiana: H.T. FitzSimons Co., 1989.

Victoria, Tomás Luis de. Missa, O magnum mysterium. For Soprano, alto, tenor, and bass.

Transcribed and arr. By Cyr de Brant. New York: J. Fischer, 1944.

Victoria, Tomás Luis de. Missa O magnum mysterium; with the motet O magnum mysterium: SATB / Tomás Luis de Victoria; transcribed and edited by Martyn Imrie. Lochs, Isle of Lewis, Scotland: Vanderbeek & Imrie, 1997.

Victoria, Tomás Luis de. Tomás Luis de Victoria: (1548-1611) / Motet & Mass O Magnum

mysterium: (SATB): Transcribed and edited by Jon Dixon. Carshalton Beeches: JOED Music, 1990.

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Paul Sánchez
Paul Sánchez

Thanks, Laudon!



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