Tomás Luis de Victoria (c.1548-1611)

       [Uncertain portrait]

Victoria was born in or near Avila in about 1548. His father died when he was eight or nine years old, and he joined the choir in the cathedral there a little later.  He was raised as a Jesuit, educated in Segovia, and by 1565 he was in Rome, a singer at the Collegium Germanicum, the German College, a Jesuit seminary. He possibly studied with Palestrina, who was at the Collegium Romanum. He had the most formal religious career of all the greatest composers of the period, joining the priesthood in 1575 and becoming chapelmaster at the College, and then chaplain at San Girolamo. He said that “Music is not man's invention, but his heritage from the blessed spirits. Music describes the very being of God.” In fact, perhaps because of his relatively austere life, we know little about him as a man. In 1586 he returned to Spain; he had petitioned Philip II for his return, “to put an end to my labour of composing, to rest for a time in honest leisure, and to be able to compose my soul in contemplation, as befits a priest”. He was made chaplain to the Dowager Empress Maria, Philip II’s sister, herself trained in music by some of the leading composers of her youth. She was married to Maximilian II, the Holy Roman Emperor, and bore him sixteen children, but had retired to the Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales in Madrid in 1584, eight years after Maximilian’s death. Victoria joined her there, and mostly remained there for the rest of his days. 

He was much in demand in Spain, and received offers of posts from cathedrals in Seville and Zaragoza, though he declined them. He went to Rome between 1592-95, to supervise the publication of his second book of Masses there; he also attended Palestrina’s funeral. His output was modest in size, but greatly respected for its purity, and – unusually – it was all published in his lifetime. His music is commonly described as more intense and mystical than that of, say, Palestrina, and more given to emotional expression.  The works include 21 masses and 44 motets, psalm settings; hymns; several Magnificats; four offices for the dead; and music for Holy Week or other services, including two Passions, and the Lamentations of Jeremiah. 

 In 1603 he composed the six-part Requiem Officium Defunctorum, Office of the Dead, for the funeral of Empress Maria, his last and most famous work. It was performed in the Monasterio; records say the royal chapel was hung with black velvet, its pillars decorated with the imperial arms; the immense catafalque or platform had mace-bearers in cowls and black cloaks at its four corners. 

By now Victoria had no post at the Monasterio other than as organist; he died and was buried there in 1611. Characteristically perhaps, his grave is not marked.


Further reading

Cramer, E.C. (1998) Tomas Luis de Victoria: A Guide to Research, New York/London: Garland Publishing

Reese, G.  et al. (1984) New Grove High Renaissance Masters: Josquin, Palestrina, Lassus, Byrd, Victoria, London: Macmillan