Motet: O magnum mysterium
Tomas Luis de Victoria (1548-1611)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 3 Tracks 38-39
Victoria presents truth. Even the most well-grounded atheist is a believer for the duration of this motet. If the idea is not true, it has still motivated our composer into writing a great work of art and convincing us, if only for a time, of an idea that was beautiful to him. And because of this, fans of Tomas, believers and atheists alike, enjoy an awareness of miracle.
The opening four bars of this piece are able to transfix a listener with mystery and yet employ no more than four pitches. The unusual contour of the theme presents an altus who is, at the same time, imitating and continuing a line started by the cantus. This introduction is so captivating that Victoria's accomplishment appears to have been his ability to continue the piece effectively. In fact, his move to triple meter and back for the concluding Alleluia
is a vital contrast. It takes us just far enough away from where we started. If the contrast were stronger, we would be confused and possibly disengaged. If the contrast were less, tragically, the mystery might become mundane.
What I like about this motet is a feature it shares with Palestrina's writing. Though the phrase endings are more apparent with Victoria, he also encourages hangers-on. He has learned from the master that when one phrase is ending, it sometimes helps to sustain a little sound into the next.