Tomás Luis de Victoria:
The Composer's Complicated Relationship with Fame
Thomas J. Graf Jr.
Dr. Frederick Reece
December 6, 2018
Tomás Luis de Victoria:
The Composer's Complicated Relationship with Fame
The social significance of music in the study of human culture is indisputable. From the discovery of bone flutes possibly as old as 45,000 years to the extensive use of music in the myths of Greek and Roman gods, it has an inseparable connection to humanity, culture, importance, and fame. In the life of Spanish composer, performer, and clergyman Tomás Luis de Victoria (ca. 1548-1611), this connection, especially regarding fame, is of particular interest. Born in Ávila, Spain in approximately 1548, Victoria spent a large amount of time training and working in Rome before returning to Spain in between 1585-1587 to spend the remainder of his life in Madrid. Throughout his life, which he led in 3 distinct parts (composer, performer, clergyman), Victoria demonstrated incredibly complex relationship with fame: on one hand avoiding any recognition while on the other orchestrating one of the most widespread marketing campaigns in Europe. An understanding of the life and intentions of Tomás Luis de Victoria would provide insight into not only his music but also into the inner workings of the “business” of music surrounding the Catholic Church in the late 16th century.
Victoria's early life and training took place at the Ávila Cathedral as a choirboy and later as an organ student. As his studies progressed, so did his reputation as a performer. In 1565, Victoria received a grant from Philip II to become cantor at Collegium Germanicum et Hungaricum in Rome, one of the most prestigious Jesuit institutions in Europe. While at the college, Victoria was trained and ordained as a priest in the Catholic Church and was quickly promoted to the role of chapelmaster. Despite being one of the most virtuosic organists and singers of the day, this is where the performing aspirations of Victoria were reached. He was content to spend the rest of his life as a performing musician as a quiet convent maestro and organist, while his closest contemporaries, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina and Francisco de Soto, only saw their careers as performers grow in popularity. Meanwhile, Victoria's work as a composer became more well-recognized than nearly anyone in his lifetime. While his total output of music was relatively small, his self-funded publications of his own music were among the most opulently printed and most well received editions of printed music within the Catholic Church over his nearly 4 decades of writing music. He often published revised versions of his own music and had editions of his own music reprinted multiple times during his lifetime, which stands unique among his contemporaries. He was commissioned by 4 Spanish kings and many well-respected bishops and cardinals in the Catholic Church to write Magnificats and Masses, and was sought after by Cardinal Carlo Borromeo as an advisor on hiring musicians and purchasing published music to perform.
Separate from his life as a musician, however, was Victoria's primary occupation as a Catholic priest. While he continued his musical career until the end of his life, after being ordained as a priest by Bishop Thomas Goldwell in 1575, performing music ceased to be his primary financial support. In 1578, Victoria received a chaplaincy as S. Girolamo della Caritá in Rome, which he held until his return to Spain nearly a decade later. His return to Spain was, as Victoria expressed, out of the desire to lead a quiet life as a priest. King Philip II granted Victoria's request, naming him personal chaplain to his sister, the Dowager Empress María, wife of Maximilian II, who lived at the Monasterio de las Descalzas de S. Clara in Madrid. During these years, Victoria received numerous invitations to take the position of maestro de capilla at the most prestigious cathedrals in Italy and Spain. None of these offers were able to tempt Victoria away from his chaplaincy at the convent, where Victoria was content to serve as the chapel organist for the remainder of his life.
While there is much research on the harmonic content of Victoria's music, his unique use of the escape tone, and his significant changes to the writing for polychoral masses (specifically regarding texture, meter, text setting, and tonal structure) , very little writing has been done on a much more fundamental aspects of the life and music of Tomás Luis de Victoria: What was so social purpose of the music Victoria wrote? And what was the composer's view on his own legacy?
Examining the writings of Victoria himself the artistic purpose of his music becomes clear. As he states in the dedication of a set of 1581 set of motets dedicated to Cardinal Miguel Bonelli, “We understand that all those reasons we use to consider all the arts for are as well included in music because if someone pretended to find usefulness, nothing is better than music which, reaching our hearts softly through what we can listen, it seems a benefit not only for our mind and soul but also for our body.” The language Victoria uses in “reaching our hearts softly” and “benefit not only for our mind and soul” indicate that in one way he is far ahead of his time: he is an early subscriber to the Doctrine of the Affects, as described by German composer/scholar Johann Mattheson. Nearly 150 years before the publication of Mattheson's Der vollkommene Kapellmeister, Victoria puts into words in multiple the dedications of multiple printings of his music the very essence of Mattheson's over 500-page long treatise on the Doctrine of the Affects. The in-depth music analysis of Eugene Casjen Cramer and Miguel A. Roig-Francolí does a wonderfully comprehensive job of showing the practical manifestation of these ideas in Victoria's music.
What is more difficult to deal with, on the other hand, is Tomás Luis de Victoria's relationship with fame, and his view of his own legacy. Though he is believed to be one of the most virtuosic and sought-after musicians of his lifetime, particularly in Spain, Victoria never saw himself primarily as a musician or composer. His primary source of financial support throughout his entire adult life was his work as a chaplain and he vastly reduced his workload as a performing , and when he did perform, often did not include his own name on musician rosters or payment logs. In the words of Ana Sabe Andreu, “Victoria knew what he wanted first and foremost: a calm and tranquil existence, similar to the life he had led in San Girolamo during his last years in Rome”. What is not known entirely is the reason he wanted to return to that lifestyle: Was is to devote himself to God or to his music? Regardless of the answer, Victoria's yearning to be out of the scrutiny and intensity of the musical scene in Palestrina's Rome was clear. He did not want or need the popular recognition that Palestrina himself craved as a performer and composer while working at St. Peter's Basilica.
Yet, while seemingly avoiding recognition for his work in some circles, Victoria was orchestrating one of the most successful and widespread marketing operations in Europe. Beginning in the early 1580's, Victoria was self-funding the publication of editions of his own music. In all, there were 11 editions of Victoria's music published during his own lifetime, all at his own expense (Victoria's patrons were the financial support for his work as an organist and priest, not a composer). While this wasn't entirely uncommon (Palestrina payed for some of his own printing expenses), there is some debate about the purpose of Victoria's next step with the printed books of music: he orchestrated a kind of mass-mailing system to distribute the books to some of the most influential cathedrals and patrons within the Catholic church. Victoria would write carefully crafted cover letter, often use reliable intermediaries to bring the books and letters directly to their recipients, and sometimes even send letters in advance of the book to advertise its arrival. One of the most notable recipients of Victoria's books was the Cardinal Carlo Borromeo, who personally replied to several of Victoria's letters. If the intent of Victoria was to market his music to significant patrons, his success is summed up in Borromeo's response saying, “I have appreciated it [a book of Victoria's Masses] very much; I will also appreciate any other work of yours, knowing how well esteemed and reputed they are. I will use them, therefore, in my church and chapel. Meanwhile I thank you for this, and ask you to give me the occasion to reward your kindness and good-will.” For this work (and despite never asking his donors for anything in return), Victoria often did receive a reward, termed by Juan Ruiz Jiménez “donación remunerada”.
This conflict, on one hand summarizing his prolific and diverse career calling himself a “teacher” (omitting reference to his work as a singer, organist, chapelmaster, and composer) while on the other printing ornate editions of his own music to be delivered to only the most important patrons, makes Tomás Luis de Victoria's life and music incredibly difficult and complex to study. The missing piece of information is the most crucial: his motivations and intentions. Most of Victoria's surviving writings, dedications for books of music and letters to patrons, read like humble advertisements and do not provide real insight into Victoria himself; each is tailored towards its specific recipient. What is known of Victoria is that while his career as a performing musician is clearly secondary in his own eyes, his passion for his priestly duties and for writing music were his two biggest motivations. He had no financial need (life at the monastery in Madrid was quite comfortable for Victoria) and had he wanted greater material riches and fame, he surely could have found them in Rome. Instead, his contentment fulfilling what he felt was his divine calling, writing music and serving as a chaplain, satisfied Victoria for most of his adult life.
If nothing else, Tomás Luis de Victoria's life, particularly the way the composer viewed his fame and legacy, illustrate clearly the context in which he wrote his music and the social significance of his work. Victoria wrote music, as Bach would express well over 100 years later, for “the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul”. If he had any other motivation, be it fame, wealth, or any other social gain, Victoria had ample opportunities to leave the quiet life of a convent organist. Despite his self-promotion, high reputation, and extensive printing/distribution of his own music, Tomás Luis de Victoria ultimately saw himself as a simple lay priest, a convent organist, and a writer of music for a cause greater than himself.
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