Tomás Luis de Victoria (pronounced toh-MAHS loo-EES day vik-TOR-ee-a) was born in Avila, Spain in 1548. He was a gifted singer, organist, and choir director. He had written a lot of music for the Catholic church during his lifetime. He's not extremely well-known today, but known among those who study music from the Renaissance.
The piece we're going to listen today started out as a Gregorian chant. Back in the late 6th century, Pope Gregory I is said to have organized and formalized the music for the Catholic church. Several excerpts from the book of Psalms and other books of the Bible were put to music. The interesting element of this music is that it was monophonic (or "one voice"). There was no harmony. A group of people (usually monks) would sing the same melody. The words they sung were in Latin, which was considered by the church to be the language of the Bible.
"O Magnum Mysterium" (pronounced OH MAHN-yoom mis-STAIR-ee-oom) is a Latin text about Christmas. You might think of it as an extremely early Christmas carol. The Latin text is this (with pronunciation guides after):
O magnum mysterium [OH MAHN-yoom mis-STAIR-ee-oom]
et admirabile sacramentum, [et ahd-meer-RAH-bee-lay SAH-crah-MEN-toom]
ut animalia viderent Dominum natum, [oot AH-nee-MAH-lee-ah vee-DAIR-rent DOH-mee-noom NAH-toom]
jacentem in praesepio! [yah-CHEN-tem een preh-SEP-ee-oh]
Beata Virgo, cujus viscera [bay-YAH-tah VEER-goh COO-yoos VEE-sair-ah]
meruerunt portare [meh-roo-AIR-roont poor-TAH-ray]
Dominum Christum. [DOH-mee-noom KREES-toom]
In English, these words would be:
O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament
that animals should see the new-born Lord,
lying in a manger!
Blessed is the Virgin whose womb
was worthy to bear
Christ the Lord
This is really the first choral work that we've done for Music of the Month. A choir (pronounced QWIE-er) is a group of singers. Traditionally, a choir is divided into four parts: two parts for women and two parts for men. Each group has a high part and a low part. For women, the high part is called soprano, and the low part is called alto. For men, the high part is called tenor, and the low part is called bass.
In this piece, the choir sings a cappella. This is an Italian phrase meaning "in the manner of the church" or "in the manner of the chapel". Remember that in the early days of the Catholic church, the songs were sung in chants, and no instruments played along with the singers. That's what a cappella has come to mean: performing with no other instruments to back you up. This piece includes just the singers. No backup instruments.
This piece is a really great example of a musical period called "The Renaissance" (pronounced REH-neh-zahns). This is a period of about 150 years, from the late 1400s to the early 1600s. Victoria wrote this piece in 1572.
I was introduced to this song as a member of choir. I'll confess that I'm not certain which year or which group. If I had to guess, it was probably my junior or senior year of High School, and the group would have been the Chamber Choir (conducted by Don Christensen).
I didn't have a recording for this piece for a long time, as many of the recordings for Renaissance-style pieces were being performed by choirs that had more of a Romantic-era opera style to them. It's like playing a flute solo with an electric guitar. It's possible, but it has an entirely different sound. It wasn't until the mid to late 1990s that I came across a recording (the recording you're about to hear) that I loved.
So here it is. It's a short one this month. Close your eyes and picture yourself in a 16th century Spanish cathedral.