Catholic Artistic Piety in a Motet

Bibiana Gattozzi


Western music, as it is understood today, developed directly from the sacred music of the Catholic Church. Unfortunately, today, many Catholics are unaware of this wealth of sacred music.


Let the word of Christ dwell in you abundantly, in all wisdom, teaching, and admonishing one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual canticles, singing in grace in your hearts to God. (Col. 3:16)

St. Paul's admonition to the Colossians has been heeded by Christians since the Church's earliest days. Some of the oldest surviving musical documents are, in fact, religious compositions. Indeed Western music, as it is understood today, developed directly from the sacred music of the Catholic Church. The treasury of the Catholic liturgical and sacred music tradition includes Gregorian chants, polyphonic motets (vocal compositions involving simultaneous melodies), choral and instrumental Masses, hymns, Oratorii, and much more. Unfortunately, today most Catholics are unaware of this wealth of sacred music, which remains untapped by church choirs. It would behoove the casual Catholic listener to rediscover and familiarize himself with these "spiritual canticles" which even Protestants respect, admire, study, and perform.

A Catholic desirous to commence a journey towards greater sacred music literacy may wish to begin by listening to the oldest traditional plainchants. However, Catholic sacred music does not represent an evolution from the primitive to the sublime; each century of Catholic music tradition features sincere, awe-inspiring, and uplifting musical contemplations of the Divine. It is therefore equally commendable for one to start exploring the polyphonic motets of the Counter-Reformation period as it is to internalize the oft-performed giants of the genre such as the Requiem Mass of Mozart. Glistening among the gems of the Counter-Reformation period is the little-known motet for six voices by Tomas Luis de Victoria, Vidi Speciosam (I Saw the Beautiful One), written in 1572 in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary. An analysis of the text, melody, form, and harmonic structure of Victoria's multifaceted motet reveals musical complexity that resembles and proceeds from a centuries-old polyphonic sacred music tradition, while simultaneously indicating what was at the time innovative use of musical and compositional techniques. Ultimately, all the musical elements of Vidi Speciosam combine masterfully to form a touching, beautiful choral piece of Catholic sacred music that aptly glorifies the mystery and wonder of Our Lady's Assumption.

Tomas Luis de Victoria's music is highly reflective of the time period in which he lived and worked, namely, Catholic Spain and Rome in the mid to late 1500s. Spain, having freed itself from Islamic dominion, retained its Catholicism through the turbulent century of Protestant "Reformations" and religious wars; revolving around the Mass and sacred Liturgy, Catholic culture included flourishing sacred music. Victoria's reputation as the most famous Spanish composer of the 16th century1 is rightly deserved: he was born in Avila in 1548, trained in the Collegium Germanicum in Rome in 1565, and in the following 20 years obtained high positions in Rome as choirmaster and composer. In 1575 he was ordained priest, and it was at the request of the Empress Maria that he returned to Spain to serve as a chaplain and direct the choir at the Royal Convent of Discalced Clarists.2 Victoria's entire life was dedicated to religion and music, and his work reflects this dedication: all of Victoria's compositions are sacred and liturgical, with meaningful, appropriate Latin texts carefully chosen to fit the occasion and yet flow with poetic and musical unity. That a composer and priest could conduct a brilliant and holy career of service while reaching the apex of artistic quality in his field are characteristics that would seem incomprehensible to today's world of false poets with their vapid pop-song lyrics.

Victoria's use of melody and textural variation, especially in his motets, developed from the same tradition of the composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, who at the time of the Council of Trent was considered the greatest Catholic composer alive. Indeed, Palestrina's Missa Papae Marcelli (Pope Marcellus' Mass) was said to have raised sacred polyphony to such heights as to prevent the Counter-Reformation Council from banning liturgical polyphony altogether. It was feared that the Council of Trent had considered doing so in an effort to combat widespread abuses of liturgical music. While this may only be the substance of legend, it is true that the Council elevated the standards of reverence for liturgical music and advocated textual clarity in polyphonic compositions, and Pope Pius IV appointed Palestrina as "Composer to the Papal Chapel" due to the quality of his work.3Therefore music was very much considered in the religious struggles of the century, and it was at this time of scrutiny that Catholic sacred music reached a zenith of craftsmanship and artistry. It is likely that Victoria met Palestrina while studying in Rome, and so may have adopted elements of Palestrina's style.4 Indeed, the motivic opening of Victoria's Vidi Speciosam closely resembles that of Palestrina's motet Tu es Petrus, but it is unlikely that the two composers borrowed from each other's music, as both motets were published in 1572.5 However, Victoria's more ambitious harmony, evident in his greater use of chromaticism (notes altered by flats, sharps, or naturals not normally found in the mode or key of the piece), reveals the uniqueness of his works and the extent to which he differed from Palestrina. In so doing, Victoria may have forged a path toward future musical innovations.

First written for the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Vidi Speciosam was later made into an imitation Mass of the same title.6 Even though motets themselves may not have been created for performance at Mass, it was fairly common for composers at Victoria's time to take the music of a motet they had written and reuse and adapt it to create a full polyphonic setting for High Mass, complete with a Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei.7 The text of the motet Vidi Speciosam borrows phrases from the antiphons of lauds of this same feast day, along with those of the second vespers for the Feast of the Holy Rosary. Both texts are from the Song of Songs.8 The text, in its entirety, reads:

Vidi speciosam, sicut columbam ascendentem desuper rivos aquarum: cuius inaestimabilis odor erat nimis in vestimentis eius–Et sicut dies verni circumdabant eam flores rosarum et lilia convallium. Quae est ista quae ascendit per desertum, sicut virgula fumi, ex aromatibus myrrhae et thuris?–Et sicut dies verni circumdabant eam flores rosarum et lilia convallium–I saw the Beautiful One, rising like a dove above the streams of water: she in whose robes there was a heavenly fragrance–and just as the day of spring, roses in flower and the lilies of the valley surrounded her. Who is she who arises through the wilderness, like pillars of vapor, scented of myrrh and frankincense?–and just as the day of spring, roses in flower and the lilies of the valley surrounded her.9

Thus the text fits the occasion, adds symbolic variety, and is carefully compiled as a didactic and devotional aid to lift the thoughts and hearts of performers and listeners to Heaven, following the Blessed Virgin at her Assumption.

Victoria's use of melody to enhance the text closely resembles Palestrina's style, since it is smooth and flowing, moving from note to note by small intervals and not large leaps. When melodic leaps between two notes do appear in this motet, they are corrected; in other words, an interval leap in one direction in a particular vocal line is immediately followed by a step or leap in the opposite direction. This correction of leaps was an important compositional rule in the 1500s, and Vidi Speciosam illustrates that Victoria adhered closely to the characteristics of sacred polyphony at the time. In addition, the two soprano and the alto parts never leap to an interval higher than a fourth (consecutive notes separated by four steps or tones). The exception to this is when, at the end of the piece, the first soprano leaps an octave (the space between two notes of the same name; there are eight tones or steps between them) at the word "convallium" (the first two notes of the upper line reproduced below A).10 11

This may be necessary, however, to continue the descending motion begun on the first syllable of this word and continued in a grand melisma (musical passage with multiple notes per single syllable of text). The octave leap adds extra grandeur to the final phrase of the composition. In addition, this descending line on the word for "valley" is an instance of text-painting; composers such as Victoria used melody to enhance the meaning of the words, which heightened their emotional pathos and aurally illustrated their meaning so that those who perhaps did not understand Latin would still be aware of the text's significance. Another instance of melodic text-painting to evoke emotional responses occurs at "ascendentem" with a melismatic, rising line in all six vocal parts B:

Again, there is text-painting at the words "circumdabant eam," where all the voices use a skip-step descending pattern of notes that "surround" each other C:

Victoria's melodic lines show his adherence to the polyphonic tradition as well as his artistry in creating vocal parts that illuminate the text, in accordance with the decrees of the Council of Trent.

The form of Vidi Speciosam also enhances the meaning of the words. The music, like the text, is written in two sections, with an AB CB structure (see the above translation). The words of the "B" sections are the same, as well as the musical gestures. The two appearances of the "B" section give this motet a form not unlike the characteristic structure of later instrumental sonatas that employed a "ritornello" or refrain, also known as "rondo form." The second part (CB) is marked "secunda pars" in the score and begins on the second sentence of the text. The two sentences of text are aurally separated by a cadence, or musical ending phrase, where the harmony comes to rest on the tonic (home key in which the piece is written, most stable sound of the piece) and all the voices pause after singing a long-held note. The cadence separating the two sections (AB and CB) closely resembles the final cadence of the piece. These full cadences after the "B" sections clarify the fact that a sentence of text is ending D:

The final cadences employ heightened repetition of text and music, fuller texture, and a pedal point (long note held on a single pitch) in the alto and one tenor part, which propel the words and music toward the ending and provide the piece with a grand closure. Thus, the form of the music clarifies the form of the poetry in the text: the full cadences in the music correspond to the periods after each sentence of text. Although there are other internal cadences throughout the piece, at least one of the voices always anticipates the beginning of the new phrase by singing through the internal cadence without stopping, which keeps the music moving until the final cadences.

Like Palestrina and the Franco-Flemish composers of the 1400s, Victoria's motet is characterized by equality of voices and textural variety. In other words, all six voices are equal in importance, at some point carrying an important melodic line, and there is great variation as to when, where, and which voices enter the musical texture. This motet was written for six voices (two sopranos, an alto, two tenors, and bass), a greater number of voices to sing motets than had been used prior to the 1500s. Expansion of the number of voices used in the liturgy later contributed to the use of double and triple choirs and polychoral motets (involving more than one set of voice parts) characteristic of the composer Giovanni Gabrieli and the "Venetian school" of the 1600s.12 Vidi Speciosam begins with the three upper voices introducing the melody, followed by the entrance in exact imitation by the three lower voices five measures later. The motet continues polyphonically in such points of imitation, driving the music forward. Victoria uses different combinations of voices, using all six voices together, sometimes homophonically (where each vocal sings the same syllables of text in the same rhythm at the same time) at highly descriptive sections such as at the words "ascendentem," "vestimentis," "lilia," "aromatibus myrrhae," and at the final cadence.13 Homophonic declamation of text within a polyphonic piece emphasizes important words while providing musical variation.

So far, Victoria's compositional similarities with Palestrina and earlier composers have been explored within the context of the motet Vidi Speciosam. This shows how closely Victoria adhered to the sacred polyphonic tradition of the Catholic Church. At the same time, however, Victoria maintained uniqueness in his composition by differing slightly from Palestrina's melodic and harmonic style: Victoria's melodic lines employ more accidentals (sharp, flat, and natural notes), called "musica ficta" or "fake music" in the modal harmony of the time. This seemingly disparaging term emphasizes the power of such notes to alter a composition's dominant harmony. Victoria's unique compositional style perhaps foreshadows the new trend toward chromaticism for textual expression later employed by the Italian composers of secular madrigals in the 1600s, or a shift towards a tonal conception of harmony theorized by the composer Rameau a century later. Until the 1600s, harmony was based on a limited number of Gregorian chant modes (scales or sets of notes with certain characteristics), and compositions were created by interweaving melodies (i.e., polyphony), but the music of the later Classical and Romantic periods used a new "tonal" (as opposed to "modal") idiom based on the sounds produced by simultaneous notes or tones (i.e., chords) and the progressions of these sounds.14 Modern editors score this motet in a Major key (a characteristic of the modern-day tonal idiom, since there was no concept of key signature in the modal harmony of the 1500s), but which key is used depends on the editor, although most scores are written in B-flat Major.15 Even though the piece is modal, chromaticism is readily apparent. Notice, for instance, the alternation in the first soprano of c-natural followed almost immediately by c-sharp in the next measure, and then c-natural again E:

Or when the second soprano, on the last syllable of "inaestimabilis," sings a g-sharp almost directly after the second tenor has sung an f-natural (in the second measure of the following excerpt) F. Two measures later, the alto sings d-sharp and c-sharp, and all the voices cadence on a Major chord (in this case, E Major). The frequent use of such altered notes gives the piece a tonal, Major harmonic sound. This chromaticism enhances the harmonic foundation of the piece and highlights the descriptive text, just as it would in the madrigals and sacred music of the 1600s, while foreshadowing later music theory's tonal rather than modal structure.

Several recordings exist of Vidi Speciosam. The Choir of Westminster Cathedral conducted by David Hill recorded a CD entitled Tomas Luis de Victoria: Missa 'Vidi Speciosam'16 featuring both the motet and the Mass based on it. The Westminster Cathedral Singers sing the piece slowly without dragging the tempo, and although it is impossible to know what tempo Victoria used in this piece (indeed, Victoria did not even indicate measures or barlines, which still had not come into use in the 1500s), the pace in the recording is reverent, allowing time to reflect on the words and the harmony. The text is clearly articulated. The Westminster Choir used boys for the alto and soprano parts instead of women, which is not only characteristic of 16th-century liturgical performance practice, but insures equality of voices and smooth blending of musical texture. In addition, the Westminster recording uses an organ very subtly to accompany the singers in the background, which was not unlikely when Victoria's motet was originally performed. Liturgical motets of the 1500s may have been accompanied (improvised, of course) by organ, although not explicitly stated by the composer, especially since they would have been performed in Churches or Cathedrals with large organs.

The Cambridge Singers, under the direction of John Rutter, recorded the CD Ave, Gracia [sic] Plena17 in 1992, re-released as Hail! Queen of Heaven18 in 2002, which contains Vidi Speciosam among other beautiful Marian hymns. The Cambridge Singers do not offer as much variation in dynamics (loud and soft) as the Westminster Choir; this tends to underemphasize some of the climactic sections of the piece. Also, the female voices on the upper parts tend to protrude above the lower male voices. However, at "circumdabant eam," the Cambridge Singers insert slight pauses between the syllables, which captures the attention, provides contrast and variety, and enhances the text by making the word "surround" sound circumspect and halting, as if the voices were looking for a place to escape from being "surrounded."

The CD Tomas Luis de Victoria: Volume III, The Call of the Beloved, 19 performed by the Sixteen and directed by Harry Christophers, features a rendition of Vidi Speciosam which is performed at a tempo that seems to drag occasionally, and the soprano and alto parts can be shrill at times. The Studio de Musique Ancienne de Montreal, directed by Christopher Jackson, recorded this motet in their CD Heavenly Spheres: L'Harmonie des Spheres,20but there is a very large echo that obscures the words. The lower voices are eclipsed by the sopranos and altos, which causes the music to swell awkwardly at times. La Capella Reial de Catalunya, directed by Jordi Savall, sings Vidi Speciosam in the CD Offertorium,21 adding an ensemble of wind and brass instruments to the vocal part. While this creates a beautifully sonorous sound and enhances the harmony, it tends to obscure the words.

As far as analysis of the score, any modern edition of the motet's score may be consulted, as the differences between them are mostly editorial and adhere closely to older manuscripts. The keys might be different, and some editors may use barlines while other merely use dotted lines to suggest meter, usually in 4-4. Most score editions show the range of each voice at the beginning of the piece. The score of Vidi Speciosam transcribed and edited by Martyn Imrie (published by Vanderbeek & Imrie Ltd.) is very good for analysis and performance, as is the score edited by Jon Dixon and published by JOED Music, which uses a Roman manuscript of 1583 as its source.22

However Victoria is rendered by editors and performers nowadays, his motets, including Vidi Speciosam, continue to display the order, sentiment, and reverence of the sacred polyphonic tradition of the Renaissance. His compositional techniques emulate the very best composers of the 1500s, placing Victoria at the same level as Palestrina. Victoria's compositional innovations, at the same time, make him unique in music history, a link between older and newer summits of musical expressivity. From this one can conclude that sacred music in the tradition of Victoria and Palestrina (and, therefore, in the tradition of the Catholic Church at large) serves two important purposes: to reflect and explain elements of the Catechism, Church teachings, and sacred Tradition through the text and its setting within the music, and, through precise melodic and harmonic craftsmanship which as a musical whole reveal artistic beauty, to lead the souls of the listeners and performers closer to God. Victoria's motet fulfills these functions and should be regarded, along with the sacred music of Palestrina, the paintings of Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel, and the sculptures of Bernini adorning many Saints' chapels, as a model of artistic piety to be imitated by Catholic musicians and loved by all.


Bibiana Gattozzi is a student at the University of Texas at Austin majoring in Music (piano performance and pedagogy) and the Liberal Arts honors program known as Plan II. She plays the piano and the violin. The photograph on the first page of this article is of the first page of the manuscript of the motet Vidi Speciosam by Tomas Luis de Victoria, printed in Rome by Alexander Gardanum in 1585. This and other photos of the manuscript can be viewed at Nancho Alvarez's website,

Motet–polyphonic musical composition on a sacred Latin text for two or more unaccompanied voices.

Soprano–voice part with the highest pitch range.

Alto–voice part with a pitch range slightly below the soprano.

Tenor–male voice part with a pitch range below the Alto.

Bass–male voice part with the lowest pitch range.

Polyphony–two or more independent melodies that play at the same time, usually fitted together following certain strict compositional rules.

Oratorio–a sacred musical drama in Latin.

Plainchant–a single, unaccompanied vocal melody sung to the Latin words of the Mass or Divine Office (for example, Gregorian chant).

Melody–principal line of music, also known as a "tune"; any single, continuous line of music.

Form–musical or poetic structure of a composition or poem.

Harmony–combinations of sounds; in a typical composition, a few important harmonies repeat throughout, usually in a recognizable progression, and define the piece’s character.

Harmonic structure–underlying interactions between notes playing simultaneously and/or proximately that give a composition its aural character and emotional thrust; the progression of sounds that define a piece’s key, mode, and character.

Choral–sung by a choir or group of voices.

Texture–in a motet, describes the interface between the different vocal parts; musical texture is thick when several or all voices sing at once, and it is thin when a single voice or few voices sing simultaneously; texture is polyphonic when each of the voices sing independent melodies that do not necessarily match up in pitch or rhythm, and homophonic when all voices sing with the same rhythm simultaneously.

Motivic–describing a characteristic musical idea or gesture taking into account such elements as melody, rhythm, harmony, texture.

Chromaticism–the use of notes altered by flats, sharps, or naturals (which slightly raise or lower the pitch of a given note) not normally found in the prevailing harmonies of a piece.

Interval–the space between two notes, the smallest of which is called a "step."

Cadence–musical ending phrase that usually gives a sense of finality.

Tonic–most stable harmony in a piece.

Melisma–musical passage in which a single syllable of text is accompanied by more than one note in the melody. Equality of voices—refers to the fact that each vocal melody is given equal importance and/or prominence in the composition; no vocal line is more important than the other, and all are integral to the unity of the piece.

Octave–space of eight steps or tones between two notes with the same name.

Pedal point–long, held note on a single pitch, usually at a cadence.

Polychoral–involving more than one choir; composition that calls for more than one set of vocal (soprano, alto, tenor, and bass) parts.

Measure–equal metrical (rhythmic) units of music separated from each other by vertical barlines in the score.

Madrigals–compositions for two or more unaccompanied voices, usually in Italian, not Latin, and dealing with secular subjects.

Tempo–speed (fast or slow) at which a piece is performed.

Dynamics–variations in volume (loud and soft).

Tonal–music based on harmony, chords, and key in which the progressions of certain sounds define the musical trajectory.

Modal–music based on the scales used in Gregorian chant in which melody defines musical trajectory.

1 Grove Encyclopedia of Music Online (2007) (accessed July 28, 2007), s.v. "Tomas Luis de Victoria."

2 Noel O'Regan, "Victoria, Soto and the Spanish Archconfraternity of the Resurrection in Rome," Early Music, Vol. 22, No. 2, Iberian Discoveries II. (May, 1994), pp. 279-295.

3 The Catholic Encyclopedia (1913), s.v. "Palestrina."

4 Peter J. Burkholder, Donald J. Grout, Claude V. Palisca, ed. A History of Western Music, 7th ed. (New York: Norton & Company, Inc., 2006), pp. 233.

5 Jon Dixon, transcriber and editor, Tomas Luis de Victoria's "Vidi Speciosam," Score for SSATTB chorus (JOED music, 1990), Introduction. Miserere, Allegri and works by Palestrina et al., Westminster Cathedral Choir, CD format recording (London: Argo, 1983), Track 3.

6 Tomas Luis De Victoria: Missa 'Vidi Speciosam,' David Hill, conductor, Choir of Westminster Cathedral, CD format recording (London: Hyperion, 1984), Tracks 5-10.

7 Burkholder et al., A History of Western Music, pp.184-188. Tomas Luis De Victoria: Missa 'Vidi Speciosam,' Tracks 6-10.

8 Dixon, Tomas Luis De Victoria's "Vidi Speciosam," Score for SSATTB chorus, Introduction.

9 Martyn Imrie, transcriber and editor, "Vidi Speciosam," by Tomas Luis De Victoria, Score for SSATTB chorus (Vanderbeek & Imrie Ltd., 1997).

10 Victoria, Vidi Speciosam, transcribed by Nancho Alvarez (Online score, personal copyright (10/19/2004) (accessed July 28, 2007). Dixon, Victoria's "Vidi Speciosam," Score for SSATTB chorus.

11 NOTA BENE: The excerpts reproduced here are taken from the web page of Nancho Alvarez, who transcribed Victoria's motet. The following link may be used to access the pdf version of the motet: While a free online version of the motet is available through Rhapsody Online (, the reader is encouraged to refer to a professionally edited, printed score of the motet and one of the many high-quality CD recordings.

12 Burkholder et al., A History of Western Music, p.282.

13 Dixon, Victoria's "Vidi Speciosam," Score for SSATTB chorus. Imrie, Victoria's Vidi Speciosam, Score for SSATTB chorus. Tomas Luis De Victoria: Missa 'Vidi Speciosam,' David Hill, conductor, Track 5.

14 Grove Encyclopedia of Music Online, ed. L. Macy (2007), s.v. "Tonality" (accessed July 28, 2007), shared/ views /article.html? section= music. 28102#music.28102.

15 Dixon, Victoria's "Vidi Speciosam," Score for SSATTB chorus. Imrie, Victoria's "Vidi Speciosam," Score for SSATTB chorus.

16 Tomas Luis De Victoria: Missa "Vidi Speciosam," David Hill, conductor, Choir of Westminster Cathedral, CD format recording (London: Hyperion, 1984), Track 5.

17 Ave Gracia Plena, John Rutter, director, Cambridge Singers, CD format recording (Omaha: Collegium Records, 1992), Track 19.

18 Hail! Queen of Heaven: Music in Honour of the Virgin Mary, John Rutter, director, Cambridge Singers, CD format recording (Omaha: Collegium Records, 2002), Track 19.

19 Tomas Luis de Victoria: Volume III, The Call of the Beloved, Harry Christophers, director, The Sixteen, CD format recording (London: Collins Classics, 1997), Track 10.

20 Heavenly Spheres: L'Harmonie des Spheres, Christopher Jackson, director, Studio de Musique Ancienne de Montreal (Toronto: Les Disques SRC/CBC Records, 1998), Track 10.

21 Offertorium, Jordi Savall, director, La Capella Reial de Catalunya (France: Auvidis Fontalis, 1997), Track 8.

22 Tomas Luis Victoria, Vidi Speciosam, ed. and transcribed by Jon Dixon, Score for SSATTB chorus (JOED Music, 1990). Tomas Luis Victoria, Vidi Speciosam, ed. and transcribed by Martyn Imrie, Score for SSATTB chorus (Vanderbeek & Imrie Ltd, 1997).