Tomás Luis de Victoria (ca. 1548-1611) was the most renowned Spanish Renaissance polyphonist. His works are characterized by mystical fervor and nobility of musical concepts.
Tomás Luis de Victoria was the seventh child of 11 born in Ávila to Francisco Luis de Victoria and Francisca Suárez de la Concha. His father's death in 1557 left the family in the care of an uncle who was a priest. Victoria spent several years as a choirboy in Ávila Cathedral.
In 1565 (or 1563) Victoria entered the German College at Rome. This was a Jesuit school lavishly supported by Philip II and Otto von Truchsess von Waldburg, the cardinal archbishop of Augsburg. Victoria served as organist at the Aragonese church of S. Maria di Monserrato in Rome from 1569 to 1574. In 1571 the German College hired him to teach music to the young boys. He was ordained on Aug. 28, 1575. From that year to 1577 he directed the German College choir singing at the church of S. Apollinare in Rome; from 1578 to 1585 he held a chaplaincy at S. Girolamo della Carità, the church of the newly founded Oratorians at Rome.
Victoria returned to Spain in 1587 and until 1603 served as chapelmaster of the Descalzas Reales convent in Madrid, where Philip II's sister, the Dowager Empress Maria, and her daughter, Princess Margaret, resided. From 1604 until his death on Aug. 27, 1611, he was also the organist at the convent.
In 1572 Victoria dedicated his first, and still most famous, publication to Cardinal Truchsess, a great connoisseur of church music. The 33 motecta ranging from four to eight voices in this collection include the sensuous Vere languores and O vos omnes, which to this day form the bedrock of Victoria's reputation with the broad public that knows nothing of his Magnificats, hymns, sequences, psalms, antiphons, and 20 Masses—five of which appeared in 1576, four more in 1583, seven in 1592, and the rest in 1600 and 1605.
In his 1572 motets Victoria closely followed the detail technique of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, evincing a commanding mastery of Palestrina's dissonance treatment. Personal contact with Palestrina and perhaps even lessons probably explain Victoria's absorption of the technique. From 1566 to 1571 Palestrina served as chapelmaster at the Roman College near the German College. What distinguishes Victoria's personal manner in 1572 from Palestrina's is the younger composer's frequent recourse to printed accidentals, his fondness for what would now be called melodic minor motion (sharps ascending, naturals descending), and the anticipation of 19th-century functional harmony.
Throughout his career, even when writing Missa Quarti toni (1592), Victoria always succeeded in sounding like a "major-minor" rather than a truly "modal" composer. For him Quarti toni meant A minor cadencing on the dominant. In 1600 he published Missae, Magnificat, motecta, psalmi, & alia, which consists very largely of organ-accompanied F-major music. True, he reverted to unaccompanied minor keys in the Officium defunctorum, published in 1605 as a tribute to his patroness, the Dowager Empress Maria, but this was funeral music. In none of Palestrina's publications did he specify organ accompaniments. Victoria did—even publishing organ parts in 1592 and 1600.
Victoria's miscellany of 1600 includes a Missa pro Victoria modeled on Clément Janequin's famous battle chanson. Philip III liked this ebullient nine-voice Mass founded on a secular model more than any of Victoria's other works, but it contravenes every quality endearing Victoria to his modern public. However, it does at least prove him to have been more versatile emotionally and technically than his admirers will admit. Philip III's partiality for it served as a sales gambit when Victoria sought funds from its publication to bail his youngest brother out of prison.
A biography of Victoria is sketched in Robert Stevenson, Spanish Cathedral Music in the Golden Age (1961). For historical background see the New Oxford History of Music, vol. 4: The Age of Humanism, 1540-1630 (1968), chapter 7.