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O magnum mysterium

- Tomás Luis de Victoria, ed. Gary D. Penkala


PDF Sample

Use: Christmas
Required Resources: SATB choir
Language: Latin

This text was incorporated in medieval times into the Divine Office as the fourth of the nine Responsories for Matins on Christmas Day. According to Adrian Partington, Director of Music at Gloucester Cathedral UK:

Here, one of the profound paradoxes of the Christian faith is described in three concise phrases:

  1. that the greatness of Christ is a direct result of his humility
  2. the birth of God’s Son, in such lowly circumstances, is a wonderful sign of His grace, a mystery almost too great for us subsequently to understand
  3. Mary, the Mother of God, is praised in the poem for being the means by which the great mystery was created

This motet is a profound example of a facile and expressive rendering of this mysterious text. Mr. Partington continues:

Victoria’s setting of O magnum mysterium was written primarily in the Aeolian mode. Composed for four-part SATB ensemble, it begins with high gentle soprano voices, soon joined by the altos, in which the wonderment of the beasts at the Virgin birth is conveyed by five bare fifths and five bare octaves. His use of the dropping melodic fifth occurs at the introduction of several of his pieces, here as an invitation to meditate on the Nativity. The wait for the entry of the lower voices and the strong cadence at the tenor entry each add to the mystery. At the bass entry uncertainty is created by an unexpected juxtaposition of a D major chord, with a quick reversion to d minor. Harmonic ambiguity is central to conveying wonder and mystery.

Victoria achieves expressiveness not through shifting vocal textures like Palestrina, but through a combination of techniques including imitation (notably in the section "jacentem in præsepio"), duet and trio passages, homophony and a dramatic pause just before the second half, before the full chords on "O beata." Most of the voices echo each other rather than sing syllables at the same time. Victoria repeats passages from earlier in the motet: "O beata Virgo" is based on the second (four-part) statement of "O magnum mysterium," while the opening of the "Alleluia" section reiterates the first few notes in the SAT statement of "ut animalia."

Here's a beautiful video of O magnum mysterium by the Choir of King's College, Cambridge.


Order #: 7070
Price: $1.95


- Treasury Series
- Christmas
- SATB Choir
- Latin
- a cappella

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