Victoria’s O Magnum Mysterium

From Wikipedia:
O magnum mysterium,
et admirabile sacramentum,
ut animalia viderent Dominum natum,
jacentem in praesepio!
Beata Virgo, cujus viscera
meruerunt portare
Dominum Christum.
English translation
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 text is from Matins on Christmas, meaning it was chanted as part of the first official prayers of the Church on Christmas morning.

Victoria wrote this most beautiful setting of this text sometime around 1600, at the height of the Counter Reformation. Two other great polyphonic composers also set this text around this time, Palestrina in Italy and William Byrd in England. By setting a Latin text in England, Byrd was liable to capital punishment as a traitor to the crown – he risked being hanged, disemboweled while alive, and torn to pieces by the English, who liked to go on about how uncivilized those  Spanish Catholic were.

It’s no coincidence that these three masters chose to set this text at that time. In the context of the Counter Reformation, O Magnum Mysterium is a Catholic theological counterpoint to the Protestant understanding of grace, and of sacraments as a conduit of God’s grace.

O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the new-born Lord,
lying in a manger!
As set by Victoria, the opening phrase is a suspension – the sopranos come in with a slow, open melody of uncertain tonality, that uncertainty emphasized by the altos, who enter with a restatement that describes additional possible tonal centers – you’re not quite sure what the tonic center is until the cadence just before the basses enter. It’s a bit of a mystery where exactly you are, until everyone sings together of the ‘wonderful sacrament’. It is a typical Victoria move to go from independent polyphonic lines to big block movements, as a resolution of both the text and the musical rhythm. 

The first big resolution ends on ‘sacramentum’ – Sacrament, a physical sign that gives grace. Note that we Catholics nowadays distinguish between capital S sacraments – the seven sacraments instituted by Christ – and sacramentals, which are all the other physical ways God’s grace is made available to us. The seven sacraments are an especially exalted  subset of the ways God chooses to give us grace. The whole world, once redeemed by Christ, becomes sacramental. The very animals, in looking upon the Christ Child, become a channel of God’s grace to those prepared to accept it – the people of good will addressed by the Christmas angels.

For the rest of the piece, the voices are never again as independent as they were at the opening – which could be just the typical artistic progression for a motet of this style, but could also be a statement about the effects of grace in sacraments. Voices enter in pairs singing Ut anlimalia – that animals – and move to a beautiful vertical climax  on viderent Dominum natum  – should see the Lord just born, natum – new-born – getting the climactic cadence (with a very cool part for us tenors).

Musically, the piece moves down from this climax through lying in a manger – jacentem in praesepio – to a temporary resting place on ‘manger’ – praesepio. Someone who actually knows some Latin might expand on the root of praesepio, which has something to do with enclosed. Unencumbered by any actual knowledge, I’ll recklessly speculate that this is almost a pun – Christ is enclosed in human form while lying in a manger.

With the next line, we return to mystery. Beata Virgo is set to some music Victoria liked so much, he recycles the phrase in at least one other piece of his I’ve sung. It’s a short but incredibly beautiful, complex and dissonant phrase with a series of internal resolutions that lead to a rather abrupt end on the ‘o’ of Virgo, and right on into cujus viscera – whose viscera – always translated ‘womb’ in context, but, in general, guts or innards – were worthy to bear Christ the Lord.

Victoria is up to the challenge of ending this piece with a glorious setting of the word Alleluia.  He starts in a vibrant 3, swings his way through getting all the voices involved, with a bit of medieval sounding syncopation, then switches to a royal and glorious 4 for a magnificent final cadence to a major close.

But don’t take my word for it:

By choosing to set this text as a motet, Victoria is moving it from the Office said largely by religious into the Mass, where it can be sung for everybody to hear. The text is an end-around, as it were, to the Protestant argument about the Church’s teachings on grace and sacraments. The reformers had cast grace as a one-way street of divine work, with no room for people – or, by extension, any other part of the created world – to act or, really, have any roll at all. In a world of Sola Gratia, where’s the room for a cow, a donkey, and some sheep to be ‘sacramentum’? What does it even mean to say such a thing, as God is the sole actor in anyone’s salvation?

Victoria’s – and the Church’s – answer is that, while of course nothing is accomplished without God first acting and sustaining us, there remains a mystery – that God can choose to grant us freedom, and that freedom is expressed when we allow grace to flow into us from whatever source God chooses – even lowly animals. Once you’ve accepted that, then it makes sense to talk of the Blessed Virgin, as one chosen especially by God to be a channel of grace to us, most obviously by her bearing and nurturing Christ in the womb.

O Magnum Mysterium is not a prayer the reformers would have approved of without a good bit of explaining away.


Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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