Week 150: “O Vos Omnes” by Tomas Luis De Victoria


Polyphony used to be considered offensive.

It’s hard to imagine how two people singing different notes could possibly offend anyone, but there was a time when the Catholic Church decreed that anything other than Gregorian chant, or plainsong, was unsuitable. Pope John XXII had this to say about composers who used harmony:

“These composers…cause great confusion. The great number of notes in their compositions conceals from us the plainchant melody, with its simple well-regulated rises and falls that indicate the character of the church mode. These musicians run without pausing. They intoxicate the ear without satisfying it; they dramatize the text with gestures; and, instead of promoting devotion, they prevent it by creating a sensuous and indecent atmosphere.” (From Teachings of the Holy Father, 1324)

With this in mind, songs like “O Vos Omnes” seem as rebellious as anything London produced during the peak of punk. So put on some ripped jeans, gel your hair into a mohawk, give yourself a “Palestrina 4 Life” tattoo, and enjoy this wonderful piece of polyphony by Tomas Luis De Victoria.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. Often, a line begins with a single note, allowing the harmony to grow around it, and accentuating the polyphony.

2. At 1:48, most of the choir drops out, leaving just three voices.

3. It spends so much time avoiding thirds, that when it becomes decisively major or minor, it’s always a surprise.

Recommended listening activity:

Seeing the sign, but walking on the grass anyway.

Buy it here.