The ‘Te Deum’ is a hymn of thanksgiving, the origins of which are thought to reach a long way back towards antiquity. The text is constructed from a number of complex and diverse elements, some of which are thought by scholars to point to an origin before the mid-fourth century. Nowadays this is a chant of praise to God which is sung at the end of Matins on Sundays or on Feast days, but it is known to have been used in earlier times as a processional chant, as the conclusion of a liturgical drama, for thanksgiving at the consecration of a Bishop, or to celebrate a battlefield victory. In his setting of the ‘Te Deum’ (published in Madrid in 1600) Victoria divides the text into thirty-one verses. These he sets in alternatim style with alternate verses set to chant and for the full choir. In verses 1–4 the text is constructed on a quasi-‘antiphonal’ basis (‘Tibi omnes angeli’—‘tibi caeli et universae potestates’—‘tibi cherubim et seraphim … proclamant’); verses 5–8 then insert slightly adapted words from the Sanctus of the Mass. In verses 9–12 the text reverts to the ‘antiphonal’ manner (‘Te gloriosus apostolorum …’—‘te prophetarum …’—‘te martyrum …’—‘Te per orbem …’). Verses 13–15 are thought to be a doxology inserted later into an earlier basic text. Then comes a section, beginning in verse 16, of praise for Christ (‘Tu, rex gloriae Christe’). In the last section a great deal of the text is derived from the Psalms. Thus verses 24 and 25 (‘Salvum fac populum tuum, Domine … / Et rege eos et extolle …’) are a prayer based on a text from Psalm 28: 9; verses 26 and 27 (‘Per singulos dies benedicimus te, / et laudamus nomen tuum in saeculum, et in saeculum saeculi’) borrow text adapted from Psalm 145: 2; and finally there is a distinct echo in the closing verse of the hymn of the words of Psalm 24: 2.
Less information is available about the melody for the ‘Te Deum’ chant. All the earliest sources of the text are without musical notation. It is not until the twelfth century that manuscripts containing musical indications of the chant are known, and scholars are still seeking precise early sources. Moving forward to more recent times, transcriptions, not always from completely specified sources, are available in the Solesmes edition, the Antiphonale Monasticum and the Liber usualis, which provide a working basis for performance of the whole hymn. Victoria’s setting of the hymn, which provides choral music for all the even-numbered verses, is rather unusual for an alternatim composition in that virtually all the music he writes for the choral verses is in a non-fugal homophonic style. Nonetheless, he achieves great liveliness and variety by using shorter and longer note values to underline the rhythm of the words, by embellishing the approach to cadences, by well-chosen changes in vocal register, and by using predominantly a bright major tonality. This provides an excellent contrast to the more sombre mood of the chant.
from notes by Jon Dixon © 2010