Contrary to popular twentieth-century images from It's a Wonderful Life to Touched by an Angel, angelic visitations in the Christian Bible generally inspire terror; often, the first statement by the angel must be "Do not be afraid!" Thus the Archangel Gabriel, appearing to the Virgin Mary to announce her conception by the Holy Spirit, begins with "Ne timeas, Maria." And this text, from the Gospel according to Luke (1: 30-32), proudly adorns the Catholic liturgy as an Antiphon for second Vespers on the feast which commemorates this Annunciation (March 25). As such, it also serves as the text for a joyous four-voiced motet included by Tomás Luis de Victoria in his very first publication, the 1572 Motetca.
This quintessential Counter-Reformation composer is well-known for his intense Catholic spirituality, his particular devotion to the Virgin, and a deep plangency as seen in his 1605 Requiem, or the Tenebrae Responsories. However, this motet shows the composer in a different light: he treats the Annunciation as cause for celebration. He chooses the sunny Ionian mode (which translates to C major) for the piece; his only other use of this key is the motet Trahe me post te. In the opening phrase, the uppermost voice paraphrases the rising gestures of the Gregorian chant for Ne timeas, as is the case in the eight-voice Ave Maria. (The rising fourth returns often throughout the motet, motivically tying it together.)
Roughly two-thirds through the piece, all voices reach a half-cadence, followed by a general pause. Then, as the text proceeds to the angelic revelation of Who the child in Mary's womb will be -- the "Son of the Most High" -- a strong chordal entry leads directly to the motet's climax. Each voice, on "altissimi," makes a vocal leap upward; in the soprano, this leap expands the common rising fourth to a fifth, and reaches the single highest note of the piece. The gesture may be a common gambit, but in Victoria's hands, followed by a gradual release of tension to the final cadence and trailing off of the lower three voices, it lends a scintillating arch to the celebratory motet.