Avila — A City in Spain Graced by a Mystic, a Composer, and an Instrument

Avila, with its gray, granite walls that each afternoon change to a golden hue in the setting sun, is one of the few remaining fortress cities in Europe. The massive walls, built toward the end of the eleventh century during the reconquest of Spain by the Christians, encircle the entire historic section of town. One can easily envision the ghosts of knights peering down over the battlements at the enemy below. Tourists come year after year to see the walls, take photographs, and climb several of the 90-odd towers that make up the fortified perimeter.

This city is also known and visited for other reasons. In the 16th century, it was the birthplace of a formidable woman mystic, St. Teresa of Avila, and an outstanding polyphonic composer, Tomas Luis de Victoria. It is also home to a small chamber pipe organ found in a cloistered Carmelite monastery. Tradition has it that this curious organ may have belonged to St. Teresa—therein lie tales for the telling.

The Mystic: St. Teresa of Avila

Teresa de Cepeda y Ahumada was born into a noble family of Christian and Jewish extraction in March 1515. Her grandfa¬ther, a convert to Catholicism from Judaism, decided to move to Avila from Toledo with his family to escape the persecution and humiliation that converso (converted) families frequently endured. Teresa’s father, Alonso Sanchez de Cepeda, married twice. His first wife fell very ill and died suddenly after just two years of marriage, leaving two children. Alonso married again, this time a young woman named Beatriz Davila y Ahumada, whose family descended from some of the original Christian settlers of the city. Ten children were born of this second union—seven boys, two girls, and one child about whom nothing is known. Teresa was the third. In the first lines of her autobiography, St. Teresa tells of being blessed with virtuous parents—how her father loved to read good books and how her mother taught them their prayers and fostered devotion to Our Lady and the saints.

Teresa was spunky from the start. When only six or seven, she and her older brother Rodrigo decided to run away and fight the Moors. They got as far as a scenic overlook in Avila called the Cuatro Postes (the Four Posts). There, an uncle caught up with them and brought these young, ardent soon-to-be-martyrs-for-the-faith back home. When Teresa was 13, her mother died, and this loss at such a crucial age had quite an impact on her. In Chapter 2 of The Book on Her Life, St. Teresa, admits that she was a strong-willed teenager who fell into less than virtuous ways, brought on, as she puts it, by bad company and the reading of frivolous books on chivalry.

Her father, in an attempt to rein in his headstrong daughter, sent Teresa to study and live with the Augustinian nuns at the Convent of Our Lady of Grace in Avila. This convent is still run by the same order of nuns and continues to offer catechism classes to the young people in town.

It was at this Augustinian convent that this rebellious teenager got to know a kind and pious nun by the name of Sr. Maria Briceno. Due to Sr. Briceno’s example and the atmosphere at the convent, Teresa began to think seriously of becoming a nun. Her father was actually not in favor of the idea; he only wanted to redirect his daughter’s rebelliousness a bit, but God had other ideas.

Unfortunately, while still at the convent, she fell ill with one of her first serious bouts of illness and had to return home. There, in spite of continued parental opposition during the next few years, she was unable to quiet the call to religious life and decided to join a different order. Her choice was the order of the Carmelite nuns at the Monastery of the Incarnation. On November 2, 1535, All Souls Day, she and her brother Antonio, whom she had convinced to accompany her, slipped away from the family home. Walking quickly out of the nearby arched doorway in the walls, they made their way through the northern barrio of Ajates until they reached the Carmelite monastery. Teresa knocked on the door—the nuns opened it and invited her to enter. Once she was there, her father relented and agreed to provide his daughter with the customary dowry in those years for a young woman entering religious life.

Just a few years after arriving, she again fell very ill. Doctors tried many treatments but could not find a remedy for her condition. Not knowing what to do, her family decided to take her from the monastery to a curandero, an herbalist well known for his cures, who lived in the village of Becedas. In the village, she received a series of purges and other treatments, but her condition worsened dramatically. She had to be taken back home where she slipped into a deep coma, remaining unconscious for four days. Family members saw little reason for hope and were prepared for the worst; however, much to their astonishment, she regained consciousness. The severity of the coma though left her completely paralyzed. Bedridden and barely able to move, this determined young nun convinced her family to take her back to the Monastery of the Incarnation on a stretcher. Once back, she began a long road to recovery by crawling about on her hands and knees to regain some mobility. After three years, she was finally able to walk again, but her health was never quite the same.

During the rest of her life as a nun, she suffered from serious and persistent bouts of illness—high fevers, severe gastrointestinal disorders, and convulsions. In her autobiography, Teresa says her recovery from paralysis was due to the power of prayer, acceptance of the will of God, and the intercession of St. Joseph. This triple approach, she explained, enabled her throughout her life to overcome not only physical but spiritual challenges. After her recovery, she began to lead a life of prayer and penance.

When Teresa was in her mid-40s, a group of women used to meet in her cell at the Monastery of the Incarnation to pray and discuss the lives of the early hermits and saints of the desert. Most in the group were Carmelite nuns. Some, however, were just friends; quite a few were actually Teresa’s relatives. One day, one of the women, Maria de Ocampo, said in passing that since they could not go into the desert like the saints of old, maybe they should try to start up a monastery and attempt to lead lives of severe penance and asceticism. Teresa, who had already started down this path, was struck by the comment and concluded there was a definite need for change in the Carmelite order. The cloistered regimen that existed at the monastery at that time, while austere, was not one of strict enclosure and did not emphasize recollection, mental prayer, and contemplation. Teresa felt that these elements, along with greater austerity, were essential to good monastic life—thus, the need to reform. The news got out in Avila about this proposed reform, and the reaction was fierce. Teresa’s own words in Chapter 32 of The Book of Her Life vividly reflect the situation:

Hardly had the knowledge of it begun to spread throughout the city when the great persecution that cannot be briefly described came upon us: gossip, derision, saying that it was foolishness. As for me they said I was well off in my own monastery…. I didn’t know what to do; it seemed to me they were partly right. While thus very wearied and recommending myself to God, His Majesty began to console and encourage me. He told me that in this I would see what the saints who had founded religious orders had suffered.

She finally received approval for the reform and the founding of a new monastery. In 1562, she established the first foundation of the observant or contemplative Discalced Carmelites at the Monastery of St. Joseph, also in Avila.

During this period of the establishment of these foundations, St. Teresa had to face ongoing opposition from all quarters, including having to respond to ill-founded charges from the tribunals of the Inquisition. After reviewing much testimony, the Inquisition found no basis for the charges, and they were dropped. Her written comments at the time of these inquiries reveal that she took the affair in stride, even with “unexpected joy” at having to face such unjust calumnies—but it was an ordeal nonetheless.

Her feats as a foundress are all the more remarkable when one considers that she overcame so many difficult vocational, spiritual, and physical obstacles. It is easy to forget with our modern mindset that the journeys she took to found these different monasteries were not done in 21st-century comfort. This indomitable nun had to bump along on the backs of donkeys or ride in crude, canvas-covered wagons. The roads were rocky and rutted, and generally, it took days to reach any given destination. Many times she traveled while ill. Travel also meant constantly being exposed to the elements.

On one of her trips she and seven other nuns forded a dangerously swollen river on their way to Burgos to establish what turned out to be her last foundation. The bridge normally used for the crossing was completely submerged. They decided to cross the river where they calculated the bridge should be and began to go down the banks. Suddenly, the water rose, and the mules lost their footing while struggling to keep their heads above the water. The wagon St. Teresa was riding in was nearly swept away by the raging current, but somehow, they all made it to the opposite side. On this trip, St. Teresa was once again not feeling well. Not given to complaining much about her infirmities, she does mention in a matter-of-fact way in The Book of Her Foundations that she had a high fever and a swollen sore throat and that swallowing was very painful. Undaunted, she just kept on going—an unstoppable woman when her mind was set on something.

Both before and during the period of the founding of the monasteries, St. Teresa experienced mystical visions, locutions (the hearing of voices), and ecstasies. Unsettled by these experiences, she consulted various priests about them. Her confessors, realizing that they were faced with an extraordinary woman, requested she keep a written account of her mystical experiences. In her writings, she usually refers to them as “favors” or “graces” from Our Lord. Some of the terms she uses to describe these experiences are “marvelous glory,” “delight,” “rapture,” “extraordinary beauty,” “supernatural majesty,” and “brilliant and dazzling light.” Again and again, she says that words simply cannot convey to others what these mystical favors were truly about. Not all the mystical experiences were of heaven, Our Lord, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the angels, and the saints; some were terrifying visions of demons and hell.

St. Teresa’s first two spiritual directors thought that these experiences were exclusively from the devil, and they told her not to continue with the spiritual exercises of mental prayer alone in her cell. Even now these sorts of occurrences would be considered unusual, so it is understandable that some 400 years ago, her spiritual directors were uneasy. It is also important to keep in mind that, in 16th-century Spain, mystics were suspect—women much more so than men. It was generally thought that women were not fit to be mystics, mainly because mental prayer and contemplation could serve as convenient channels for feminine flights of fancy, which, in turn, might lead to questionable mystical experiences. In his excellent introduction to Volume 2 of The Complete Works of St. Teresa, Kieren Kavanaugh mentions:

[T]here were the interpretations of genetic laws which claimed that some women were a mistake of nature, a kind of unfinished man…. The scholastic theologians themselves were influenced by Aristotle’s reasoning that women were guided by their passions rather than by stable judgements.

Given this climate, it is not surprising that St. Teresa’s writings also came under scrutiny. As the ecclesiastical authorities reviewed her manuscripts, they routinely censured them, making corrections and comments in the margins. Ultimately, they found no inherent errors, and she was asked to continue writing. Today, her works, The Book of Her Life, The Way of Perfection, The Interior Castle, and The Book of Her Foundations, are considered classics in spirituality and mysticism—significant achievements for a woman mystic of 16th-century Spain.

During those last years, she was beset with increasingly more serious episodes of illness, and her health began to fail rapidly. She died while visiting one of her foundations at Alba de Tormes in October 1582 and was canonized not long after, in 1622. In 1970, this resolute and bold-spirited nun became the first woman saint to be declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Paul VI.

The Composer: Tomas Luis de Victoria

The 16th century was historic for Avila, because in 1548, another great individual was born within its walls—the polyphonic composer Tomas Luis de Victoria. The seventh of eleven children, Victoria suffered the loss of his father when he was just nine. An uncle, who was a priest, took charge of the family and arranged for the young boy to become a member of the cathedral choir in Avila. Victoria seems to have studied with several well-known Spanish musicians of the day, including the famous blind organist, Antonio de Cabezon, who held a musical post in those years at the Cathedral of Avila. Today, when entering the shadowy naves of this fortress cathedral, one can go to the middle choir area and see where Victoria must have sat in the elaborately carved wooden choir stalls.

Historical records indicate that young Victoria, after his stint as a choirboy, received one of the royal scholarships to study in Rome that had been established by King Philip II for promising new talent. Once in the Eternal City, Victoria studied theology and music at the Jesuit Collegium Germanicum. It was during these years that, in all probability, this young man from Avila came into contact with the well-known composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, who was music director at another nearby college, the Collegium Romanum. Few details exist of this contact with Palestrina; what is known is that active exchanges did exist between the two academic centers.

While Victoria was completing his studies for the priesthood, he began to work as a music teacher and maestro di cappella at the Collegium Germanicum and later as an organist at several other chapels, churches, and schools in Rome. It was during this period that he began composing. After he was ordained, Victoria became the chaplain at the Church of San Girolamo della Carita while another amazing 16th-century saint, Philip Neri, was there. During these years, Neri had begun to organize groups of religious and lay penitents who met to sing hymns of praise in the oratorio or upper area of the Church of San Girolamo. Judging from the several volumes of works that Victoria composed while at San Girolamo, he obviously was influenced and inspired by the gatherings and services.

After many years abroad in Rome, Victoria became homesick for his native land. In the preface of a Book of Masses dedicated to King Philip II of Spain, he expressed a desire to return to his country, mainly to follow his vocation as a priest. Finally, a possibility arose. The king’s sister, the Dowager Empress Maria, decided to retire from the world and enter the monastery of the Discalced Clarist nuns in Madrid. So Victoria initially went to this monastery as chaplain and later as choirmaster and organist.

During the last years of his life, he worked almost exclusively on revisions and the publication of earlier compositions, although he did write and publish the Officium Defunctorum, one of his most famous funeral Masses. He died on August 27, 1611.

Though well known and respected during his lifetime, this priest and musician is an almost-forgotten figure of polyphonic composition. If you have never heard any of Victoria’s works, the first time you do so, whether listening to a live schola or a recording, you will feel as though special angels of polyphony have come down and gently transported your spirits to the heavens of harmony. The first time I heard the glory of his works, I was amazed by the poignant and ethereal grandeur of the compositions. I wondered aloud, who is this musical genius? And why is he not at least as well known as his contemporary Palestrina? Although he did not compose nearly as much as other Renaissance composers, the volume of his compositions is, nonetheless, noteworthy. There are approximately 185 works in all: Masses, Magnificats, Lamentations, Responsories, Antiphons, Psalms, Motets, Hymns, and two Passions.

Some very good recordings of Victoria’s works are available, especially on smaller labels. One composition well worth listening to is Officium Hebdomanae Sanctae. Composed for Holy Week services, this opus includes the well-known Tenebrae Responsories and Lamentations, sacred hymns based on the Old Testament words from the Book of Lamentations. Musically, the pieces are awesome and awe-inspiring—truly some of the most moving compositions that can be heard. Occasionally throughout the year in Avila, there are polyphonic and organ concerts during which some of Victoria’s works are performed. Aside from these concerts, there are also two or three parishes in the city that again are using their native son’s compositions in the liturgies.

The Instrument: A Chamber Pipe Organ

Last but not least of the 16th-century bequests to Avila is the instrument—a chamber pipe organ found at the Carmelite Monastery of the Incarnation. This small, fragile set of pipes and bellows lay forgotten in the monastery choir loft until 1981. It was then that Antonio Baciero, a keyboard musician, and Joaquin Saura, a restorer of old instruments, went on a visit to the monastery to look at an organ they heard about from an itinerant piano tuner and realized what they had found.

After getting special permission to enter the cloistered area of the monastery, they climbed the stairs to the upper area. There, in the shadowy recesses of the choir loft, stood this dusty jewel of an instrument. They began looking carefully at the wooden organ structure and found that the basic parts—keys, bellows, and pipes—were intact. Although difficult to believe, they were in the presence of a 16th-century chamber pipe organ that was still in working condition. The necessary restoration of the organ was then completed, and it is now the oldest known organ of its kind in Spain—a national treasure.

Moreover, oral tradition at the monastery has it that St. Teresa may have played this organ, and it could well be true. When Teresa entered the Carmelite Monastery of the Incarnation, she had to learn how to sing and chant the Divine Office, services that were quite elaborate and many times accompanied by musical instruments. Given the strength of oral tradition in Spain, it is quite conceivable that Teresa may have not only known how to play the organ but played this very one during these services four and a half centuries ago.

Each year in Avila, a concert is held in the monastery chapel. As the concert begins, the small organ gently wheezes a bit while the bellows start pumping. The organist’s fingers press down on the keys, and one can hear the beautiful, sweet notes as they pour forth from the instrument. This music and organ have the capacity to take one back in time to the pure sounds of an era long gone, a unique experience for anyone present at these concerts.

Until 1996, there was only one older recording, no longer generally available, of this organ being played. That year a small editorial firm, Editores Villamonte, specializing in artistic and musical editions, put out a remarkable CD with pieces from the 15th and 16th centuries. The organist in this recording is the same Antonio Baciero who, along with Joaquin Saura, “discovered” the organ some 16 years ago. The audio technology of the recording is superb, but not overdone, in that it faithfully recaptures the musical sounds of an organ of that period. The recording is a fine and fitting tribute to such an instrument.

And so it is that Avila, which has also witnessed its share of tragic historical events, is honored in its history by these three treasures: a mystic, a composer, and an instrument.


  • Maria Stella Ceplecha

    Maria Stella Ceplecha is a freelance writer and a Spanish language and culture professor from St. Paul, Minnesota. She lives part of the year in Avila, Spain.

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

With so much happening in the Church right now, we are hard at work drawing out the battle plans so we can keep the faithful informed—but we need to know who we have on our side. Do you stand with Crisis Magazine?

Support the Spring Crisis Campaign today to help us meet our crucial $100,000 goal. All monthly gifts count x 12!

Share to...