The motet Ascendens Christus in altum by Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Victoria was first published in his 1572 book of motets, one of his finest publications where one can find other motets such as the famous O magnum mysterium or the six-part Vidi speciosam.
The motet was later reprinted in the book of motets of 1583, 1585, 1589, in the Cantiones Sacrae of 1589, and in the 1603 book of motets, which suggests that the work gained popularity very early after its publication.
Ascendens Christus in altum is scored for five voices (SSATB), is indicated In Ascensione Domini, serving the liturgy for the Feast of Ascension. The text used by Victoria comes from the last responsory of the second nocturn (n.º 6) of Matins for that feast. In form and structure, this motet is very similar to Victoria’s Pentecost motet Dum complerentur. «This is a two-part motet in a responsory form, with a final “Alleluia” being repeated both as the last segment of the prima and secunda pars.
The opening is worth mentioning, especially the opening motive, with an ambitus of an octave, which first appears in the Cantus I, then imitated in unison or at the octave successively by the Cantus II, Tenor, Bassus, and at a fifth by the Altus. This motive, associated to the text “Ascendens Christus in altum”, gives the sense of his rising to the heavens, which is a very common musical resource among sixteenth and seventeenth composers. Victoria also pushed the seventh degree of this D scale (C-sharp) a chromatic semitone, which contributes to this sense of rising.
A variant of this motive is used by Victoria in the opening of the secunda pars, associated with the text “Ascendit Deus in jubilatione”, again, with the intention of giving the sense of rising, although in this second use the ambitus is only of a fifth.
The “Alleluia” segment is also worth mentioning since it appears at the end of both parts. The word is introduced in a very fast succession, rushing the rhythm of the final section of each of the parts.