Plain Song Setting and Text
The version of the plainsong melody of
"O Magnum Mysterium" is taken from the Liber Usualis. This is a book of some 1900 pages of plainsong, compiled in the 1890s by the monks of the French Abbey of Solesmes, under the editorship of the then Abbot, Dom Andre Mocquereau (1849-1930). The melodies in the Liber Usualis are those which have been used in the Roman Catholic Church since at least the sixth century. They are the tunes which still lead and accompany the worship of the faithful in many abbeys throughout the world, the tunes of the Mass, the daily offices and the many feasts of the Church’s year. All the music of the Liber Usualis is of outstanding beauty, and needs to be sung with knowledge, care, and, if possible, belief. The best place to hear this music performed is still at the Benedictine Abbey of Solesmes (I am frequently drawn there - it’s not far from the French city of Le Mans, whose breathtaking Cathedral also deserves a visit!) The extraordinary beauty and subtlety of the singing at Solesmes ought to be experienced by everyone interested in serious music. O Magnum Mysterium is typical of the melodies and texts of the Liber Usualis. It is used as a Responsory at Matins on Christmas Day. (A responsory is a type of chant sung at matins as a postlude to a lesson - a recited portion of scripture.) Matins includes nine lessons, so there are nine responsories.
The original melody, with its gentle gradients, flexible rhythm and mixture of syllabic and melismatic styles, is both memorable and mystical, and a perfect adjunct to the extraordinarily beautiful text: ‘O magnum mysterium, et admirabile sacramentum, ut animalia viderent Dominum natum....’ Here, one of the profound paradoxes of the Christian faith is described in three concise phrases: that the greatness of Christ is a direct result of his humility. The birth of God’s Son, in such lowly circumstances, is a wonderful sign of His grace, a mystery almost too great for us subsequently to understand. Mary, the Mother of God, is praised in the poem for being the means (if that doesn’t sound too profane) by which the great mystery was created.
The sound of the language is as beautiful as the melody: the alliteration of the first line, the assonance of the first three lines, the clearly agogic nature of certain syllables in polysyllabic words such as ‘admirabile’ and the obvious purity of the Latin vowel scheme.
The plainsong Responsory ‘O magnum mysterium’ will be present throughout. Each composer uses the text in his own way; and each composer uses the melody, either explicitly or by association. No composer, however, will ever equal, let alone surpass, the beauty and the sophisticated simplicity of the original plainchant.
O magnum mysterium
Tomás Luis de Victoria
The greatest Spanish composer of the High Renaissance, Victoria cut his musical teeth as a choirboy in his native Avila. The visions of Teresa of Avila colored his early religious experience and may have influenced his decision to enter the priesthood. In due course Tomás’s parents packed him off to the newly established Collegio Germanico in Rome, a Jesuit seminary charged with training “fearless warriors for the faith” to defend the Catholic Church against the threat of the Reformation. Victoria’s weapon of choice was music—the richly textured vocal polyphony associated with Palestrina, whom he knew and possibly studied with in Rome. The four-voice motet O magnum mysterium appeared in Victoria’s first collection of sacred music, published in Venice in 1572. It was an auspicious debut for the twenty-four-year-old composer, including as it did many of the works on which his reputation would ultimately rest. Twenty years later, at the height of his fame, he returned to Rome to supervise the publication of a book of masses, one of which was based on this motet.
O magnum mysterium
Although Poulenc’s sensibility was quintessentially Gallic, his style had a distinctively cosmopolitan twist—a quirky blend of simplicity and sophistication, of graceful lyricism and piquant, often acerbic harmonies. Early in his career he allied himself with the circle of irreverently anti-Romantic composers known as “Les Six.” In the last decades of his life, however, he reconnected with the Catholic faith of his childhood. In works like Litanies to the Black Virgin, for women’s chorus, and the opera Dialogues of the Carmelites, his music took on a more overtly religious tone, prompting one critic to describe him as part monk and part rascal. This subdued and serenely lyrical setting of “O magnum mysterium” is one of four Christmas motets that Poulenc composed in the early 1950s. Short melodic phrases, chameleonic harmonies, and passages of wordless humming conjure a mood of muted intensity.
A former music editor for Yale University Press, Harry Haskell is a program annotator for Carnegie Hall in New York, the Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin, and other venues, and the author of several books, including The Early Music Revival: A History and Maiden Flight.
Hodie Christus Natus Est
from Cantiones Sacrae (1619)
Jan Pieterzoon Sweelinck (1562-1621)
Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck was born into a family of organists in Deventer, Netherlands in 1562 and lived and worked his entire life in Amsterdam. While the exact date Sweelinck became organist at the Oude Kerk is unknown, he may have been appointed as early as 1577, when he was 15 and retained that position for over 40 years. He was very well known for his harpsichord and organ improvisations. The city fathers loved to bring important visitors to hear the ‘Orpheus of Amsterdam’ create his magical variations on the psalm tunes. Sweelinck’s church schedule allowed him time for teaching and composing. Though known to history mainly as a keyboard virtuoso and teacher of a generation of Dutch and German organists, Sweelinck left over 250 vocal works to posterity as well. In his own time, Sweelinck's vocal music may even have traveled better in some circles.
The 1619 publication Cantiones Sacrae contains a highly accomplished collection of Catholic motets, despite Sweelinck's lifelong employment by the mostly Protestant town of Amsterdam. This collection shows his skill at presenting Latin texts in the "Netherlandish" style of counterpoint of Josquin and DuFay, yet with more modern, expressive musical techniques.
Sweelinck sets “Hodie Christus Natus Est” for five voices, plus basso continuo. For each initial “Hodie” (English=today), he adopts a lilting dance-like musical melody, first in the tenor as if sung by a herald, and then in the remaining voices; each time the following music contrasts with it. For "Christ is born," a long chord on the Holy Name leads to an ecstatic running imitative passage; for "the Savior appears," there is extended imitation over a steadily rising bass line. Sweelinck highlights the verb in the phrase "the angels sing" by means of smart and almost madrigalian melismas, and both the "joyous archangels" and the "righteous rejoicing" get dance-like triple meters. All four sections of the piece conclude with jubilant imitations on either "Noe" or "Alleluia.” The extended final section ends with a joyous exclamation of “Noes” and “Alleluias,” reminiscent of pealing bells and evoking the antiphonal choral sound of Sweelinck’s Venetian contemporaries.
The text “Hodie Christus Natus Est” comes from the liturgy of the vesper service for Christmas day. The text is a paraphrase of Luke 2:11, 13-14, and Psalm 33:1.
Hodie Christus natus est: (Noe!) hodie Salvator apparuit: (Alleluia!) hodie in terra canunt Angeli, lætantur Archangeli: (Noe!) hodie exsultant justi, dicentes: Gloria in excelsis Deo. Alleluia! (Noe!)
Today, Christ is born: (Noel!)
Today, the Savior has appeared: (Alleluia!) today the Angels sing,
the Archangels rejoice: (Noel!)
Today, the righteous rejoice, saying: Glory to God in the highest.
The motet is through-composed, with each section dictated by text divisions. Sweelinck uses each repetition of the word “Hodie” as an antiphon, beginning a new section, setting this word in triple time, and then alternating to duple time for the subsequent words in the sentence (with the exception of the triple “lætantur archangeli”).
There are four sections:
Section 1: mm 1-14: “Hodie Christus natus est: Noe!” – Establishes many compositional ideas that will later be developed: A major tonality, call (tenor) and response (all other voices) “Hodie,” beginning subsequent section with mostly homophonic texture which quickly breaks into polyphonic imitation, then always culminates in a homophonic statement to end the section.
Section 2: mm 15-36: “Hodie Salvator apparuit: Alleluia!” – Slight variation on “Hodie” call and response, followed by slowly rising bass line, which acts as a dramatic motor, propelling the action (polyphony in upper voices) forward toward the text “Alleluia.” The descending motive on this word contrasts nicely with the preceding upward motion of “Salvator” and brings us to another homophonic conclusion.
Section 3: mm. 37-68: “Hodie in terra canunt Angeli, lætantur Archangeli: Noe!” – Same call and response “Hodie” as section A, followed by a new motive, featuring 16th note melismas (text painting the Latin “canunt” or “sing”) which exuberantly break through the texture and move the action forward. Following the text, the section breaks free of the duple feel, and following the stress of the Latin “lætantur Archangeli” bounces in triple time, until giving way back to the duple feel of “Noe.”
Section 4: mm 69-125: “Hodie exsultant justi, dicentes: Gloria in excelsis Deo. Alleluia! Noe!” – The final call and response is followed by a more wondrous and subdued “Gloria...” featuring slower moving harmonic rhythm, weaving eighth note melismas, and an overall feeling of tranquility, which slowly transforms into excitement with the faster iterations of “Alleluia” and “Noe!” with a dramatic climax on the final A major chord. The longest of all 5 sections, the material here has been foreshadowed/prepare earlier (contour of initial “Hodie” compared with “Gloria,’ faster melisma of “canunt” evolved into slower, but similarly shaped melisma on “Gloria,” extended “Noe” refrain now with interspersed “Alleluias”) which lends this section a feeling of fulfillment and arrival.
This season, Kentucky Bach Choir returns with live performances!
" We Sing the Birth!"
a compilation of exquisite Christmas anthems featuring works by
Johann Sebastian Bach, Palestrina, Praetorius, Victoria, Nathaniel Dett,
William Dawson, and more!
Sunday, December 5, 7:30 pm
First Presbyterian Church
174 N. Mill St., Lexington, Kentucky
COVID Safety protocols will be in place, including:
Limited seating in the sanctuary (@ 50% capacity)
All patrons aged 12+ will be required to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination
The choir and all KyBC staff will be vaccinated
Masks required for patrons and choir
Visit https://www.fpclex.org/M4M for up-to-date protocols before the concert.
As part of the church's Music for Mission Concert Series,
a collection will be received to benefit the work of Seedleaf.
Visit kentuckybachchoir.org for links to both the Facebook and YouTube premier pages.