Palestrina: O magnum mysterium

Agnolo Bonzino Adoration of the Shepherds 1539-40 Oil on wood Szépmûvészeti Múzeum Budapest 296x409Palestrina’s six-part motet "O magnum mysterium" was published in Rome in 1569 as part of  a collection of motets, for five, six and seven voices. It’s a six-part motet that Palestrina wrote for Christmas – the Feast of the Nativity and is both a beautiful piece of music and a marvellous example of his skill. In it Palestrina trys, and largely succeeds, in expressing the  joy and  awe felt by the shepherds as they celebrated Christ’s birth and worshipped the Christ-child as he lay in a manger.

For this motet Palestrina took his text from the first half of the fourth and third Responsories at Matins on Christmas Day. It opens with a slow series of chords that announce the "great mystery and wonderful sacrament" ("O magnum mysterium et admirabile sacramentum") and continues with a series of voices in different combinations before breaking into a chorus in triple time representing the "chorus of angels praising God" ("chorus angelorum collaudantes Dominum"). Palestrina ends the first part of them motet with a series of ‘Alleluias’ in double time.

The second part of the motet reuses much of the material found in the first except that this time the shepherds directly recount what they’ve seen "The newborn we have seen and a chorus of angels praising God" ("natum vidimus et chorus angelorum collaudantes Dominum"). Lyrics and a translation are both below the fold. Enjoy :-)


[audio:|titles=Palestrina- O magnum mysterium]

Click the player above to listen to the motet

Lyrics: O magnum mysterium


O magnum mysterium et admirabile sacramentum

ut animalia viderent Dominum natum

iacentem in praesepio.

Natum vidimus et chorus angelorum

collaudantes Dominum. Alleluia.

O great mystery and wonderful sacrament,

that beasts should see the new-born Lord

lying in a manger.

The new-born we have seen and a chorus

of angels praising God. Alleluia.

Quem vidistis pastores?

Dicite, annunciate nobis quis apparuit?

natum vidimus et chorus angelorum

collaudantes Dominum. Alleluia.

Whom have you seen, shepherds?

Speak, tell us who has appeared?

The newborn we have seen and a chorus

of angels praising God. Alleluia.

3 thoughts on “Palestrina: O magnum mysterium

  1. Thank you a many many times for this wonderful piece of music and the enlightening explanations. I own some of Palestrina’s works on CD. And, as this one is for christmas, some christmas motets too (like “nesciens mater virgo virum” by Jean Mouton, which I could never forget after I listened to it for the first time sung by “the sixteen”, sadly enough only on the radio, not live^^).
    O magnum mysterium by Palestrina appeared in a superb swedish radio program (“natum vidimus” is the part I heard there, and isn’t it – well, hauntingly beautiful?)
    I did not know the piece before, so I came to your site. And what a treasure I found! I’ll look around now, it seems magnificent. Websites like yours make the internet a wonderful place.
    Well – to cut it short – thank you! For the text, for the picture to the text, for the music. I’ll buy some version of this piece soon.

  2. My first comment a few days ago seems to have vanished into very thin air^^ – so again, a big thank you for this incredibly wonderful website. O magnum mysterium, which I first heard, despite knowing a bit of Palestrina’s works, in a swedish radio program, is a joy to listen to.

    • That happens sometimes – I run anti-spam software here and occasionally it flags a comment as spam that isn’t. “hauntingly beautiful” music indeed. Thanks for commenting I hope you’ll enjoy exploring the music I post and write about.


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