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The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians

The traditional chant Hodie Christus natus est comes from the Vespers (or Evensong) service for Christmas Day. Included in the Roman Catholic Liber usualis, a collection of liturgical texts and plainchant melodies for every service of the church year, the joyful “Hodie” antiphon follows the recitation of the Magnificat, or Canticle of Mary. Its message of celebration has inspired composers of sacred music for generations.

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525 or 1526-1594) is perhaps the best-known composer of sacred polyphony in the late sixteenth century. Palestrina’s career bound him to Rome and the Catholic Church; he was a singer and composer for the Sistine Chapel, and famously wrote music that satisfied a Tridentine decree that all text be clearly understood. Later in his career, Palestrina took up an increasingly innovative musical style that included over 70 polychoral (“many-choir”) pieces, usually for the relaxed liturgical environment of religious confraternity meetings.

Palestrina published this double-chorus setting of “Hodie Christus natus est” as part of his Motettarum liber tertius of 1575. In the piece, he passes material between the two “choirs” of singers to generate a dialogic effect and textural variety. Renowned for his careful balance of consonance and dissonance, Palestrina’s harmonies are sweet and full, punctuated occasionally by lively vocal runs and jaunty dotted rhythms. Each line of text is capped with a refrain of “Noè, Noè”; the last is in triple meter, a possible acknowledgement of the Holy Trinity seen frequently in the “Alleluias” of the Venetian tradition.

Renowned Dutch composer and organist Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621) was the last of the great Franco-Flemish composers, the undisputed masters of the early Renaissance. Sweelinck’s setting of “Hodie Christus natus est” reflects a shift in the Continent’s musical epicenter from the Netherlands to Italy. Although he did not himself travel to southern Europe, Sweelinck kept himself abreast of the innovations of composers including Andrea Gabrieli of Venice, and translated volumes by the famed Italian theorist Gioseffo Zarlino. He published this setting of “Hodie Christus” in his Cantiones sacrae, a 1619 collection of Catholic liturgical music—unusual in Calvinist Amsterdam.