08 January 2017

Celebrating the three miracles of
Epiphany with music by Palestrina

The Baptism of Christ in the River Jordan … a stained glass window in the north ambulatory in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

Today is the First Sunday after the Epiphany [8 January 2017], and later this morning I am presiding at the Cathedral Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

Today, in the Church Calendar, we commemorate the Baptism of Our Lord, one of the three great Epiphany feasts, along with the Visit of the Magi and the Wedding at Cana. All three are regarded as various manifestations (or Epiphanies) of Jesus' divinity.

The preacher this morning is Canon Aisling Shine, and the setting is the Missa Brevis by the Italian composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594), sung by the Cathedral Choir.

The Communion motet this morning, Tribus miraculis, is a Latin text for Epiphany also sung to a setting by Palestrina. Tribus miraculis (‘For these three miracles so wondrous’) was first written as the Magnificat antiphon at Second Vespers of the Feast of the Epiphany:

Tribus miraculis ornatum, diem sanctum colimus:
Hodie stella Magos duxit ad praesepium:
Hodie vinum ex aqua factum est ad nuptias:
Hodie in Jordane a Joanne Christus baptizari voluit,
ut salvaret nos, Alleluia.

We solemnly observe this day ornamented with three miracles:
today the star led the Magi to the manger;
today wine was changed from water at the wedding;
today in the Jordan Christ desired to be baptised by John in the River Jordan,
so that he might save us, Alleluia.

The Italian Renaissance composer Palestrina had a lasting influence on Church music, and his work is often seen as the culmination of Renaissance polyphony.

The Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, where Palestrina began his career in Rome (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

He first visited Rome in 1537, when he became a chorister at the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, and he spent most of his career in Rome.

From 1544 to 1551, he was the organist of the Cathedral of Saint Agapito in his home town of Palestrina. But in 1551 Pope Julius III, former Bishop of Palestrina, appointed him musical director of the Julian Chapel, the choir of the chapter of canons at Saint Peter’s Basilica.

During the next decade, Palestrina held similar positions in other churches in Rome, including Saint John Lateran (1555-1560) and Saint Mary Major (1561-1566), both of which I visited last Thursday [5 January 2017]. He returned to the Julian Chapel in 1571 and remained at Saint Peter’s for the rest of his life.

Palestrina left hundreds of compositions, including 105 Masses, 68 offertories, at least 140 madrigals and more than 300 motets. In addition, there are at least 72 hymns, 35 Magnificats, 11 litanies, and four or five sets of lamentations.

When he died in Rome in 1594, Palestrina was buried beneath the floor of Saint Peter’s in a plain coffin with a lead plate inscribed: Libera me Domine. His tomb was later covered and his not been located since then.

Before I move to my new appointment in the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes in Co Limerick and Co Kerry later this month, this is probably the last time I shall preside at the Eucharist in Christ Church as a canon of the Cathedral. However, I am back again to preach in the Cathedral next Sunday [15 January 2017].

Saint John Lateran in Rome, where Palestrina was the musical director in 1555-1560 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

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