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Le Nouveau-né, by Georges de la Tour

Le Nouveau-né (The Newborn), by Georges de La Tour (1593-1652)

Georges de La Tour (13 March 1593 – 30 January 1652)


Last year, on Christmas day, I wrote the following post:

A Christmas Offering: Hymns to Mary

We were at Notre-Dame de Paris (NDP), listening to Marian hymns, but Notre-Dame no longer provides the internet with recordings of its liturgical music. However, we have the music it used to provide.

Basic Marian Hymnology: Notre-Dame de Paris

To put it in a nutshell, Marian music consists of approximately 32 hymns (general term), the most important of which are the four antiphons listed below.  At Notre-Dame de Paris, where we are nevertheless traveling, four other Marian hymns are sung daily, one of which is a canticle (cantique in French) or song of praise: the MagnificatWhen Mary heard that her cousin Elizabeth was pregnant, she sang the Magnificat.  Elizabeth’s child was John the Baptist.

The other Marian hymns sung at Notre-Dame are the Hail Mary or Ave Maria, the Angelus and the Ave Maris Stella.  The Angelus is explained at NDP, but not performed.  Every hymn is translated into English.



An antiphon is a call and respond song.  It resembles a refrain.  That is an over-simplification, but a first step.

  • Salve Regina
  • Regina Cæli
  • Alma Redemptoris mater
  • Ave Regina Cælorum


A canticle is a song of praise such as the Nunc Dimittis.

Marian Hymnology

As stated above, altogether, there are approximately 32 Marian hymns, including the four Antiphons.  However, to these we must add the works of composers who have written oratorios, cantatas, motets and have also set Marian texts to other musical forms.  These may contain music composed for Christmas, the birth of Christ, where Mary is a central character.  To my knowledge, there is no oratorio honoring the Virgin, except segments of larger works.  Examples are J. S. Bach‘s Magnificat (from the Chrismas Oratorio) and parts of Händel’s Messiah.

Beyond Notre-Dame’s Daily Marian Hymns

The Oratorio

Given the Catholic Church’s devotion to Mary Mother of God, large musical works are likely to incorporate music to the Virgin.  Oratorios are among large compositions and could be described as long cantatas.  However, they resemble operas.  Oratorios require an orchestra and a choir.  Moreover, they may contain solos or, at times, multi-voice compositions that are not sung by the choir, but by four soloists.

At one point in the history of music, polyphony included more than the four voices we are accustomed to: soprano, alto, tenor, bass or SATB.  We are not discussing such works, many of which are madrigals.  We will focus instead on famous Oratorios associated with the birth, life and death of Christ and usually performed during the Christmas season or at Easter.

The Cantata

A cantata (from the Latin cantare: to sing) is a shorter and less complex work than the oratorio.  It dates back to the early 1600s, which are the years the first operas were composed.  Originally, only one person sang the cantata; it was monophonic.  In this regard, it resembled early madrigals.  But as the madrigal evolved into a multi-voice composition or polyphony, so did cantatas.  We tend to associate cantatas with J. S. Bach who composed approximately 200, one of which, number 142, is entitled the Christmas Cantata: “Uns ist ein Kind geboren” (Unto us a Child is born) is a lovely cantata.

Tampereen Kamarimusiikkiseura (Tampere Chamber Music Society) (Finland)

The Motet

According to late 13th-century theorist Johannes de Grocheio (c. 1255 – c. 1320) motets are “not intended for the vulgar who do not understand its finer points and derive no pleasure from hearing it: it is meant for educated people and those who look for refinement in art.”

© Micheline Walker
27 December 2012