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  • Writer's pictureFr. Scott Haynes

Alma Redemptoris Mater, Palestrina

Rev. Scott A. Haynes

One of the four Marian antiphons, this chant is traditionally sung at the end of Compline (Night Prayer) from the first Sunday of Advent through the Feast of the Lord's Presentation (Feb. 2). Hermannus Contractus (also called Herman the Cripple), a monk of Reichenau (1013–54), is believed to have composed both the words and the music. It is believed that he authored the hymn based on the writings of Saints Fulgentius, Epiphanius, and Irenaeus of Lyon. It is mentioned in The Prioress's Tale, one of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. It was translated into English by John Henry Newman in "Tracts for the Times", No. 75 (Kindly Mother of the Redeemer).

Latin Text

Alma Redemptóris Mater, quæ pérvia cæli

Porta manes, et stella maris, succúrre cadénti,

Súrgere qui curat pópulo: tu quæ genuísti,

Natúra miránte, tuum sanctum Genitórem

Virgo prius ac postérius, Gabriélis ab ore

Sumens illud Ave, peccatórum miserére.

English Translation

Loving Mother of the Redeemer,

who remains the accessible Gateway of Heaven,

and Star of the Sea,

Give aid to a falling people

that strives to rise;

O Thou who begot thy holy Creator,

while all nature marveled,

Virgin before and after

receiving that "Ave" from the mouth of Gabriel,

have mercy on sinners.

Although choirs routinely sing this as a motet during Holy Mass, this chant was originally performed in the manner characteristic of antiphons (i.e., it preceded and followed the chanting of a psalm or canticle on a simple formula). The 13th century MS Worcester Cathedral F. 160 (Paléoographie musicale 12:303), assigns it to Terce of the Feast of the Assumption and provides it with a differentia, an ending formula for the psalm tone to be used with it. The more elaborate of the two chant melodies for this antiphon is apparently the original one; it served as the basis for numerous medieval and Renaissance compositions. It is found as the tenor of 13th century motets in the Montpellier, Bamberg, and Las Huelgas MSS; in these works the upper voices have different texts. The chant is composed in the major scale rather than in one of the medieval modes, and has often been said to be of particular beauty.


G. Reese, Music in the Middle Ages (New York 1940); Music in the Renaissance (New York 1959). W. Apel, Gregorian Chant (Bloomington, Ind. 1958). P. Wagner, Einführung in die gregorianischen Melodien (Leipzig 1911–21). B. St. Äblein, "Antiphon," Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart, ed. f. blume (Kassel-Basel 1949) 1:523–545.

Performance Notes

The Tallis Scholars

Conductor: Peter Phillips

Live recording on the 400th anniversary of Palestrina's death 2 February 1994, Rome, Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore


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