Palestrina's Hymn for the Feast of the Circumcision

Giotto - Circumcision Scene - Scrovegni Chapel/Arena Chapel. Padua, Italy

A Solis Ortus Cardine, hymn for Lauds on the Feast of the Circumcision, recounts Christ's life from his birth to his resurrection.

Sedulius' Abecedarius

The famous hymn text, composed in the 5th century by Caelius Sedulis, has the peculiar feature that each verse begins with successive letters of the alphabet: A, Beatus, Castae, Domus, Enixa, Foeno, Gaudet, etc. This poetic device is known as an "abecedarius" or "acrostichon". Sedulius called his poem Paean Alphabeticus de Christo.

Two Roman Hymns

This poetry is one of the oldest parts of the Roman Catholic liturgy, with two hymns formed from the first seven and four later verses.  A Solis Ortus Cardine, is used for Lauds during the Christmas season, consisting of stanzas 1-7 and Hostis Herodes Impie, the Vesper hymn for Epiphany, consisting of stanzas 8, 9, 11 and 13, each followed by the doxology.

Palestrina's Setting

Palestrina uses the alternatim technique, a common practice of his time, by setting only odd-numbered verses (four of them) of the hymn text, it being understood that the even-numbered stanzas would be chanted as well as the first stanza as an introduction.

Palestrina was especially fond of this work as two of the manuscript sources are copied by the composer himself. He wrote the work in 1589, while maestro di cappella at St. Peter's in Rome.

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Using the links below, you can compare two other versions of the great hymn, the Gregorian chant and a medieval version by Gilles Binchois.

♦ Gregorian chant version by the monks of the Benedictine Abbey Santo Domingo de Silos >

 A medieval version by Gillis Binchois (1400 - 1460) >


Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594)
Born in the town of Palestrina, near Rome, Giovanni Pierluigi began his sacred music career as a chorister at the Santa Maria Maggiore basilica. He pursued a career as organist and choirmaster in the various churches of Rome until coming at last to St. Peter’s where he remained until the end of his life.

Over the course of seven years, 1573-80, he lost his two sons, his wife and brother to the plague. After considering becoming a priest, he remarried a wealthy widow which allowed him to compose prolifically until his death.

For several generations, the music of Italy had been under the influence of the Northern European style of polyphony without any native composers of merit. Palestrina the composer was highly valued in his lifetime and this only increased after his death. His music was studied intensely by J. S. Bach.

A legend arose about Palestrina, his Missa Papae Marcelli, and the Council of Trent designating him as the "savior of polyphonic music" .
While this legend was oft-repeated in past years, modern scholarship has firmly established that polyphonic was never in any danger from the council of Trent and that the Mass in question was written as many as ten years prior to the Council.

The Palestrina style was very different from the past, conservative, and emulated for many years after his death as the ideal liturgical music. His style emphasized a return to the importance of intelligible text, synchronization of musical and grammatical syntax, dynamic flow of music, smoothness of vocal line and non-conspicuous use of dissonance.