O great mystery

In past years, on Christmas Eve, our choir has often sung O magnum mysterium, a motet by Tomás Luis de Victoria (c.1548–1611). The text for this motet has been set to music by dozens of composers, and below, I’ve embedded recordings of many of them. The text — presumably an exclamation from astonished shepherds — is one of the responsories for Matins on Christmas Day.

As composers have set these words to music, they have often amended or compressed the text. Here is the version that Victoria set:

O magnum mysterium
et admirabile sacramentum,
ut animalia viderent Dominum natum
jacentem in praesepio.
O beata Virgo, cujus viscera meruerunt
portare Dominum Jesum Christum.

O great mystery
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the new-born Lord
lying in a manger!
O blessed is the Virgin, whose womb
was worthy to bear Christ the Lord.

In 2017, we sang a setting by Victoria’s great predecessor, Cristóbal de Morales (c. 1500-1553). This year, we hope to sing (health permitting) a setting by one of the founders of the Anglican musical tradition, William Byrd (1543–1623). Byrd’s setting is shorter, ending with the Latin words “jacentem in praesepio.”

In the future, we hope to sing other compositions based on this remarkable text, especially the 1994 setting by Morten Lauridsen, and that by Francis Poulenc (1899–1963), composed in 1951–52.

Meanwhile, below I’ve provided recordings of these and other settings, beginning with the earliest published version from 1539.

Click here to download a 52-page booklet about O magnum mysterium, distributed by the Gloucester Choral Society.
Click here to access a dozen reviews of recordings of music for Christmas.
Click here to learn about J. S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio.

O magnum mysterium
by Adrian Willaert (c. 1490–1562)

Fior Angelico, Matthew Bester, conductor

O magnum mysterium
Nicholas Gombert (c. 1495–c. 1560)

Vox Populi!

O magnum mysterium
by Cristóbal de Morales (c. 1500-1553)

Zephyrus, Paul Walker, conductor

O magnum mysterium
by Jacobus Clemens non Papa (c. 1510–1555)

Nordic Voices, Marianne Beate Kielland, conductor

O magnum mysterium
by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594)

The Sixteen, Harry Christophers, conductor

O magnum mysterium
by Tomás Luis de Victoria (c. 1548–1611)


O magnum mysterium
by William Byrd (1543-1623)

Ars Nova Copenhagen, Paul Hillier, conductor

O magnum mysterium
by Jacobus Gallus (a.k.a. Jacob Handl) (1550–1591)

Knights of the Round Table

O magnum mysterium
Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679–1745)

Markéta Cukrová, alto; Musica Florea, Marek Štryncl, conductor

O magnum mysterium
Francis Poulenc (1899–1963)

The Cambridge Singers, John Rutter, conductor

O magnum mysterium
by Morten Lauridsen (b. 1953)

Chamber Choir of Europe, Nicol Matt, conductor

O magnum mysterium
by Ola Gjeilo (b. 1978)

Tenebrae, Matthew Sharp, conductor