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Known as the “Orpheus of Amsterdam,” Sweelinck spent his entire life in Amsterdam, never gone for longer than a few days at a time. Although Sweelinck never traveled as far as Italy like his Flemish predecessors, he was clearly conversant with the Renaissance motet style. His surviving vocal music comprises 244 works, among them 39 motets and 153 psalm settings. His largest collection, a polyphonic psalter set to French texts, was probably intended for private use among members of the local Catholic bourgeoisie who had a preference for the French language. By contrast, the Cantiones sacrae, published in 1619, takes texts mainly from the Catholic Latin liturgy and employs some of the latest musical techniques of the time.

The Christmas motet Angelus ad pastores ait, which takes its text from the book of Luke, is scored for five voices and represents a fine example of Sweelinck’s genius. The initial imitative entrances feature a descending figure representing the message of the heavenly angel coming down to the shepherds. The triple meter of the announcement is presented with all voices together, while the “great joy” (“gaudium magnum”) features the quickest notes of the piece. As with many of the motets in Cantiones sacrae, Sweelinck adds a very imitative and ecstatic lengthy coda on the word “Alleluia.”

Angelus ad pastores ait:
annuntio vobis gaudium magnum,
quia natus est vobis hodie Salvator mundi.
Alleluia.

The angel said to the shepherds:
“I bring you tidings of great joy,
for the Savior of the world has been born to you today.”
Alleluia.