Why are the shepherds the first to be told about the birth of the Messiah? The vaunted Magi from the East have to make do with following a new star in the heavens, requiring advanced astrological calculations. But the lowly shepherds get an unequivocal message, delivered first by a terrifying angel and then by an awesome assembly of heavenly beings: ‘Unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.’ It makes poetic sense that shepherds should be among the earliest witnesses: they know their own, and can recognize that the infant born in Bethlehem is one of them, the Good Shepherd.
This dramatic passage in Luke’s Gospel understandably lends itself to artistic interpretations; musical retellings proliferated, especially in the Renaissance. In Pastores quidnam vidistis, Clemens sets a dialogue to music, consisting of the imagined interrogation of the amazed shepherds, which also serves as the Responsory for Matins on Christmas morning: ‘Whom did you see?’ Its smoothly imitative, elegant polyphony is typical of the composer, who, unlike several of his Flemish contemporaries, proved resistant to the allure of other continental styles such as those developing in Italy.
Clemens (whose flippant nickname ‘non Papa’ was likely born more out of jest than the need to distinguish him from the Pope) spent most of his life working in and around modern-day Belgium and the Netherlands. As was common in the period, he would mine his motets for musical material to form the basis of a mass setting, as in the Missa Pastores quidnam vidistis. This is most audible in the opening of the Kyrie, Gloria, and Sanctus of the mass, which replicate the motet’s opening of a rising fifth. Like the motet, the mass is mostly for five voice-parts, rising to six in the Agnus Dei with the addition of a further bass (another shepherd, come to worship the Lamb of God?). This has the effect of thickening the sonority for the culmination of the cycle.
In general, the music expresses the text only in the most general, abstract fashion, adopting an expansive imitative polyphony in the less wordy movements, and a more direct style for the lengthier texts of the Gloria and Credo. Only on occasion does the composer permit himself to illustrate the meaning of the words in his music; listen, for example, to the descendit de caelis passage of the Credo, in which some parts descend by step whilst others trip downwards in sequence.
Victoria’s Quem vidistis pastores is a variation on the same text as Clemens’ motet. The Spanish composer takes the essence of the dialogue into the textural structure of his motet. He begins by dividing his six voices into the three upper and three lower, before allowing them to recombine in other permutations. Both halves of the motet share a refrain in which the shepherds, unable to contain their joy, break into joyous triple meter and an elaborate, melismatic alleluia.