800-Year-Old Music Honoring St. Anthony of Padua

Highly venerated from the first, many works of art have had St. Anthony as their subject, from plastic garden statues to paintings by El Greco and Raphael. He has also been honored in music.

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This past week, we celebrated the feast of one of the most ubiquitous Catholic saints, Anthony of Padua (1195-1231). Canonized less than a year after his death—making him one of the most quickly canonized saints in history—he was declared a Doctor of the Church in 1946 on the strength of his homilies.

Highly venerated from the first, many works of art have had St. Anthony as their subject, from plastic garden statues to paintings by El Greco and Raphael. He has also been honored in music. Approaching this feast, I turned to an old favorite of mine: a Mass in honor of St. Anthony by the early-renaissance composer Guillaume Du Fay.

Who was Guillaume Du Fay (and how do you say his name)? Guillaume, the French equivalent of William, is pronounced “Gee-ohm,” and Du Fay as “Doo Fay.”

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The life of Du Fay is one of the best documented among composers of the early Renaissance. Born around 1397 in the vicinity of Brussels, he was the illegitimate child of an anonymous priest. A choirboy at the Cathedral of Cambrai during his youth, he eventually became a cleric. In 1418, he journeyed to Italy for the first time, where he met various other musicians and composers. In 1428 he was ordained a priest. Du Fay became a member of the Papal Choir, serving for Popes Martin V and Eugene IV. 

In his mid-thirties by this time, Du Fay’s fame had spread and he was highly regarded. Du Fay was one of the finest transitional composers from medieval part-music to what we know today as Renaissance polyphony. In 1439, he returned to France (a mention of 36 lots of wine delivered to him for the feast of St. John the Evangelist in December 1440 is extant). Working for powerful patrons, he returned to Italy several times, ultimately returning to Cambrai where he was made a canon of the cathedral. He died on November 27, 1474. 

Some think this Mass was composed for the occasion of the dedication of the high altar by the sculptor Donatello in the Basilica of St. Anthony in Padua. If so, this is a beautiful example of art inspiring art—architecture, bronze sculpture, music. Take a look at pictures of the apse of the basilica while you listen to the music.

My favorite recording of this Mass for St. Anthony is by the ensemble Pomerium, and it is perhaps the only complete recording of this Mass. Unfortunately, it is not available on streaming platforms like Spotify. However, some of its tracks have been posted on YouTube (which I will link to below). Should you fall in love with this Mass (as I hope you will), you may find investing in the CD a worthwhile investment. 

As with all composers of polyphonic Masses of the period, Du Fay bases much of his music on the preexisting Gregorian chants. Here is the text of the Introit (listen here), describing the power of Anthony’s preaching.

In the midst of the Church he opened his mouth, and the Lord filled him with his spirit,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding: He clothed him with a robe of glory.
He has stored up joy and exultation for him.

The incipit, or first phrase, is intoned in Gregorian notes before the choir breaks into parts, flowing with life and simultaneous tranquility. 

The offertory proper is one of my favorite pieces. Warm, pulsing with vitality, it adorns a text from Psalm 88: “My truth and my mercy shall be with him: and in my name shall his horn be exalted.” Unlike most of the other parts of this Mass, which are composed for three voices, this offertory is for four.

Taking a look at the Ordinary of the Mass, Du Fay’s Sanctus is sparse and peaceful. We hear how this will develop into the even smoother polyphony of Palestrina one hundred years later.

One quotation attributed to St. Anthony is this: “We are formed by environment and grace, by politics and prayer, by church and conscience. All God’s creatures conspire to teach us as well. We stumble. We stutter. We rise. We are lifted.” Whatever the origin of these rather modern-sounding words, we can apply them to our saint and our composer. 

This feast of St. Anthony allows us to circle round and remember Du Fay and his beautiful early polyphony; to remember the power of art to form us, to permeate our environment with a beauty that, in a way, signifies and even prepares for grace. Since we stumble, we must look for the things that will lift us up with their beauty. Pure, with a touch of medieval playfulness and youth not always found in later music of the sixteenth century, Du Fay’s music, and that of his contemporaries, deserves to be known and loved by all who want to be uplifted to heavenly heights. 

Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of articles explaining great works of music “in a nutshell.” 


  • Julian Kwasniewski

    Julian Kwasniewski is a musician specializing in renaissance Lute and vocal music, an artist and graphic designer, as well as marketing consultant for several Catholic companies. His writings have appeared in National Catholic Register, Latin Mass Magazine, OnePeterFive, and New Liturgical Movement. You can find some of his artwork on Etsy.

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