Of St. Sebastian, Dufay, St. Ambrose, and Debussy

Today in the traditional Roman calendar is the Feast of Sts. Fabian and Sebastian, martyrs.

St. Pope Fabian was slain in 250 during the persecutions of Decius.

St. Sebastian, famous in sacred art for his arrow ridden body, was a Roman soldier murdered later in the 3rd century during the persecutions of Diocletian.  St. Ambrose tells us about Sebastian in a sermon.

For your edification, there are a couple pieces of music I know which involve St. Sebastian, of contrasting styles and eras.

Guillaume Defuy (+1474) gives us a little motet, O Sancte Sebastiane. There is also Le Martye de saint Sébastien, controversial in its day for the avante-guarde performance choices.

You might like to hear them side by side, as it were…. well… forming a kind of Ambrosian sandwich.  I’ll read a little Ambrose for you, from his Exposition of Ps. 118, in English first and then some Latin, to get our language into your ear.


Infirmitatem nostram respice, omnipotens Deus: et quia pondus propriae actionis gravat, beatorum Martyrum tuorum Fabiani et Sebastiani intercessio gloriosa nos protegat.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. msc says:

    Debussy’s Le martyre de Saint Sebastien is well worth seeking out. There’s a great complete version conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, and Salonen’s recording of the symphonic fragments is superb.
    The mention of Ambrose reminds me that we do him an injustice when we talk so much of “Gregorian Chant.” There are lots of chant traditions, including Ambrosian (associated with Milan). Ambrose is, in so many ways, a rather neglected Church Father.

  2. Geoffrey says:

    Both Pope St Fabian and St Sebastian are on the calendar for 20 January in the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite as well, each having their own optional memorial.

  3. Nicholas Shaler says:

    Father Z,

    Which mass do you celebrate today, if I may ask?


  4. lsclerkin says:

    See, now this is one of the many reasons I come here.
    Thank you, Father. :)

  5. Giuseppe says:

    I worked for years at our hospital’s HIV clinic, and we had many patients with Hepatitis C. One prayed to St. Sebastian before every liver biopsy. I asked him why. He said that in most paintings of him, there is usually an arrow sticking in his liver. He prayed to him not only before each biopsy, but also before each weekly interferon injection as part of his hepatitis C treatment. (For many people, weekly interferon injections cause flu-like symptoms for 1-2 days, which can be terribly disabling.) It really helped him.

  6. Tantum Ergo says:

    FYI, St. Sebastian is also the patron saint of archers.

  7. jameeka says:

    Thank you , Father Z–I will learn Latin yet, chasing down St Ambrose…

  8. StWinefride says:

    Thank you, Fr Z! The music is beautiful, especially the motet. I love the way St Fabian was elected Pope; in his case, one can truly say that he was chosen by the Holy Spirit!

  9. Andreas says:

    Known by many primarily for his “Bachianas Brasileiras”, Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1937) also composed a Mass for St. Sebastian (Missa São Sebastião). Portions of the work can be heard at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gpYh9xj-Wo4 . I believe a recording of this work is available on the Hyperion label.

  10. An American Mother says:

    The Dufay motet is lovely. It’s uncharacteristically homophonic in the first section, but Dufay’s characteristic sequential lines come into play in the second. The lower parts are taken in the third section by accompaniment (nice!)
    We should all listen to more Dufay – the harmony is strange to modern ears, and takes some practice to sing. But it is worth the trouble – oh, it is worth it! Very moving to sing as well as hear.
    And a timely podcast – thanks, Father!

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