Marian music from the Renaissance to the 20th century
st stephen’s rochester row
Palestrina Assumpta est Maria
Victoria Ave Maria
Victoria Ne timeas, Maria
Guerrero Maria Magdalena
Eccard Ubers Gebirg Maria geht
Eccard When to the temple Mary went
Langlais Ave Maria, Ave maris stella
(Paraphrases Grégoriennes Op 5)
Victoria Sancta Maria succurre miseris
Joubert There is no rose
Howells A spotless rose
Bruckner Ave Maria
Poulenc Salve Regina
Britten Hymn to the Virgin
(with William Nicholson organ)
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594) was one of the towering figures of late sixteenth-century music. His motet Assumpta est Maria is based on a short phrase of plainsong for the Feast of the Assumption. Scored for SSATTB, it takes its text from the Offertory at Mass for the Assumption of the Virgin, with a secunda pars from the Song of Songs; both end with a rousing ‘Gaudete’. The three upper voices are grouped against the three lower in easily audible antiphony, whilst the high scoring gives rise to a bright sonority.
Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611) was the greatest Spanish Renaissance composer and one of the leading figures of European church music. He was a chorister at Ávila before moving to Rome in 1565, where he met (and might have been taught by) Palestrina; he eventually became maestro di capella and instructor of plainsong at the Pontifical Roman Seminary. He was ordained as a priest in 1575 and two years later returned to Spain as chaplain to the Dowager Empress Maria in Madrid; he was to remain there, as organist and choirmaster, until his death. Victoria’s music reflects his intricate personality and expresses the passion of Spanish mysticism and religion, marked by an intense Catholic spirituality. Ne timeas Maria is an antiphon at Second Vespers of the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Sancta Maria succurre miseris is a Magnificat Antiphon for First Vespers at a Marian feast. Ave Maria, although attributed to Victoria, is more likely to be the work of Jacob Handl. Seville-born Francesco Guerrero (1528-1599) wrote both sacred and secular music. He lived most of his life in Spain and his compositions show an astonishing variety of moods. Maria Magdalena tells the story of the visit to the empty tomb, and has a madrigal-like quality of great tenderness and joy.
Johannes Eccard (1553-1611) was a pupil of Lassus in Munich. His works are exclusively vocal and centre on Lutheran chorales. Übers Gebirg Maria geht is in two stanzas. The first is a rephrasing of the biblical story of the visit of Mary to Elisabeth, ending in Mary’s song of praise known as the Magnificat, whilst the second speaks to present-day listeners, urging them to follow Mary’s example and go over the mountains, be inspired, support each other, and sing the Magnificat. Maria wallt zum Heiligtum is better known in Troutbeck’s moving English translation, and is the story of Mary’s visit to the temple with her child and the response of the dying Simeon.
Jean Langlais (1907-1991) was a French organist composer. His works are mostly masses and organ music, some based on Gregorian themes, enhanced by polymodal harmonies.
South African-born John Joubert (b 1927) moved to England in 1946. He has written for many genres but is best known for his choral works. There is no rose, dating from 1954, continues to be among his most-often performed shorter pieces. The English composer Herbert Howells (1892-1983) is best-known for his large output of Anglican choral music. A Spotless Rose is one of his most enduring pieces, with an understated beauty, mellifluously subtle irregular metre and a sublime final cadence. Its sinuous, undulating melody is harmonized in thirds and fourths, evoking the harshness of the stable ‘on a cold, cold winter’s night.’ The opening phrase has a double meaning: the blowing of the wind, which can be heard through all the voice parts, as well as the blooming (blowing) of the Rose.
The Catholic faith was the chief inspiration of Austrian-born Anton Bruckner (1824-1896). Ave Maria (1861) is a supplication to the Virgin Mary; it starts with antiphonal contrast between the voices before the seven parts unite in the proclamation of the name of Jesus.
Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) has been described as ‘half monk, half delinquent’. A pilgrimage to the Black Virgin of Rocamadour in 1936, subsequent to the death of a close friend, is said to have led to a rediscovery of the Roman Catholic faith in which he was raised and a move towards sacred choral composition. Salve Regina, dating from 1941, is inspired by Gregorian chant and coloured by the composer’s own distinctive harmonic language, with strange key changes and awkward intervals all making for a sensuously delicate beauty of texture. The text, an antiphon associated with Compline between Trinity and Advent as well as with the Rosary, pointedly contrasts the human condition ‘in this valley of tears’ with the promise of Mary’s intercession. The piece was composed during the Nazi occupation of France and its final phrase, ‘dulcis Virgo Maria’, repeated over sixteen bars, seemingly pleads for an answer to this troubled period before reaching a point of calm resignation.
The exquisite Hymn to the Virgin was written by the 16 year-old Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) and is his earliest surviving piece of church music, predating his first published work, the Sinfonietta, by two years. It is a perfect miniature, subtle and mature, and demonstrates an endearing simplicity which in turn creates a sense of restrained timelessness. It is set for antiphonal double choir: one, singing in English whilst the second, smaller, other-worldly choir responds in Latin at a distance. The cadences, wonderfully piquant dissonances which resolve beautifully, are at once both ancient and modern and thoroughly English.