February 2017

A Spotless Rose – Music for the Virgin Mary

Palestrina            Assumpta est Maria
Victoria                 Ne timeas, Maria
Victoria                 Ave Regina caelorum
Palestrina            Kyrie from Missa Assumpta est Maria
Joubert                 There is no rose
Howells                A spotless rose
Palestrina            Gloria from Missa Assumpta est Maria
Gorecki                 Totus tuus
Victoria                 Sancta Maria succurre miseris
Palestrina            Credo from Missa Assumpta est Maria
Eccard                   When to the temple Mary went
Bruckner              Ave Maria
Palestrina            Sanctus and Benedictus from Missa Assumpta est Maria
Poulenc                Salve Regina
Britten                  Hymn to the Virgin
Palestrina            Agnus Dei I and II from Missa Assumpta est Maria

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.

The Missa Assumpta est Maria is a parody mass, based on the same motet. Palestrina achieves remarkable lightness and delicacy of texture within the richness of an elaborate six-part counterpoint, well capturing the joy and vitality of the feast. The melodic lines, making extensive use of the upper registers of each voice, produce a brilliance of tone, while their constant crossing and re-crossing imbue the work with an ethereal feel. Palestrina constantly varies the vocal groupings, contrasting different densities and registers. In the Christe the texture reduces to the four lowest voices (ATTB), creating a hushed, mellow tone of dignified beauty and appealing contrast, whilst the Crucifixus and Benedictus again exploit the upper timbres (SSAA and SSAT).

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. His output was entirely religious: masses and motets, settings of the Magnificat and Lamentations, as well as antiphons, responsories and hymns. Ne timeas Maria is an antiphon at Second Vespers of the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary. The 8-part Ave Regina caelorum is typical of cori spezzati (spaced style), with polyphony merging freely in and out of homophony; both choirs richly combine for the final oration. Sancta Maria succurre miseris is a Magnificat Antiphon for First Vespers at a Marian feast.

South African-born John Joubert (b 1927) moved to England in 1946 to take up a Performing Rights Society scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music. In 1950 he was appointed Lecturer in Music at the University of Hull, moving to Birmingham University in 1962 where he remained until his retirement in 1986. 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. Edward Higginbottom aptly describes it as ‘exquisitely textured, not a chromatic note in sight, recurring melody that is the height of unaffected elegance, and captivating exchanges between the voices.’

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.

Totus Tuus was written for unaccompanied mixed choir by the Polish composer Henryk Górecki (1933-2010) in 1987, as a celebration of Pope John Paul II’s third pilgrimage to his native Poland. The text was taken from a poem by contemporary writer Maria Boguslawska and is addressed to the Virgin Mary, the patron saint of Poland.

Górecki’s early style was aggressively atonal and featured abrupt, almost jarring contrasts in sound and texture. However, by the 1970’s his musical style had undertaken a significant shift, focusing on vocal music, often religious, and becoming more tonal, melodic and intensely expressive. The harmonic structure of Totus tuus is homophonic and deceptively simple, with subtle modulations built on enharmonic pitches and a constant repetition of short musical phrases, giving rise to a meditative affirmation of faith.

Johannes Eccard (1553-1611) was a pupil of Lassus in Munich. His works are exclusively vocal and centre on Lutheran chorales. Much admired by Brahms, he was one of the principal Protestant composers of chorale-motets, realising the full implications of the text in terms of close word-note relationships, appropriately varied textures and a deeply religious feeling. In the 19th century Eccard’s music was seen as the epitome of the Protestant a capella ideal, in quiet contrast to the rich polyphony of Palestrina. Maria wallt zum Heiligtum is better known in Troutbeck’s moving English translation.

Of all nineteenth-century Austrian composers Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) was the most religious, with the Catholic faith being the chief inspiration of his art. His models for sacred music included Austrian masses and the works of Mozart and both Haydns. His later small-scale choral works show a neo-Palestrinian style enriched by chromatic harmony, with enharmonic transformations representing redemption through faith; the radical nature of his works is characterised by dissonances, modulations and roving harmonies.

Bruckner’s Ave Maria of 1861 is a supplication to the Virgin Mary. Its origins derive in part from the tradition of secular male choral societies which flourished in Germany and Austria in the 19th century. The motet was first performed at Linz Cathedral as part of a concert celebrating the founding of a male-voice glee club, and the distribution of the voices across four men’s parts and three women’s parts suggests that they were joined by a small women’s choir at the premiere. The motet starts with antiphonal contrast between the voices before the seven parts unite in the proclamation of the name of Jesus. The full choir concludes the motet with a development of the opening material, with a particularly effective diminuendo as the choir asks for intervention for sinners.

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, remains grounded and earthly, 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.