13th and 14th Century English Chant and Polyphony in honor of the Virgin MaryPurchase A Lammas Ladymass at:
"Musically, this program offers everything we've come to expect from this quartet: cool, lucid vocal tone, intervallic precision, ambient sound reflective of a cathedral setting without the muddiness of an overly resonant space or an overly distant perspective. Their phrasing is to be marveled at, precisely aligned yet seeming effortless and free. The chants are polished to such an extent that any question of authenticity is clearly beside the point. The aim, perfectly achieved, is an idealized sound of limpid grace, each harmonized piece like a jewel in an elaborate setting."
-- Steve Holtje, CDNOW.COM
"Who is she that ascends like the rising dawn, beautiful as the moon, right-shining as the sun, awesome as an army in battle array?" - Assumption antiphon Que est ista (Track 1)
In the Middle Ages, as now, the feasts and rituals of Christianity were arranged in a cycle know as the “church year,” the polar events of which are the birth of Jesus near the year’s darkest day, and his resurrection from death at the time of spring’s renewal of the earth. These nature images were powerful mythic emblems for the medieval Christian, whose way of life was closely bound to nature’s ebb and flow. But these symbolic connections were not the invention or sole property of Christianity: many religions of the ancient Mediterranean world showed similar connections between the natural year and images of birth, suffering, death, and resurrection. Since only the events surrounding Jesus’s crucifixion at Passover are biblically and historically linked to a specific time of year, the early church fathers were free to set dates for other Christian feasts, and they did this with great care and attention to the natural and spiritual world around them. This practice continued into the Middle Ages, when new and old feasts were allied with natural events or indigenous pagan deities and practices, in order to ease the transition to Christianity by assimilating the old ways into the new.
Thus it was, perhaps, that Mary’s highest feast, her Assumption, or raising into heaven (originally celebrated in January), was moved shortly after the eighth century to August 15, during the time of year called Lammas in medieval Britain. The Celtic feast day of Lammas (called Hlaf maesse by the Saxons) was celebrated on August 1; it marked the beginning of the first grain harvest, days of fullness and plenty after the “hungry month” of July, when food put by for winter had run out. Placing Mary’s coronation as heaven’s queen during harvest time helps to bring her life into harmony with the cycle of nature: just as the promise of spring passes into the barren beauty of summer and is fulfilled in the bounty of harvest, so the young girl who humbly accepts Gabriel’s message is strengthened through suffering and is taken up and crowned with glory at last.
Throughout the church year, the Ladymass—a votive Mass in Mary’s honor—was celebrated weekly or daily in medieval Europe, its chants and texts changing with the holy seasons. The British were especially fond of Mary and wrote much music, both chant and polyphony, to adorn her liturgy. We have drawn on the 13th and 14th century repertoire to create a Ladymass for the summer portion of the church year, as it might have been sung around the feast of Mary’s Assumption in August. To the settings of the liturgical texts of the Ladymass we have added several devotional works in praise of Mary.
The polyphonic settings of the Ordinary of the Mass we have chosen are not specific to any occasion, nor were such settings organized into unified cycles until the late Middle Ages. The Kyrie is based on the popular “Kyrie orbis factor” tune still used today. We perform it in alternative style (chant alternating with polyphony). The bold, ebullient Gloria succeeds despite carefree violation of proper word accentuation. From a somewhat later time (the early 14th century), the Sanctus and Agnus dei are both based on plainchant and stress ensemble virtuosity. The Ite missa est is a gem of brevity.
With the exception of the virtuoso three-voice setting of the Alleluia: Virga ferax aaron, the rest of the Mass Propers (Introit: Salve sancta parens, Gradual: Benedicta et venerabilis, Sequence: O maria stella maris, Offertory: Recordare virgo mater, Communion: Alma dei genitrix) are set in plainchant of the highest art. In the Middle Ages, sequences (settings of double-versicle poetry with a rhyme scheme of aa bb cc, etc.) were written in great numbers for local usage, the most beloved of them becoming popular throughout Europe. Among the finest and most expressive of these are two found in the 13th century Dublin Troper: O maria stella maris, attributed to the French poet/musician Adam of St.Victor (d. 1192), and Pangat melos grex devotus, which closes this recording. The Offertory Recordare virgo mater (for the Ladymass on the actual feast day of the Assumption) has been troped, or enlarged, with a 12-line rhymed poetic setting after the normal Offertory text. Even the closing word “Alleluia” is troped.
The medieval motet presents an approach to text setting that is the antithesis of plainchant’s unity, with two or three different poems sung at the same time over an untexted tenor that is derived from plainchant. Four-voice texture was relatively rare at that time, and, to our ears, had a somewhat higher rate of failure than polyphony in two and three parts. Our two examples, the motets In odore/Gracia viam continencie/ [quadruplum]/[In odorem] and O quam glorifica/O quam beata domina/O quam felix femina/[Tenor] are nevertheless both masterpieces. The quadruplum line of In odore is reconstruction by editor Ernest Sanders, while the quadruplum of O quam glorifica sets the text (but not the music) of the first three verses of the opening hymn heard in this recording.
The British conductus, with all voices declaiming the same text together, are quite varied in style, structure, and expressive means. Though found in two British sources, stylistic traits in the virtuoso conductus Ave tuos benedic suggest that it may originally have been a French composition. The phrases of the hauntingly simple conductus Salve mater salvatoris are written out in a way that tells the singers to exchange text and tune at each turn of phrase (making it more of a round than a conductus). We perform it first as a monophonic song and introduce the full composition later in the program. Found in many continental sources as a motet, the British version of Ave gloriosa mater isnotated in such a way that it can be sung as a motet or, as we prefer, a conductus. Many polyphonic sequences, such as O ceteris preamabilis, are set in conductus style,as are short devotional prayers and chant settings like the elegant Paradisi porta.-- Susan Hellauer
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