la bele marie

la bele marie
(Harmonia Mundi Catalog # HMU 907312)

Songs to the Virgin from 13th-century France

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 See Text and Translations

Track List

Conductus: O maria o felix puerpera
Conductus: Pia mater gratie
Chanson: De la mere au sauveor
Conductus: O maria virginei
Conductus: Verbum bonum et suave
Conductus: Ave salus hominum
Chanson: Mainte chançon ai fait
Conductus: Ave maria gracia plena
Conductus: PEROTIN - Beata viscera
Conductus: Mundum renovavit
Chanson: Je te pri de cuer par amors
Conductus: Salve sancta parens
Conductus: Serena virginum 3:44
Chanson: De la tres douce Marie 4:13
Conductus: Ave virgo virginum 3:05
Conductus: Mater patris et filia 4:37
Conductus: Ave nobilis venerabilis
Listen to Samples

Reviews of la bele marie

When you've got a good thing going, why mess around with it?    That seems to be the philosophy that's guided this amazing quartet to an unbroken string of 10 highly acclaimed recordings--and you can add this one to the list. Sure, the group replaced one of its original members a couple of years ago, but you'd be hard pressed to hear any difference in the ensemble's patented tonally clear, impeccably tuned, "like-one-voice" quality. And you certainly can't find much if anything to fault regarding vocal technique, interpretation, or effective translation of theory and scholarship into practice. No, these four women have found an ideal niche and never have varied from the very highest standard of musicianship and quality presentation.

This new recording features "Songs to the Virgin from 13th-century France", and in typical fashion the group has not only carefully culled the repertoire from original manuscript sources (from France and, in two instances, from the Codex de Las Huelgas in Spain), but also in its performances utilizes current linguistic research into pronunciation of both French and French Latin from the early 13th century. The music ranges from mono- and polyphonic conductus to several solo chansons. All but one of the pieces are anonymously composed, a monophonic conductus by Perotin being the exception. Fans of Anonymous 4 will be right at home with the chant styles and the songs (each of the singers takes a solo turn in the four chansons), enjoying that familiar "one voice" quality in the unison pieces and the exciting interplay of lines in the more complex and lively selections. Is the group's sound just a bit mellower and slightly darker than in years past? Perhaps, if you listen very carefully, you'll notice a few more shades of color have been added to these singers' usual bright, primary hues. And, if the past is any guide, no one who listens to these four women sing will be listening casually--the voices are just too compelling and the music too beautiful to do otherwise. The Harmonia Mundi recording team also has done just a few things right with this ensemble over the years, and they do it again here. When you've got a good thing going. . .

        --David Vernier, Classicstoday.com

The arrival of a new Anonymous 4 album has become as much a fall ritual as the turning of the leaves. However, there's nothing rote about their 12th album for Harmonia Mundi. All 17 selections are in honor of the Virgin Mary, ground familiar to fans of the ensemble's breakthrough first album, An English Ladymass (as well as 1998's Lammas Ladymass). Drawing upon both the Latin liturgy and chansons adapted from the French trouvère tradition of secular love songs, the combination of sources powerfully illustrates how strong devotion to Mary was in medieval France. But even more immediately striking is the New York-based vocal quartet's near-magical ability to enrapture their listeners. Whether they are coursing through a simply elegant monophonic chant such as "O maria o felix puerperal," a dazzlingly florid work like "Mater patris et filia," or the ethereal harmonies of "Mundum renovavit," their perfect intonation and pure tone are sublime. There's a special treat here, too--each of the ladies performs one piece solo. It's a chance to hear each singer's unique contribution to the group's inimitable sound: Marsha Genensky's exquisite smoothness, Susan Hellauer's dark-hued loveliness, Jacqueline Horner's creamy lightness, and Johanna Maria Rose's radiant resonance. It's a record that will transport you to another world, and yet one more star to add to Anonymous 4's constellation of celestially beautiful recordings.

         --Anastasia Tsioulcas, Amazon.com

la bele marie Program Notes

Songs to the Virgin from 13th-century France

Estoile resplendissant   lune sans nule oscurite,
soleil grant clarte rendant   marie de grant biaute. . . 

Shining star, moon without darkness,
sun giving great light, Mary of great beauty . . .
 Chanson: De la mere au sauveor, 

     From the Renaissance until today, the Catholic Church has periodically found it necessary to suppress the influence of the Virgin Mary in its liturgy and traditions.  Her cult, at certain times and places, became so zealous that Mary-worship overshadowed even the adoration of the Deity.  Western Europe during the Gothic era – the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries – was without any doubt one of these times and places.  Cathedrals soared to the heavens, many, if not most of them, dedicated to Mary, like the Cathedrals of  Nôtre-Dame at Paris and Chartres. Rhetoric honoring Mary in prose, poetry and song was as ardent as any ever put on paper, surpassing even the florid love lyrics of the troubadours and trouvères, and borrowing many of their romantic turns of phrase.  There are those who hear in such extravagant praises of the Virgin, and in the cascades of natural images used to describe her, distant echoes of an intense prehistoric culture of goddess worship native to European soil.

The music

     Our program is a collection of thirteenth-century French songs to Mary, from the Latin clerical tradition as well as from the vernacular art song repertoire of the northern French trouvères. 

     The Latin songs we have selected are all conductus, a generic term derived from the practice of using para-liturgical vocal music to accompany, or “conduct” processions during solemn services. In reality, these conductus are anything but generic: they exhibit a wide variety of styles and textures, from simple monophonic songs (like O Maria O felix puerpera) to lengthy and virtuosic compositions (like Ave salus hominum and the dazzling Mater patris et filia). 

     Certain characteristics separate conductus from other Latin compositions of their time: they are settings of poetry -- usually, but not always, religious; they are not based on any pre-existing plainchant melodies, as are the motet and organum; and, in polyphonic conductus (i.e., for more than one voice part), the singers all declaim the same text together. Some conductus are all about declamation (O Maria virginei; Serena virginum, Mundum renovavit) and others are about virtuosic display, with a minimum of text (Pia mater gracia, Ave Maria gratia plena, Salve sancta parens).

     There is an old, hard-dying belief that in medieval vocal compositions text and music bear little relation to each other. It is impossible to hear sweet and touching songs like Verbum bonum et suave, Ave virgo virginum, and Ave nobilis venerabilis without realizing that their composers were as capable of sensitive text setting as they were of vocal fireworks.

     As is usual for medieval Latin music, the composers are almost all anonymous.  But there are exceptions. The illustrious Perotin, who made his name at Nôtre-Dame around 1200 with monumental four-voice compositions, is here represented by the monophonic, chant-like Beata viscera. Unfortunately, four of the seven verses of this poem (by Perotin’s famous literary contemporary, Chancellor Philippe) contain references to the Jews that are unflattering, to say the very least. We have chosen to omit these verses.

     All of the works on this program are taken from French sources, with the exception of two virtuoso conductus from the thirteenth-century Spanish manuscript known as the Codex de las Huelgas, a rich hybrid containing major works from the Parisian repertoire of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, as well as indigenous compositions. The two pieces are most likely products of the same hand, considering the remarkable similarity between the unusual duple-meter passages in the two-voice Ave maria gratia plena, and the three-voice Mater patris et filia.

     The French songs (chansons) show a variety of rhyme schemes and musical structures, with and without refrains, and are, for the most part, contrafacts of trouvère songs (i.e., existing melodies re-fitted with texts in honor of Mary). The songs are all from the Clairambault Manuscript, collected sometime in the second half of the thirteenth-century, although most of the compositions date from the first half of the century. The courtly love conceits of abasing oneself at the foot of the lady-lover, begging for her mercy and praising her virtues, are here taken over with barely a change. Added to these stock rhetorical phrases is a large dose of regret at former folly (as in the opening lines of Mainte chançon ai fait), and recognition of Mary as a powerful intercessor (Je te pri de cuer, De la très douce marie), who must be repeatedly and sincerely asked to remember the petitioner at the last hour (De la mere au sauveor).

Susan Hellauer

A Note on Pronunciation

     Latin was the common international language of Western Europe in the Middle Ages. Taught from Classical texts, and used to write official documents as well as literature, medieval Latin was relatively standardized in structure, over time varying from region to region in syntax and vocabulary with changes in society and new developments in science. But the area in which Latin was most influenced by local variation was in pronunciation: it assimilated many elements of pronunciation of the vernacular dialect or language of each region or country. In France especially, the pronunciation of Latin sounded very similar to the French that was spoken in the Middle Ages.

     The pronunciation of French Latin from the early 13th century that we are using in this program is based on linguistic research by Harold Copeman; the pronunciation of French from about the same time is based on linguistic research by Robert Taylor. This research is published in Singing Early Music: the pronunciation of European Languages in the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance. ed by Timothy J. McGee with A.G. Rigg and David N. Klausner. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, c1996. 

Marsha Genensky

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