If one’s idea of the importance of Jesus’ mother Mary came solely from medieval English music and poetry, one would be very surprised to learn how little she is actually mentioned in Christian scriptures. For she is more central to the spiritual life of medieval Europe, especially in Britain, than her biblical role suggests.
By the twelfth and thirteenth centuries Mary had been transformed into a goddess-like figure. As a subject for art, poetry and music, no religious character—no saint, not even God—surpassed her. Especially in musical texts and poetry pleading for forgiveness and understanding, it was gentle mother Mary who interceded at the throne of ultimate justice and was not to be denied. She was invested with an immense, godlike power and the empathy of a human woman. It was through Mary that humanity could touch divinity.
The story of Jesus’ self-sacrifice and regeneration has many parallels in ancient religions. This account is powerful and moving enough in itself, but in the Middle Ages, a time when the loss of one or even several children was not uncommon, the sight of Jesus’ death through his mother’s eyes must have made it more forcefully immediate. In this highly personalized vision, we see the suffering of helpless people rather than the struggle of superbeings; Olympian drama is transformed into human tragedy, with Mary at its heart.
This program consists of medieval English chant, polyphony and poetry from the thirteenth through early fifteenth centuries and is built around three thirteenth century British versions of the sequence describing Mary’s experiences at the foot of the cross. The first setting, Stabat iuxta Christi crucem, a monophonic Latin work from the Irish Dublin Troper, tells the story simply and movingly, in the voice of a narrator, The second, Stond wel, moder, under roode, is based on the original Latin work, but is much longer and more elaborate. The English text of this work is written as a dialogue between Mary and her dying son. The third work, Jesu Cristes milde moder, also in English, is the most elaborate of the three settings. Melodically unrelated to the others, this version is polyphonic, set for two hypnotically intertwining voices. Its story is told in the voice of a narrator, and, like many of the works on this program, it is quite graphic in its depiction of the scene at Calvary.
There are several kinds of medieval English devotional and liturgical music. (Liturgical music is a part of the official liturgy of the church, while devotional music is written for unofficial or informal worship or to adorn a liturgical service.) The sequence, a liturgical form used in the Mass, is built of pairs of poetic lines, each line of a pair being repeated to the same music, and each pair having its own melody. Most surviving sequences are monophonic (one melody line), like Stabat iuxta Christi crucem, Stond wel, moder and Miserere miseris, a small gem from the Dublin Troper. Many are set polyphonically (two or more melody lines), like Jesu Cristes milde moder, Stillat in stellam radium, and the strangely chromatic Salve virgo singularis. O Maria Virgo pia appears incomplete in its source, so we bring it to a harmonically satisfying close by repeating the first couplet. By far the greatest number of sequences are in honor of Mary, the subject of the most votive Masses, or Ladymasses. Hymns are used in the liturgy of the Divine Office—services of prayers and psalms said at several different hours of the day. Hymns are strophic, with each poetic verse repeated to the same music. The text of the hymn O gloriosa domina is part of a special votive service called the "hours of the lamentation of the virgin." This hymn does not survive with an English musical setting, so we have set it to the music of another Lenten hymn, a practice that was also very common in the Middle Ages. The two other hymns are also unusual. [Pe] milde lomb isprad o rode, besides being in English, is far more luxuriously florid than a typical Latin hymn of its time. It is monophonic, but we add a simple drone note to the later verses (a vocal device we occasionally use, in imitation of contemporary instrumental practice). The three-voice In te concipitur is found in monophonic versions as a sequence, but here each pair of double versicles is set to the same musical strophe. The opening verses are missing from this setting, and we have restored them from another textual source.
Unlike the term "sequence," which describes a poetic as well as a musical
convention, conductus describes a technique of musical composition, in
which (in polyphonic examples) all voice parts declaim the same Latin text
together. English conductus often feature the technique of rondellus or
voice exchange, in which the different voice parts take turns singing the
same melodies, as in Stillat in stellam radium. In England, conductus technique
was used to set a number of different poetic forms: long strophic hymns
like In te concipitur sequences like Salve virgo singularis, and devotional
poems like Ave Maria gracia plena, O Maria stella maris, Salve virgo tonantis
solium, Ave Maria salus hominum and Memor esto tuorum. While all the voice
parts of a conductus are usually freely composed, the lowest voice of a
motet is usually derived from a pre-existing bit of chant or a popular
song. Each of the texted voice parts sings its own poetic text. The different
texts are usually related, but sometimes the connection is tenuous, or
even strange, as in the motet Veni mater gracie/Dou way, Robin. There are
relatively few four-voice motets from this era, and O mors moreris/O vita
vera/Mors (with one untexted voice) is among the best-known, with versions
in continental as well as English sources.
-- Susan Hellauer
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