For centuries the figure of Mary has deeply fascinated the devotees of European religious culture. The canonic bible seems to make up only a small proportion of what has been related on this subject amongst the proliferation of myths, legends, poetry and universal lore it has infused, and the culture and mentality it has permeated. Such a central subject of devotion will of course have provided much opportunity and inspiration for artists – not least composers of music – and the programme sequence here celebrates the biblical matriarch in the various images that have grown up around this continuous fascination: guiding light, mediator, caring mother and virgin lover to name a few. Ancient liturgical texts and poems explore her various mythical and human aspects and are set to music by masters of medieval England, offset by contemporary responses to these themes.
Part I of the programme focuses on the mythical and religious qualities of Mary. It is structured around music by the American composer Joanne Metcalf (b.1958), who wrote a setting of excerpts of Canto XXIII from Paradiso by Dante (c.1265-1321), calling it Il nome del bel fior (1998). Dante shares his vision of Mary the virgin as a "fair rose through whom the divine word was made flesh", as the "jewel of heaven" and "the brightest of all stars" (recalling the familiar metaphor of Mary as star of the sea, stella maris). The poetry circles around that "fair rose" and Il nome del bel fior matches and captures Dante's "circling, soaring melodies of poetry", revolving around the name Maria. Three of the cycle's ten movements are heard here, the first of which opens the procedure with an ethereal solo-voice meditation on the single word "Maria". The second, placed at the midpoint of Part I also sets this single word, with an increase of the texture to four voices, but the third of these concludes it with a powerfully effervescent display of Dante's poetry, with its strong image of "per entro il cielo scese una facella / formata in cerchio a guisa di corona / e cinsela e girossi intorno ad ella" (out of the heavens a flaming band dropped / formed in a circle like a crown / that girdled and encompassed her).
The ideas surrounding the mystical aspects of Mary are progressively given more musical substance as texture and "plot" gradually thicken, the noncontemporary Marian hymns, antiphons and sacred poetry settings advancing from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century. They are set in their respective genres of conductus – homorhythmic with no notated rhythm, thus performed in free rhythm or in rhythmic modes, often characterized by a longish melisma on the last or penultimate syllable of a verse; cantilena – a distinctly English form of mellifluous polyphony with the voices largely in parallel motion; English discant – in which the voices move in contrary motion and a cantus firmus chant is sung in the middle voice; and carol – a fifteenth-century song in English or Latin, with much of the same parallel motion as in cantilena, but usually for two voices, with a third joining them for the recurring refrain, or burden.
Whilst upholding the mystical Marian imagery, Part II deals more directly with the human Mary figure. It is dominated by a dialogue of devotion, agony, faith and promise between Mary and Jesus in the thirteenth-century Middle English poem "Stond wel, Moder, under rode". The scene is set with the twovoice "Dou way, Robyn / Sancta mater gratiae", one voice indirectly telling of a mother caring for her young child, above which another voice expresses various illustrations of her sanctity. Then, in each of the three following sections, all primed with fifteenth-century three-voice settings of prayers of Marian devotion, the great poem, "Stond wel, Moder, under rode", appears in varying forms and concludes each mini-sequence with renewed focus on the human aspect of Mary, first in its original thirteenth-century monophonic form, then in two separate movements by the second contemporary composer featured on this recording, English born Andrew Smith (b.1970). Speaking about his inspiration for the piece, he writes: "In the story of Jesus' persecution, suffering and death, there is perhaps no more poignant moment than the helplessness and desperation his mother must have felt witnessing her son's death, as is most beautifully expressed in this English medieval poem. I have always been particularly attracted to the texts and music of Passiontide and Holy Week since they address such a mysterious yet inevitable aspect of human existence".
Having reached the plateau of fifteenth-century compositional writing by the end of Part I we stay in this era for the non-contemporary polyphonic pieces in Part II, written in the English discant and carol style, before a summarizing votive plainchant prayer takes us back to the thirteenth century. In a conductus-related rondellus, a style characterized by so-called voice-exchange, in which the phrases of the three individual voices are repeatedly alternated between them, the programme's high-spirited finale "Alleluia psallat" fuses earthly praise – as it were to the sound of harps and drums – with the mystical, though triumphant joy of the flowering of Jesse's lineage in the solo plainchant verse "Virga Jesse".
It has been an interesting project to combine the contemporary works presented here with medieval music. Many musicians agree that compositions of these widely spaced periods can often be compatible with one another, usually when the contemporary pieces are based on a "polyphonic logic" and when tonal writing is combined with the "horizontal" dominating the "vertical", i.e. the harsh dissonances between voices caused by the uncompromising intrinsic logic of voice-leading making (retrospective) sense to the ear because of the harmonic resolutions the part-writing leads to – Stravinsky is possibly one of the first composers of the recent age to have written with this concept in mind. The works of the two contemporary composers featured here are most definitely tonal, treating the relationships between "melody" and "harmony", dissonance and consonance, tension and resolution with devices related to those of composers living 600 plus years before. The works by Metcalf relate further to the medieval items by her control and clarity of intricate and extravagant rhythmic patterns, her manner of word-setting being aptly described as "at once rugged and elegant". By contrast, Smith's response to the original "Stond well, Moder, under rode" has his four homophonic voices emulating the same kind of "psalmodic" rhythm as in a chant, or even as in a conductus when performed with free rhythm. Its tonality hinges on the phrygian mode, being tonally centred on E; and, steering the final phrase of each verse of poetry towards this implied target, it too recreates the same sense of resolution found in medieval writing, even at cadences where his resolutions retain attractive dissonances.
Transcending time, age and compositional era, whatever meaning the ageold fascination with the Mary figure may have for each of us, the art inspired by it presents a dazzling kaleidoscope of imagery and myth: glorious, painful, erotic and healing, to which the music on this recording, in its many facets, bears witness.
Source: Julian Podger, 2016 (CD Booklet)
Mary Star of the Sea
1. Joanne Metcalf (b.1958)
Il nome del bel fior – Part I: Maria I
2. Anonymous (13th c.)
Stillat in stellam radium
3. Joanne Metcalf
Music for the star of the sea
4. Anonymous (14th c.)
Stella maris illustrans omnia
5. Joanne Metcalf
Il nome del bel fior – Part V: Maria III
6. Anonymous (14th c.)
Laetetur caeli curia
7. Anonymous (12th c.)
8. John Dunstaple (c. 1390-1453)
9. Richard Smert (fl. 1428-1477)
Ave, decus saeculi
10. John Dunstaple
Ave maris stella
11. Joanne Metcalf
Il nome del bel fior – Part IV: Il nome del bel fior
12. Anonymous (13th c.)
Dou way, Robyn / Sancta mater gratiae
13. Godric of Finchale (c.1065-1170)
Crist and Sainte Marie
14. Anonymous (15th c.)
Sancta Maria virgo
15. Anonymous (13th c.)
Stond wel, Moder, under rode
16. Leonel Power (c.1370-1445)
17. Andrew Smith (b.1970)
Stond wel, Moder, under rode – Part I
18. Anonymous (15th c.)
Iesu, fili virginis
19. Anonymous (15th c.)
Pia mater salvatoris
20. Andrew Smith
Stond wel, Moder, under rode – Part II
21. Gregorian Chant
Gaude, Maria virgo
22. Anonymous (13th c.)
Alleluia psallat / Alleluia concinat – Virga Jesse
Catherine King, mezzo-soprano
Steven Harrold, tenor
Julian Podger, tenor
Stephen Charlesworth, baritone
Recorded at Boxgrove Priory, West Sussex, UK, 12-14 June 2015
Linn Records 2016
Cover image: Madonna and Child by Fra Filippo Lippi, courtesy of Bridgeman Images
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For more than thirty years Gothic Voices has been world-renowned for the excellence, refinement and spirituality of its performances of medieval music.
Originally founded in 1980 by the scholar and musician Christopher Page, Gothic Voices has gone on to record twenty-five albums, three of which won the coveted Gramophone Early Music Award. Its first recording A feather on the breath of God - Sequences and Hymns by Saint Hildegard of Bingen still remains one of the bestselling recordings of pre-Classical music ever made. Mary Star Of The Sea is their first release on Linn with a forthcoming second album: The Dufay Spectacle.
In the UK they have performed at the Aldeburgh and Chester Festivals, the York and Birmingham Early Music Festivals and at the International Festivals of Edinburgh and Cheltenham. They have toured widely throughout Europe, appearing at the Flanders, Utrecht and Stuttgart Early Music Festivals and the Vestfold Festival in Norway. They have also appeared in Israel and in the Americas.
Gothic Voices also enjoy performing contemporary music, particularly pieces with medieval associations. Many of today's composers are influenced by medieval repertoire and its often experimental nature. The group plans to give a renewed emphasis to the combination of old and new alongside its more traditional programmes.
Gothic Voices is committed to bringing medieval music into the mainstream. Their imaginative programmes aim to use their voices in varying combinations to produce performances of great beauty and thereby to continue to win the appreciation of audiences all over the world.
Christmas with the Faces of Classical Music