Preview program notes for this weekend's concerts
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary. And he came to her and said, "Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!" But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus." (Luke 1: 26-31) This oft-quoted text introduces us to the shadowy and mysterious figure of Mary, mother of Jesus. Venerated by Christians, honored by Jews and Muslims, Mary figures in much of the art, literature, and music that enlivens our libraries, concert halls, museums, churches, and other public buildings throughout the world. She has inspired awe, wonder, and devotion in composers and poets throughout history. Today's concert focuses on music and texts appropriate to the Advent and Christmas seasons---specifically, on the various treatments of Mary as a religious and historical figure whose elusive, multiple qualities have been celebrated throughout the centuries, sometimes in contradictory ways.
Luke's text introduces our concert's organizing principle, the Ave Maria prayer, which, by the mid-sixteenth century, became one of the basic canonic texts not only of the Roman Catholic church but also of the Eastern church and newly independent Lutheran church. We present five settings of this text, with variant readings. The oldest, "Ave Maria...Virgo serena," by Josquin des Pres (c.1450-1521), sets the first six words of the prayer, then continues with a devotional poem in rhymed couplets, extolling Mary's life and virtues. Franz Biebl (1906-2001) sets not only the Ave Maria prayer, but three additional Biblical phrases, which put the prayer in its original context. Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) has the characters in his opera, Dialogues of the Carmelites, sing it before they are lead off to the guillotine. We have adapted his music, originally sung by soloists, for the women of the choir, with the men singing the orchestral accompaniment. Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) presents the text straightforwardly, presumably for liturgical use, but with the late Romantic harmonic richness and dynamic extremes for which he is noted. Sergei Rachmaninoff's (1873-1943) setting of the Orthodox version of the text (sung in Church Slavonic) is the sixth movement of his Vespers, opus 37, often excerpted from the larger work because of its particular beauty and devotional quality.
Conceptually in this concert, the rest of the selections, canonical or drawing from other religious and cultural traditions, expand our view of Mary from the foundation of the Ave Maria settings. Our second canonic text, the Magnificat, comes from a later passage in Luke, 1:46-55. In the narrative, Mary greets Elizabeth, who is pregnant with the future John the Baptist, and the child moves in Elizabeth's womb. When Elizabeth praises Mary for her faith, Mary responds, "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior...." Chorale's sopranos sing the chant version of the Magnificat in tone 2, from the Liber Usualis.
Ave Maris Stella is a Vespers hymn to Mary that originated in or before the eighth century. The text has been attributed to several people, including Venantius Fortunatus (d. 609). Both settings presented today are by Scandinavian composers, Swede Otto Olsson (1879-1964) and Norwegian Trond Kverno (b. 1945). Kverno's setting, dating from 1976, shares many characteristics with the music of the "spiritual minimalists," including Henryk Górecki, Alan Hovhaness, Arvo Pärt, and John Tavener. In a departure from the complex, serial, and experimental compositional styles that had been in vogue, these composers returned to radically simplified materials, a strong foundation in tonality or modality, and the use of simple, repetitive melodies; together these materials lend an explicitly spiritual orientation to their works. Olsson's setting, although completed much earlier, demonstrates a similar neo-romanticism in its return to the lyricism of the nineteenth century.
Alma Redemptoris Mater is one of four liturgical Marian Antiphons (the other three are Ave Regina caelorum, Regina caeli, and Salve Regina) sung at the end of the office of Compline. Hermanus Contractus (1013-1054) is thought to have written the original words for the antiphon, which is usually sung from the eve of the first Sunday of Advent until the Feast of the Purification (February 2). The tenors of the choir will sing the original plainsong version from the Liber Usualis.
Kristallen den fina is a quodlibet: a compositional procedure reaching back to at least the fifteenth century, in which separate melodies and texts, sometimes from strikingly different traditions, are artfully combined to create a new and meaningful whole. Gunnar Eriksson (b. 1931), professor of choral music at the University of Göteborg, has combined three melodies in the piece--"Kristallen den fina," a secular, modal Swedish folk tune; "Världens Frälsare kom här," a Swedish translation of the Lutheran chorale "Nun komm der heiden Heiland"; and "O Kriste, du som ljüset är," a translation of the Gregorian hymn "Christe, qui lux est et dies"--and added a newly composed bass line with words from the folk song. The combination of the folk song's 6/8 meter with duple meter in both the chorale and the chant, the unexpected harmonies formed by the juxtaposition of the different melodies, and the combination of secular lyrics with liturgical texts together evoke the spirit and image of Mary while identifying her only as the mother of Jesus.
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) composed A Hymn to the Virgin when he was just seventeen years old; it is his earliest surviving piece of church music. The anonymous text, dated ca.1300, is from the Oxford Book of English Verse, and contrasts English phrases (sung by chorus I), with Latin phrases (sung by choir II). The work was one of the composer's personal favorites and was one of only two pieces by Britten to be performed at his funeral service.
Our second Bruckner motet, Virga Jesse floruit, features another text from the Liber Usualis, for the Feast of the Annunciation. This text, based on Isaiah 11, establishes Jesus' place in the lineage of King David (Jesse was David's father) and includes the well known images, "the wolf will dwell with the lamb...and a little child shall lead them." The Liber text omits these images, but states, in their spirit, "God hath given back peace to man, reconciling the lowest with the highest to Himself." Bruckner's musical setting mirrors this reconciliation of opposites, climaxing at the extremes of range and dynamics--writing a fortississimo high A for soprano and forte high B for tenors against a pedal low E for the basses--which then reconcile themselves into a lower register pianississimo E Major chord for the entire ensemble.
Words and music of the well known but anonymous Christmas carol, Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming (Es ist ein Ros entsprungen, in the original German) first appeared in print in the late sixteenth century. In 1609, German composer Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) composed the harmonization through which we now know the carol. Jan Sandström (b. 1954), professor of composition at the Piteå School of Music in northern Sweden, has composed a wordless, eight-voice accompaniment to Praetorius' original, embedding the the carol in a peculiarly wintery, Scandinavian atmosphere, which has inspired our concert theme, "A Rose in Winter."
Salve, sancta Parens, from the Liber Usualis, is the Introit for Votive Mass of the Blessed Virgin. The words originally appeared as a phrase in Carmen paschale, a biblical epic in five books of dactylic hexameter, probably written by the Christian Latin poet Sedulius in the period 425-450. William Byrd's (1543-1623) masterful five-voice setting was first published in 1605, in Gradualia I, a collection of liturgical polyphony dedicated to recusant Roman Catholic members of the English nobility.
Polish composer Henryk Górecki (b. 1933) composed Totus Tuus, opus 60, in 1987, to celebrate Pope John Paul II's third pilgrimage to his native Poland, and the work remains his best known a cappella piece. Setting a contemporary poem to the Virgin Mary, patron saint of Poland, the composition features a homophonic texture that allows the words to be heard clearly, while the chant form is repeated, slowly building a musical affirmation of faith. This simplification of texture also occurs in Górecki's most famous work, Symphony No. 3, where similar, minimalist musical language evokes a spiritual, other-worldly mood.
To Thee, the Victorious Leader, the fifteenth and final movement of Rachmaninoff's Vespers, presents a much more active view of Mary than the other texts in this concert's collection. The text, from the Matins service of the All-Night Vigil of the Russian Orthodox Church, describes her as the victorious leader of triumphant hosts, possessing invincible might--someone who can free the faithful from all calamities. Rachmaninoff's music, his setting of a preexistent Greek chant, is appropriately energetic, confident, and joyous.
- Bruce Tammen