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A celebration of the Virgin Mary in sound and stone: following the success of its predecessor, ‘Music for the 100 Years’ War’, this release further explores the artistic parallels between music and alabaster sculpture in late medieval England.
As our project demonstrates, the two English traditions of music and alabaster were widely diffused and highly distinctive. In each case, their artistic style was recognized all the way across Continental Europe, and was highly valued for exactly what it was: English art that took a full part in the wider European cultural landscape while remaining distinctive. Beyond their intrinsic technical, material and aesthetic interest, both arts were socially and culturally grounded in a shared religious culture. Their common ground was marked out by their principal themes and subject matter: saintly, biblical, picturesque, theological. Such themes informed the visual imagery of painting, sculpture and stained glass alike, and were also present in the sung texts of the liturgy. As for spiritual life in general, the specific motifs of individual feasts and devotional ideas were closely mirrored in the art with which religious existence was enriched—this was as true in its way of popular religion as it was of clerical and liturgical thought, though there were naturally great differences of treatment and emphasis.
One of the chief purposes of all the music sung in proximity to the alabaster images, as also of the brilliant pigments, the translucency and texture of the stone, and the (expensive) light of burning wax candles that accompanied them, was to vivify the experience of the whole physical context—and of the devotions it served—for all those present. The effect was intensifying, and immersive, for clerics, singers and lay participants alike. The sculptures, through the mobility of light and music, took on aesthetic and religious emotion, yes, but also the illusion—the illuminating aura—of perceptions that were vibrant and alive. This cultural heritage constitutes something of lasting and, we believe, very present value. Our practical experiences in different contexts with this repertoire and its associated alabaster images of all kinds—in churches, concert halls and museum contexts, for example—have demonstrated, not just to ourselves, but to audiences of different kinds, a new kind and degree of vividness and synergy between the arts. Recapturing something of this atmospheric experience in modern terms, through live performance, and, as here, in recorded and printed form, is one of the governing ideas of the Music and Alabasters Project.
Eloquence in Sound and Stone—Late Medieval English Music and Alabaster
The common ground shared by music and alabaster sculpture in the ‘long’ fifteenth century (c1380-1520) is staked out most obviously by their principal themes. As for spiritual life in general, these revolved most centrally around the lives of Christ and—perhaps still more powerfully—the Virgin Mary, the prime intercessor for earthly souls, to whom the beauty of music could offer a special plea. This recording offers a carefully structured sequence of Marian music, among the most beautiful and stylish of its time. It all comes from the mid-fifteenth century in England, part of an originally very large polyphonic repertory from an era when English polyphony was, unusually, right at the forefront of European trends. English music was sung the length and breadth not just of England but of Europe, exported to all points of the compass, even in these times before the advent of music printing.
At exactly the same time, a huge trade in English medieval alabasters was spreading sculptural representations of the same themes across the then-known world. Both the alabaster carvings and the music that must so widely have been sung to them were deeply characteristic of their time and place, and clearly responded to cultural needs with unusual precision. We know for instance that even in the courts of Renaissance Italy, the land of such towering talents as Raphael and Piero della Francesca, English music and alabaster were widely cultivated and highly treasured.
The power of fifteenth-century polyphony, in England as elsewhere, lay not just in its aesthetic beauty and its clarity of form, hugely important though these were. Its importance extended also to the ways it enriched sacred ceremonial and ritual, to its capacity for invocation, its power to generate and inspire sacred emotion, and its ability to sustain and deepen human contemplation. Its own autonomous musical eloquence speaks to us today in terms of its resources of beauty and invention. But its scope is imaginatively extended and enriched by being placed in visual, ritual and social contexts which help to form a bridge between our world and theirs (‘the past is another country’). In turn, the energy of music in live performance keeps the historical dimension very much on the go, and in the present (‘the past is never dead: it isn’t even past’, William Faulkner). Our exploration of the best parts of the English repertory in parallel with English sacred art and imagery aims to maximize the impact of both sides of the equation.
Our programme explores and deepens that visual–sonic connection in its retelling of central themes from the story of the Virgin. It does this in terms not just of her general religious importance and her varied devotional roles, but also, specifically, of her floral symbolism and status as the royal flower of Jesse’s stem (as we are reminded at Christmas every year). This symbolism plays itself out through text, music and image in parallel, and thus with artistic means articulates a set of spiritual truths and experiences about the Blessed Virgin. It shows something of her poetic and decorative value as well as her sacred significance for late-medieval audiences, fusing the aesthetic with the devotional and the moral.
The individual pieces are grouped around the four surviving movements of Walter Frye’s magnificent Missa Flos regalis (a composition of the 1450s or early 1460s). They are tied into a sequence of devotional themes, accompanied by images of contemporary English alabasters which in turn mirror and expand those themes visually: both scenically, and symbolically. Most strikingly displayed in such glittering masterpieces as Frye’s Mass and the altarpieces of the great cathedrals and larger churches, such concentrations of sound and image nevertheless embraced both the public and (if only through the agency of memory) the private, the ostentatious and the intimate, and our aim here is to evoke that ever-present interaction in its fullest range and depth.
Our music was composed in the period between the Old Hall manuscript (copied in the 1410s, with additions in the very early 1420s) and the generation of composers who were active until the 1470s (most notably Walter Frye), encompassing such other English luminaries as Dunstaple, Bedyngham and Plummer. Thus we chart the development of English polyphony from the early Plantagenet chapels through to the threshold of the Eton Choirbook style in the later decades of the century. We have traced this path through floral metaphors not just because of their rare poetic beauty, and undeniable popularity with audiences both high and low in their own time, but also because they find constant echoes in the texts and music being sung, and in many visual images of the Virgin to whose presence these were offered. Such was the extent of Marian devotions, and the various texts and symbols associated with them, that literally hundreds of picturesque metaphors were devised and combined—spun into a poetic tapestry, whether simply or more elaborately—around the all-encompassing figure of the Virgin herself. Our floral journey traverses the role of the Virgin as protectress, her symbolic lineage (at the same time Christ’s royal ancestry), as well as the key Mariological events of the Annunciation, Assumption and Coronation. Recent concert and installation projects with religious imagery, centred on the Midlands alabaster corpus, have illustrated some of the richness of this vast tradition, presented in combination with closely related music of the time. This recording represents a distillation of our audiences’ experiences.
The Blessed Virgin—A History in Music and Alabaster
De beata Virgine Maria—intercession against plague
With our first grouping we introduce the Virgin in her universal role as intercessor for humankind, in this instance as guardian against the perennial medieval threat of plague. While advocacy against the plague was sought also from more ‘specialized’ saints such as St Sebastian and St Roch, Mary remained the most important, throughout the later Middle Ages and far beyond. She is invoked not just for her humane compassion (as the Madonna of Mercy) but for her divine influence, at once authoritative and pleading. Her protecting presence stands guard either side of the group in settings of Stella celi extirpavit, a rhymed text for deliverance that was invoked with particular intensity in fifteenth-century England. In the first motet, by the English Lancastrian composer John(?) Cooke, we hear just the first part of the text in a simple and unshowy yet aurally distinctive, jewel-like way: a style that radiates light and an intense, sustained emotion devoid of complex artifice. The later, more highly worked piece standing at the end of the group has been assigned to Guillaume Le Rouge, famously a singer in the chapel of the long-term English prisoner Duke Charles d’Orléans, who himself knew the ‘Stella celi’ as a devotional text. Here, as in a probably linked Mass cycle actually ascribed to Le Rouge, the prayer is more expansively set in combination with the melody of the famous English song by Bedyngham or Frye So ys emprentid, which is heard as a cantus firmus in the tenor:
So imprinted in my memory, is your womanliness, your youth, your gentleness,
your goodly bearing, your smiling countenance, your prized beauty and your kindness,
that the Lord knows (whom I call to witness), that whether I wake, sleep, or whatever I do—in wellness, woe,
joy or heaviness—my heart is with you, wherever you go.
In central place in the group and following the plainsong Lady Mass introit Salve sancta parens, we pursue this linkage between plague hymn and song in the form of a Kyrie by Walter Frye also based on So ys emprentid. This piece, clearly intended for alternatim performance with chant, survives only as a single discantus line in the so-called Lucca Codex, a fragmentary source discovered by Reinhard Strohm and probably copied in Bruges in the early 1460s. The derivation of the piece was discovered by Brian Trowell, who noticed that the surviving line of music fitted almost perfectly with the tenor of the song, and also with much of its contratenor. As performed here the Kyrie has been pieced together in a two-stage reconstruction by Trowell and Philip Weller.
In our version we have interwoven the polyphony with the odd-numbered Kyrie and Christe invocations of the plainchant Mass ‘Cum jubilo’ (as it is known today). The melodic profile of the ‘Cum jubilo’ Kyrie invocations sounds so close to Frye’s surviving line of music that it is hard to resist the idea that this Kyrie (and possibly the whole Mass, if it formed part of one) was composed as a polyphonic paraphrase intended for Masses for the Virgin, which is the nature of our intention here. Our hypothesis is that the beseeching, loyal, courtly tone of the song was (or could well have been) addressed as fittingly to the Blessed Virgin Mary as to an earthly beloved; this at least was the prevailing courtly sensibility of the time. Moreover, the chant setting of the Mass ‘Cum jubilo’—along with the better-known Mass ‘de angelis’—may well have been used during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, within the Sarum rite, specifically for Masses of the Virgin, including the votive Mass celebrated every day in the Lady Chapel of most large churches. All these connections allow us to group these items together as votive invocations to the Virgin, with a background of communal desire for deliverance.
And so to the Mass. We are tremendously lucky to have Frye’s magnificent Missa Flos regalis at all, albeit shorn of its Kyrie (another reason why we have included the individual Frye Kyrie ‘So ys emprentid’ within the first group of the programme). Flos regalis exists, as it happens, not in an English source but in a precious survival from the Burgundian court chapel: the famous codex Brussels 5557. In this manuscript it is found together with other English Masses—including at least two (and possibly three) others by Frye himself (seefor our recordings of two of these Masses). It seems highly likely that this group of English Masses arrived at the Burgundian court at the time when, in the summer of 1468, Charles the Bold married his second cousin Margaret of York, or at least during the period of their marriage. Margaret was the sister of Edward IV, and also a great-grandchild of John of Gaunt, founder of the Lancastrian dynasty. Charles was an educated musician and patron, and an ardent (almost fanatical) enthusiast for the most sophisticated modern polyphony, which he fostered in a chapel of the highest calibre. This fact, combined with the possibility that Margaret may have brought English chaplains and Sarum liturgical books with her from England to Burgundy, offers a context for the transmission of this English music to the Burgundian court.
Moreover the imagery of the text associated with the Flos regalis cantus firmus (reconstituted from a range of sources especially for this project and recording) suggests very precisely why the imagery of the Virgin as royal flower, besides having a variety of specific devotional and liturgical applications, would have made of the piece a very suitable nuptial Mass, or at least one symbolic of the princely marriage of Charles and Margaret: ‘Royal virginal flower … the king has led you into the royal bridal chamber …’
The Annunciation to the Virgin
With our second grouping we move from the Virgin as bestower to her role as receiver of the Holy Spirit at the Annunciation, the latter being the invariable setting in visual imagery for the lilies symbolizing the purity of her conception as announced by the archangel Gabriel (‘Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee …’). We hail the moment via the music of another piece that started life in a different guise: Bedyngham’s widely known song Le serviteur, here, as happened frequently in this period, reset to a Marian text, Superno nunc emittitur. John Dunstaple’s setting of the famous Marian hymn Ave maris stella is next presented, in the fashion typical of the time, with its polyphonic verses cast in alternation with the unadorned plainsong hymn on which it is based.
From here we return to Frye’s glorious Missa Flos regalis via its setting of the central article of faith, sung at the centre of the Mass liturgy: the Credo. With Damett’s Salve porta paradisi we re-enter the realm—invoked earlier by the lovely opening motet by Cooke—of the delicate, jewel-like short motets so typical of these composers and others associated with royal Lancastrian patronage. The final Annunciation item, Dunstaple’s complex yet elegant Gaude virgo salutata, is constructed according to a pattern known to modern scholarship as isorhythm. According to this procedure a piece of plainchant, expressing the topic of the piece in question, is heard in rhythmicized and repeating form in the tenor, each time transformed under the influence of a different metre. Since with each new metre the melody is transformed into note values shorter than those of the previous statement, the idiom has a built-in sense of acceleration to which the surrounding voice parts gradually assimilate themselves, leading from initial spaciousness to a vigorous conclusion. Here as elsewhere we can see technical and aesthetic aspects coming together to maximize the expressive and sonic impact of the finished piece in its ritual and ceremonial context.
The Assumption and Coronation of the Virgin
Like our opening section of music invoking Mary’s divine protection against the plague, the group of pieces for her Assumption and Coronation is framed by two settings of the same text, in this case the Magnificat antiphon at First Vespers of Our Lady of the Snows (and doubtless other contexts as well), Sancta Maria, succurre miseris. The first of these, linking us back once more to the beginning of the programme, is a contrafactum (that is, a new textual version) of So ys emprentid, the same song that underpins the Frye Kyrie and Le Rouge Stella celi.
With the Sanctus of the Flos regalis Mass we reach the section that, in the liturgy, would have encased the central moment of the eucharistic rite: the elevation of the Host. O quam glorifica, a simple but absorbing work from the so-called Pepys manuscript now held in Magdalene College, Cambridge, is assigned to a certain ‘Fowler’ who may be the John Fowler who was a clerk of the Chapel Royal from 1433 to 1467. He shares his shadowy status with that of the composer of the next work, ‘Forest’, who has been tentatively identified with a John Forest, Dean of Wells Cathedral in the early fifteenth century. While obscure as a historical individual, he was the possessor of a truly distinctive musical voice, one that we have been exploring recently in sound, including two works on our previous disc,. Dunstaple’s setting of Sancta Maria, succurre miseris reveals him in simpler, more contemplative mood than in the showier isorhythmic Gaude virgo salutata, closer in idiom in fact to the pieces by his fellow royal employees Cooke and Damett.
Lineage of the Virgin
Our concise and beautiful setting of Virga Jesse floruit (‘The tree of Jesse has flowered’) has been identified by David Fallows as a contrafactum of an unknown English secular song in ballade form. Secular songs were susceptible to retexting, allowing an attractive songlike idiom to be used in conjunction with sacred words. Such recastings were made, in all probability, for use in circumstances of private devotion or within the environment of, say, one of the flood of religious confraternities which arose in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. But they may well have been used elsewhere too—perhaps, surprisingly for us, actually within the Mass liturgy itself and even at the brief (yet sublime) moment of the Elevation. Virga Jesse floruit, as a short, lyrical piece of a concise type of beauty ushers in the notion of the Virgin’s royal lineage, a theme which naturally reinforces the idea of the royal descent of Christ himself—as was made explicitly clear, every year, in the recitation of the Genealogies of Christ (from the gospels of Matthew and Luke) at Christmas and Epiphany.
The context of lineage and dynasty leads us on to St Anne, apocryphal mother of the Virgin, but widely venerated in the later Middle Ages, as well as on her own feast day of 26 July, made a day of obligation in England in 1382–3. We include here the second Responsory at Matins of St Anne, Matronarum hec matrona (‘This mother of mothers’), followed by John Plummer’s Anna mater matris Christi (‘Anne, mother of the mother of Christ’). This is a piece whose scoring unusually involves the weaving together of three equal-range tenor voices, as well as an upper alto part. The result is again jewel-like, with deceptively simple vocal parts whose resulting spectrum of sounds is nevertheless intricate and radiant. This is an absorbing and complex—yet also subtle and lyrical—work by this gifted precursor of the Eton style, whose activity very much parallels and complements that of Frye.
Although, as noted, uncertainty still surrounds the exact origin of the chant that underpins Frye’s Missa Flos regalis, its text seems unambiguous enough. Lauding the virgin’s status as ‘royal virginal flower’ and ‘of the royal stem of Jesse,’ it also, in its unusual reference to the Virgin as ‘light of the choir’, strikes an unusually appropriate note with which, in the Agnus Dei of this towering work, to conclude our celebration of the Virgin in sound and stone.
Andrew Kirkman & Philip Weller © 2018