A particularly imposing example of a vocal acclamation is heard at the words ‘ave Jesu’ in Robert Fayrfax’s Ave Dei Patris filia
, where its appearance is highlighted by an unanticipated shift in harmony. This monumental votive antiphon to Mary represents an old musical world, the world of grandiose polyphony most famously represented by the repertory of the Eton Choirbook copied at the opening of the sixteenth century. In such English works divisions between sections of text are usually marked by a change to a new combination of singers. These sections each defined by their particular vocal scoring are on a much larger scale that the antiphonal contrasts in Taverner’s Mater Christi
. Thus Fayrfax sets the first of the eight stanzas for the highest three voices, and the next to the lowest three, while for the third he marks the entrance of the full ensemble with another of the chordal ‘bows’ at ‘ave’. But despite its use of this long-established English method of constructing the piece by means of scoringsections, Fayrfax’s writing also anticipates the more direct communication of text heard in Taverner’s Mater Christi
: floridity of the kind found in many Eton-Choirbook works has been stripped away much of the time, so that the text is declaimed with simple lucidity by each voice. The most unadorned writing achieves a crystalline and poignant quality, as in the extended duet between soprano and tenor for the ‘Ave plena gratia’ stanza in the second half of the motet, although the music takes flight into soaring melisma as the penultimate syllable of the stanza is sung. Fayrfax’s relatively austere treatment of much of the text contrasts with the floridity of the text itself, heard for example in the extraordinary succession of superlative adjectives (‘nobilissima’, ‘dignissima’, etc) ending every line of the first three stanzas, a construction which Fayrfax emphasises by suspending the musical flow at many of these line-endings. In the first five stanzas the author of the text found manifold ways to impart the same message: Mary’s fourfold status as daughter of God the Father, mother of God the Son, bride of God the Holy Spirit, and handmaid of the Trinity. The praise of Mary as bride links this text with the Song of Songs, that great love-poem of the Old Testament, Christian interpretations of which frequently identified the female beloved therein as Mary.
from notes by Owen Rees © 2016