CD Released December 2013

Crossley Hawn, soprano 
Allison Mondel, soprano and music director 
Nola Richardson, soprano 
Kristen Dubenion-Smith, mezzo-soprano

What is more awe-inspiring than the starry night sky? A sea of darkness, made magical with the twinkling of millions upon millions of stars. The sky above is not only a source of beauty and utter wonderment, but it serves to guide sailors, navigators, astronomers, and the like; the night sky is a tool. And as we are all familiar, humanity’s conception of the heavens has evolved drastically throughout the centuries. Generally speaking, medieval cosmology (and herein is a vast subject unto itself!), was based largely upon the shoulders of Aristotle and Plato. The general sense was that the universe, embodied in a great, finite sphere, was divided between the earthly realm and the heavens with Earth as the central focus. A worldview held throughout most of the Middle Ages, the celestial spheres above were believed to be fashioned of a different substance, and fixed stars and planets were perfect and unchanging in their motion. Recall that Galileo’s substantiation of the heliocentric theory (built upon the previous theories of Copernicus and Kepler) did not erupt until the early 17th century, well before the time in which this program’s music is drawn.

That said, the Catholic Church was a vital body operating throughout Europe during the Middle Ages, which naturally placed holy emphasis on the celestial realm. Also flourishing during this time was the cult of Mary, in which veneration of the Virgin Mother became an intrinsic aspect of everyday life, especially within monastic and spiritual communities. Mary was viewed as intercessor between mankind and Jesus/God, a conduit between earth and heaven. As such she was often compared to a star in the night sky–-a fixed, omnipresent guardian and guide, brilliant with a radiant light. Indeed, there is no shortage of Marian repertoire in the medieval musical canon. This program focuses upon the particular image of Mary as a guiding star, exploring the connection of the human spirit to the celestial God-realm via this unique intercessor.

The opening hymn, Ave maris stella, is our starting point. An ancient song believed to have originated in the 9th century, it is one of the earliest surviving examples describing Mary as the “star of the sea.” Its origins most likely stem from the prayers of the faithful for safe travels upon the water. The remainder of the program is devoted to the music of Spain, England, and France. From this repertoire we have chosen pieces representative of the most notable compositional forms during the medieval period. 

First we turn to Spain, a complex intersection of cultures, faiths, and landscapes. In Catalonia, in the far east of that country, there is a famous pilgrimage route towards the mountaintop monastery of Montserrat. The community here was established in the 11th century and grew to become an important shrine site. A fire in 1811 destroyed much of the contents of the monastic library, but an important manuscript survived, the Llibre vermell (or “Red Book,” named for its more contemporary red velvet cover). The compositions date from the 14th century, and it contains only ten songs in all, originally composed for use by the devout pilgrim.  Polorum regina, in virelai form (a common poetic form dating from the 12th through the 15th centuries, exemplified in the splendid poetry and music of Machaut) have a strong rhythmic impulse and repetitive melodic material well-suited to a processional or walking journey. 

Another piece from a Spanish source, Ave maris stella, is a three-voice conductus found in the Codex de las Huelgas. Las Huelgas monastery is located in the city of Burgos, centrally located along the Camino de Santiago, en route to the great cathedral shrine of Santiago de Compostela on the far western shore. Remarkably still housed there to this day, the Codex, compiled during the early 14th century, is a seemingly humble manuscript featuring a variety of differing musical styles. It contains music composed both in Spain and at Notre Dame de Paris, and is notable for this Parisian influence, in which travelers along the camino most likely affected this transmission. Ave maris stella is one such example of a French import, found in several French sources. The long and intricate melismatic writing stirs up the image of endless, undulating waves upon the sea, a fascinating intersection of text and music. 

Notre Dame was undoubtedly an enormous influence upon the musical cultures throughout the entire continent. It is in Paris that musical styles went through a radical evolution in a relatively short period of time: from plainchant to the outrageously melismatic organum style, to the homogenized sound of the conductus, to the multilingual motet, and so on. The motet, a compositional form cultivated in the late 12th century (Léonin is perhaps the earliest known champion), became a vehicle for composers to craft incredibly complex linguistic and musical artforms. 

We have chosen several contrasting examples for this program. The first, O Maria, virgo Davitica/O Maria, maris stella/VERITATEM, drawn from the Montpellier Codex, is representative of Ars antiqua style. This “double motet” is composed with three voices total; two upper voices, each with individually set texts are placed above an elongated section of liturgical chant (or tenor) in a strict rhythmic mode (in this case Mode I: a long-short-long rhythm). So let us be frank: the 13th-century French motet is a head-scratcher. It is not entirely clear how the double motet was presented in context, especially considering its innately dense texture and questionable liturgical usage. Modern performers all have a varied approach. Our hope is to capture the piece in its layered entirety. 

The French motet is paired with two English examples, Salve mater redemptoris and Virgo Maria patrem parit, in which four voices join together in various configurations. Salve mater redemptoris is composed in the traditional Ars antiqua motet style, this time with three voices moving independently above the fourth voice, which sings an elongated, texted tenor. The later motet Virgo Maria patrem parit is a witness to musical evolution, in which all four voices have been set with four unique texts. A fascinating aspect of this work is the relation of the two upper voices and the two lower voices; the upper voices both have texts conjuring the image of Mary as a star, yet the the lower voices refer to Mary as a flower, another prominent image of Mary during this period.

The conductus, featured prominently on this program, is a polyphonic form in which two or more voices sing with the same rhythm and text, in a mostly homophonic style (word-for-word). The conductus has it origins in the Aquitanian schools (11-12th centuries) in the southwest of France, and subsequently developed an updated Parisian flavor. Novi sideris and Stillat in stellam radium are both arranged for two voices. The first, joyful and exuberant, relates to Jesus who is seen as the ray of light emitted from a new star, whilst the latter is a placid setting devoted to Mary. The inspiration of this program, Stella serena, is a three-voice conductus setting underlaying a simple and unassuming text. The composition reveals complex and technically-challenging melodic lines, revealing the craft within this seemingly simple artform. Note the extended cauda, or concluding melisma, a final meditation on the beautiful theme of the piece.

The conductus style also flourished in the great monastic centers of England. As chance and history dictate, many of these compositions were not preserved in any careful way throughout the tumultuous history of that island, and thus they are transmitted as fragments, contained primarily in the flyleaves (front and back pages) of other manuscripts. What remains of these compositions is a remarkable body of work, drastically different (although highly influenced by) than their French counterparts, creating an entirely unique sound-world. 

The three-voice conductus Iam vellus imbuitur is a perfect example of this slivered repertoire, its first lines eroded in time, leaving behind an achingly beautiful fragment of homophonic lushness. The English mastered the style of moving in harmonic parallel thirds. In the three-voice setting of  Salve mater misericordie, a lovely example of the rondellus, the voices are given extended melismatic passages. Some works rely on short, simple statements of text with melodic flourishes as heard in Salve virgo tonantis solium, less dependent on text elongation than in punctuating short phrases with a basic rhyme scheme, simply wrought in ardent prayer to the Virgin. 

-Allison Mondel