Program Notes on La bele Marie
Estoile resplendissant lune sans nule oscurite,
soleil grant clarte rendant marie de grant biaute. .
Shining star, moon without darkness,
sun giving great light, Mary of great beauty . . .
Chanson: De la mere au sauveor,
From the Renaissance until today, the Catholic
Church has periodically found it necessary to suppress the influence of
the Virgin Mary in its liturgy and traditions. Her cult, at certain
times and places, became so zealous that Mary-worship overshadowed even
the adoration of the Deity. Western Europe during the Gothic era
– the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries – was without any doubt one
of these times and places. Cathedrals soared to the heavens, many,
if not most of them, dedicated to Mary, like the Cathedrals of Nôtre-Dame
at Paris and Chartres. Rhetoric honoring Mary in prose, poetry and song
was as ardent as any ever put on paper, surpassing even the florid love
lyrics of the troubadours and trouvères, and borrowing many of their
romantic turns of phrase. There are those who hear in such extravagant
praises of the Virgin, and in the cascades of natural images used to describe
her, distant echoes of an intense prehistoric culture of goddess worship
native to European soil.
Our program is a collection of thirteenth-century
French songs to Mary, from the Latin clerical tradition as well as from
the vernacular art song repertoire of the northern French trouvères.
The Latin songs we have selected are all conductus,
a generic term derived from the practice of using para-liturgical vocal
music to accompany, or “conduct” processions during solemn services. In
reality, these conductus are anything but generic: they exhibit a wide
variety of styles and textures, from simple monophonic songs (like O Maria
O felix puerpera) to lengthy and virtuosic compositions (like Ave salus
hominum and the dazzling Mater patris et filia).
Certain characteristics separate conductus
from other Latin compositions of their time: they are settings of poetry
-- usually, but not always, religious; they are not based on any pre-existing
plainchant melodies, as are the motet and organum; and, in polyphonic conductus
(i.e., for more than one voice part), the singers all declaim the same
text together. Some conductus are all about declamation (O Maria virginei;
Serena virginum, Mundum renovavit) and others are about virtuosic display,
with a minimum of text (Pia mater gracia, Ave Maria gratia plena, Salve
There is an old, hard-dying belief that in
medieval vocal compositions text and music bear little relation to each
other. It is impossible to hear sweet and touching songs like Verbum bonum
et suave, Ave virgo virginum, and Ave nobilis venerabilis without realizing
that their composers were as capable of sensitive text setting as they
were of vocal fireworks.
As is usual for medieval Latin music, the composers
are almost all anonymous. But there are exceptions. The illustrious
Perotin, who made his name at Nôtre-Dame around 1200 with monumental
four-voice compositions, is here represented by the monophonic, chant-like
Beata viscera. Unfortunately, four of the seven verses of this poem (by
Perotin’s famous literary contemporary, Chancellor Philippe) contain references
to the Jews that are unflattering, to say the very least. We have chosen
to omit these verses.
All of the works on this program are taken
from French sources, with the exception of two virtuoso conductus from
the thirteenth-century Spanish manuscript known as the Codex de las Huelgas,
a rich hybrid containing major works from the Parisian repertoire of the
Cathedral of Notre-Dame, as well as indigenous compositions. The two pieces
are most likely products of the same hand, considering the remarkable similarity
between the unusual duple-meter passages in the two-voice Ave maria gratia
plena, and the three-voice Mater patris et filia.
The French songs (chansons) show a variety
of rhyme schemes and musical structures, with and without refrains, and
are, for the most part, contrafacts of trouvère songs (i.e., existing
melodies re-fitted with texts in honor of Mary). The songs are all from
the Clairambault Manuscript, collected sometime in the second half of the
thirteenth-century, although most of the compositions date from the first
half of the century. The courtly love conceits of abasing oneself at the
foot of the lady-lover, begging for her mercy and praising her virtues,
are here taken over with barely a change. Added to these stock rhetorical
phrases is a large dose of regret at former folly (as in the opening lines
of Mainte chançon ai fait), and recognition of Mary as a powerful
intercessor (Je te pri de cuer, De la très douce marie), who must
be repeatedly and sincerely asked to remember the petitioner at the last
hour (De la mere au sauveor).
A Note on Pronunciation
Latin was the common international language
of Western Europe in the Middle Ages. Taught from Classical texts, and
used to write official documents as well as literature, medieval Latin
was relatively standardized in structure, over time varying from region
to region in syntax and vocabulary with changes in society and new developments
in science. But the area in which Latin was most influenced by local variation
was in pronunciation: it assimilated many elements of pronunciation of
the vernacular dialect or language of each region or country. In France
especially, the pronunciation of Latin sounded very similar to the French
that was spoken in the Middle Ages.
The pronunciation of French Latin from the
early 13th century that we are using in this program is based on linguistic
research by Harold Copeman; the pronunciation of French from about the
same time is based on linguistic research by Robert Taylor. This research
is published in Singing Early Music: the pronunciation of European Languages
in the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance. ed by Timothy J. McGee with A.G.
Rigg and David N. Klausner. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, c1996.