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O virgo splendens – canon a 3 for voice, lute and harp

oVirgoSplendensAfter a surprising number of comments and an abundance of kind words in response to our post for St. Lucy’s Day, we are moved to share a link to another piece we recorded live with an ensemble of solo voice, lute and harp.  The combination of instruments is frequently depicted in the hands of angels appearing in sacred iconography dating back many centuries, with very good reason.

Our featured recording is from the Llibre Vermell of Montserrat, a manuscript of pilgrim songs dating from the end of the 14th century.  The manuscript is erroneously titled after a 19th-century binding in red velvet, but the library inscription aptly adds the rubric, Llibre dels miracles de montserrat.  Inscribed in the actual manuscript is the following text in Latin:

Quia interdum peregrini quando vigilant in ecclesia Beate Marie de Monte Serrato volunt cantare et trepudiare, et etiam in platea de die, et ibi non debeant nisi honestas ac devotas cantilenas cantare, idcirco superius et inferius alique sunt scripte. Et de hoc uti debent honeste et parce, ne perturbent perseverantes in orationibus et devotis contemplationibus.

“Because the pilgrims wish to sing and dance while they keep their watch at night in the church of the Blessed Mary of Montserrat, and also in the light of day; and in the church no songs should be sung unless they are chaste and pious, for that reason these songs that appear here have been written. And these should be used modestly, and take care that no one who keeps watch in prayer and contemplation is disturbed.”

There is a multitude of information readily available describing the manuscript, and there are also many recordings of the music with a wide variety of interpretations.  Since the music originated in the Catalonia area of what is now Spain, and the music is simple in character, many groups add percussion and whatnot (as our friend Jose Luis Posada wryly points out about many recordings, it seems like it isn’t Spanish without a drum and a church bell).

O Virgo splendens is a canon in three parts and appears as the first piece of music on 21v-22 of the manuscript, a snippet of which adorns the top of this page.  Also inscribed in the manuscript is the descriptive text, Antiphona dulcis armonia dulcissime virginis Mariae de Monte serrato (Antiphon in sweet harmony for the most sweet virgin Mary of Montserrat). Since there is a 12th-century shrine of a Black Madonna in Montserrat, the original pilgrimage site, we were inspired to record O virgo splendens at the Shrine Church of St. Stanislaus, where there also stands a Black Madonna.

Our recording, available here, tends toward the meditative and atmospheric, and includes Frederick Lautzenheiser on harp.  Our next regular Saturday post, will feature Adrian Willaert’s setting of the Christmas motet, O magnum mysterium, with the same cast of characters.

Saturday morning quotes 4.31: Advent III and St. Lucy

InTuaPatientia‘TIS the year’s midnight, and it is the day’s,
Lucy’s, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks ;
The sun is spent, and now his flasks
Send forth light squibs, no constant rays…

- John Donne (1572 – 1631), “A Nocturnal upon St. Lucie’s Day, being the shortest day”

If the image at the top of this page looks slightly familiar, it’s because one year and one day ago we used the same image to commemorate the Feast of Saint Lucy of Syracuse, (circa 283–304), which falls on  December 13th, formerly the longest night of the year according to the old Julian calendar. We refer you to last year’s post, where we made the connection between St. Lucy and Lucy Harrington, the Countess of Bedford (1580 – 1627), patroness to Elizabethan luminaries including John Donne, Samuel Daniel, Ben Jonson, John Florio and John Dowland, who dedicated his Second Booke of Songs or Ayres (1600) to the Countess, which meaningfully opens with a mini-masque of songs on the subject of lightness, darkness and tears (see Anthony Rooley, “New Light on John Dowland’s Songs of Darkness,” Early Music 11.1 (Jan. 1983): p.6).

For today’s installment of our Advent calendar, we feature a motet specific to St. Lucy’s Day, In tua patientia, in a setting by Adrian Willaert ( c.1490 – 1562). Willaert, who Pietro Aretino called sforzo di natura (miracle of nature) in Il marescalco (1539), was a prolific composer and a highly respected teacher.  As maestro di cappella at the Basilica of St. Mark’s in Venice from 1527 until 1562, Willaert required all of his musicians to study counterpoint, and famously dismissed an unnamed singer who refused to learn this important framework of rules essential to understanding music. Let that be a lesson to the profusion of indifferent choristers we see today.

Willaert was a friend to the lute, having intabulated Philippe Verdelot’s Il primo libro de madrigali for solo voice and lute, and published the arrangements as Intavolatura de li madrigali di Verdelotto (1536).  Our source for In tua patientia is Famosissimi Adriani Willaert, chori divi Marci illustrissimae Republicae Venetiarum Magistri, musica quatuor vocum, Liber Primus (1539).

Willaert’s four-voice sacred motets with their long intertwining threads of melodic ideas offer a perfectly sublime indulgence for the beguiling combination of solo voice, lute and harp, as can be heard in our unique arrangement of In tua patientia, newly released as a live recording.



Saturday morning quotes 4.30: Advent II

“When I read a book I am like someone strolling across a level lawn, thinking how jolly it all is, and when I am suddenly confronted with a [footnote] it is as though I had stepped on the teeth of a rake and had the handle spring up and hit me on the bridge of the nose.”

- Pelham Grenville Wodehouse (1881 – 1975), Over Seventy: An Autobiography with Digressions, Herbert Jenkins, London, 1957.

One of the hallmarks of early music is the tiresome trend of thorough documentation provided by academics in a self-conscious attempt to cram a given piece of music into a convenient category—a programmed response to a compulsive need to demonstrate that the music is better than it sounds.  My first experience performing with an early music ensemble left me scarred and skeptical of the music’s intrinsic value after having to endure the director of the ensemble drone on at the podium for seven minutes as he described a (fairly insipid) piece of music that, when played, lasted about a minute. Footnotes are mainly a vehicle for demonstrating the writer’s familiarity with the subject matter, and we are at times guilty of indulging in profuse citations.  But only when it serves to cushion the music, allowing it to descend upon the ears in a gentler manner.

In our second installment of an adapted weekly Advent calendar, we feature a bit of background on one of our favorite bits of seasonal music.

One of the best-loved carols of the season is “Ther is no rose of swych vertu,” a beautifully stark and simple piece of polyphony that alternates in three- and two parts.  The source of the piece is the Trinity Carol Roll, now preserved in the archives of Trinity College, Cambridge (MS O.3.58), and it appears as a vellum roll that includes the earliest surviving examples of English polyphonic carols. One can view a facsimile of “Ther is no rose of swych vertu” from images of the original manuscript here.

Text and tune of the original carol have been fodder for a multitude of contemporary arrangements including this one from Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols (the professional harpist’s seasonal bread and butter), charmingly performed by a fresh-faced Canadian choir.

Our simple and transparent performance of Ther is no rose of swych vertu is included on our recording  Duo Seraphim: Lute songs and solos for Advent and Christmastide, and is arranged for the historically-appropriate combination of solo voice and lute. We provide this link so you might enjoy the music for its effect –  not for the footnotes.


Saturday morning quotes 4.29: Advent I

Winter has descended with a vengeance in our neck of the woods, as if to aggressively put to the test strength of body and character and curtly suggest that we may need to put aside any ideas about music and consider creative ways to remain unfrozen.  But just like the Dude, we abide.

While our frantically secular culture is completely consumed with shopping, we point out that along with the startlingly premature cold weather comes Advent, and November 30th marks the first Sunday of the season.  Since Advent marks the beginning of the Church year, it’s a time for beginnings of all sorts, so we mark the season with our own version of an Advent Calendar adapted for our weekly format.

“Music is not man’s invention, but his heritage from the blessed spirits. Music describes the very being of God…it can affect for good or ill the body as well as the mind.”

- attributed to Tomás Luis de Victoria (c. 1548 – 1611)

Appropriate to the first Sunday in Advent is the text “Ne timeas Maria,” though more proper to Lauds on the Feast of the Annunciation (which was March 25).  The text was set sublimely for four voices by Tomás Luis de Victoria and published in his first set of motets, Thomae Ludovici De Victori, Abulensis Motecta Que Partim Quaternis Partim, Quinis, Alia, Senis, Alia Octonis Vocibus Concinuntur Venetijs Apud Filios Antonij Gardani 1572.

Victoria adapted the text from Luke, Ch. 1:26-38 as below:

Ne timeas Maria,
Invenisti enim gratiam apud Dominum:
Ecce concipies in utero et paries filium,
et vocabitur altissimi Filius.

Fear not Mary,
for you have found favor in the house of the Lord.
Behold, you shall conceive and bring forth a son,
and He shall be called Son of the most High.

Although he spent most of his compositional career in Rome, Victoria’s musical style reflects the emotional intensity and rhythmic refinement characteristic of Spanish music circa 1600. Victoria wrote no secular music, and none specifically for instruments, but his style lends itself to our arrangement of his four-voice motet for the beguiling combination of solo voice and lute.

Our recording of the motet taps into the calm serenity of Victoria’s music, which we augment ever so slightly with tasteful divisions for voice. You can hear the result on our recording, Duo Seraphim, you can find our arrangement for solo voice and lute in Mignarda Edition’s anthology of 16th-century sacred music for voice and lute, Harmonia Cælestis Volume One, and an excellent source of information on the composer is Studies in the Music of Tomás Luis de Victoria by Eugene Casjen Cramer, Ashgate, Aldershot, 2001.

Saturday morning quotes 4.28: Why music?

As we continue to be waylaid by the aftereffects of this year’s premature winter weather, we reflect on why we bother investing heart, soul and our few remaining cents in old music.  One grows weary with the attempt to gain and maintain a foothold in performing early music, a field that has become as tawdry and commercial as any other aspect of life in these United States.  Credentials and connections seem to take precedence over music-making in the world of early music, and it has simply become tiresome to those of us who care about aesthetics.

It has always been thus.  According to Gioseffo Zarlino (1517 – 1590) author of the important treatise Le istitutioni harmoniche (1558), even his teacher, the famous Adriano Willaert (c.1490 – 1562), suffered insulting behavior when singers discovered he was the the composer of a piece that was mistakenly attributed to Josquin:

“I shall now relate what I have heard said many times about the most excellent Adrian Willaert, namely, that a motet for six voices, Verbum bonum et suave, sung under the name of Josquin in the Papal Chapel in Rome almost every feast of Our Lady, was considered one of the most beautiful compositions sung in those days. When Willaert came from Flanders to Rome at the time of Leo X and found himself at the place where this motet was being sung, he saw that it was ascribed to Josquin. When he said that it was his own, as it really was, so great was the malignity or (to put it more mildly) the ignorance of the singers, that they never wanted to sing it again.”

Having just recorded two pieces by Willaert, “O magnum mysterium” and the sublime “In tua patientia,” we can report that his compositions do indeed hold a candle to Josquin’s music. And as a roundabout answer to the question posed by the title to today’s post, we offer these words from another notable Hungarian-American, János Starker (1924 – 2013).

“[If] It is part of our lives in a way that we cannot wake up in the morning and go through life without music and without having this essential aspect of it, that music means just as much as eating and drinking or living then that person should not be involved in music.”

We hope to once again exhibit the usual joie de vivre and be back on track after the snow melts just a little.

Saturday morning quotes 4.27: Mignardises

We strive to provide timely quotations of interest for our dedicated followers every Saturday, but from time to time our best intentions are derailed by the typical daily catastrophes of 21st-century life. Such is the case this week and we are compelled to draw upon our improvisatory skills in lieu of our intended subject, which will emerge in due course. But today we point to a sweet little something in the way of a recording from our 2011 CD, Sfumato: Musica per voce e liuto del Rinascimento Italiano.

The frottola, “Che debo far che mi consigli amore” by Bartolomeo Tromboncino (c. 1470 – 1535), is a setting of the poetry of the famous Francesco Petrarca (1304 – 1374), from Canzoniere (Rerum vulgarium fragmenta), in 2. Rime In morte di Madonna Laura, (268).  The setting for solo voice and lute was published in 1509 and is found on f. 7v  of Tenori e contrabassi intabulati col sopran in canto figurato per cantar e sonar col lauto Libro primo. Francisci Bossinensis Opus, the work of one Franciscus Bossinensis (fl. 1509 – 1511), printed by Venetian, Ottaviano Petrucci.

Our version of the frottola includes a setting of the first two stanzas of Petrarca’s poem:

Che debb’io far? che mi consigli, Amore?
Tempo è ben di morire,
et ò tardato più ch’i’ non vorrei.
Madonna è morta, et à seco il mio core;
et volendol seguire,
interromper conven quest’anni rei,
perché mai veder lei
di qua non spero, et l’aspettar m’è noia.
Poscia ch’ogni mia gioia
per lo suo dipartire in pianto è volta,
ogni dolcezza de mia vita è tolta.

Amor, tu ‘l senti, ond’io teco mi doglio,
quant’è il damno aspro et grave;
e so che del mio mal ti pesa et dole,
anzi del nostro, perch’ad uno scoglio
avem rotto la nave,
et in un punto n’è scurato il sole.
Qual ingegno a parole
poria aguagliare il mio doglioso stato?
Ahi orbo mondo, ingrato,
gran cagion ài di dever pianger meco,
ché quel bel ch’era in te, perduto ài seco.

What shall I do? What do you counsel me, Love?
It is surely time to die,
and I have delyed more than I would wish.
My lady is dead, and has my heart with her,
And if I wish to follow it
I must break off these cruel years,
For I never hope to see her on this side,
And waiting is painful to me,
since by her departure my every joy is turned to weeping,
every sweetness of my life is taken away.

Love, you feel how great is the bitter heavy loss,
And therefore I complain to you;
and I know that you are pained by my grief –
Or rather ours,
for we have wrecked our ship on the same rock
And in the same instant the sun is darkened for us both.
What skill could ever match in words my sorrowful state?
Ah! Bereaved, ungrateful world!
You have great reason to weep with me,
for with her you have lost all the good that was in you.

Tromboncino’s musical setting presents what appears to be a very regular dance pulse that insistently impels the music, almost demanding a sparkling and sprightly tempo. But when the astute interpreter truly heeds the heart-wrenching nature of the poetry, the effect of the piece is only marred by such insensitive forward motion. A pensive and restrained pulse with longing accents placed on the rhythmically syncopated suspensions produces a result that elevates what might otherwise be a trivial little ditty to a miniature masterpiece of melancholy.

We give very careful thought to recreating the meaningful aesthetic of early music, melding research with intelligent interpretive ideas, and adding musical refinement.  For our quote we offer these guiding and inspiring words from one of our very favorite performers:

“…I decided to do early music not as a reduction of possibility but as an increasing of possibility.”

Marco Beasley

We invite our readers to listen to our interpretation of ” Che debo far che mi consigli amore.”

Saturday morning quotes 4.26: Musical hero

Our weekly posts are offered in the spirit of sharing our admittedly skewed perspective and commentary on the precarious state of our precious cultural heritage. To that end, we share quotations and worthy examples of wise words gleaned from writers of the past and the present—instructive ideas indicating how we as intelligent and aware artists might retain our humanity and avoid a hellish descent into the Digital Dark Ages.

Ours is the age of electronic noise—the byproduct of the flashing and buzzing transmission of clockwork music and phony imagery for the purpose of selling insubstantial fluff while collecting metadata. The lute and its music offer an alternative and a metaphorical portal through which we may view the rich tapestry of our shared cultural legacy.  The committed concentration required to play the lute well does not fit the modern lifestyle.  The instrument is quiet, unwieldy and highly reactive to whims of the weather, the technique is nothing less than uncompromising, adjusting the tuning is a constant endeavor, and the music is never less than demanding.

The resulting music, when thoroughly understood and well-played, is simply elevating and a shining example of what may be realized through hard work, persistence, inspired artistry and attention to the finer details.  Thinking, feeling humans need to hear this reminder of what was and is possible, and artists who commit their lives to sharing the music are no less than modern-day heroes.

But you don’t have to take our word for it. We quote from one of our modern-day heroes, Jordi Savall, pioneering early music specialist and master of the lute’s bowed relative, the viola da gamba.  Savall recently refused to accept the Spanish Premio Nacional de Música 2014, sacrificing a monetary award of 30.000 Euros in order to draw attention to the Spanish government’s woeful neglect of promoting cultural heritage and lack of investment in cultivating the arts among Spanish youth. Below find an English translation of notable excerpts of his statement:

“We are living through a very serious political, economic and cultural crisis, a consequence of which is that one fourth of Spanish citizens find themselves in a precarious financial situation and more than half of our young people don’t have any possibility of finding a job that would ensure them a minimally dignified life. Culture, art, and especially music, are the basis of an education which allows us to find ourselves personally and at the same time, be present as a cultural entity in an increasingly globalized world.

“I am absolutely convinced that art is useful to society and that it contributes to the education of the young, and to elevating and strengthening the human dimension and spirit of human beings. But how many Spaniards have been able, some time in their lives, to listen live to the sublime musicians Cristóbal de Morales, Francisco Guerrero, or Tomás Luis de Victoria? Maybe a few thousand privileged people have been able to attend a concert as part of the very few festivals that put on this kind of music. But the vast majority will never be able to benefit from the fabulous spiritual energy that is transmitted by the divine beauty of these musicians.”

“…Music lives only when a singer sings it or when a musician plays it; musicians are the actual living museums of musical art…That is why it’s so necessary to give these musicians a minimum of stable institutional support, because without them, our musical heritage will continue sleeping the sad slumber of ignorance and ignominy.”

“I believe, as Dostoevsky said, that beauty will save the world, but for that to happen, one must live with dignity and have access to Education and Culture.”

Prior to his publication of these words, we held Jordi Savall in the highest esteem for his musical artistry, his innovative interpretations, and his many years of dedication to the aesthetics of historical music.  With his public stand on these important issues, we now consider Jordi Savall a hero as well.


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