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Saturday morning quotes 3.31: Lightness

December 14, 2013

This is a light post acknowledging last evening’s sacred concert in honor of St. Lucy’s Day. Saint Lucy of Syracuse, (circa 283–304) was a virgin martyr whose feast day falls on December 13, formerly the longest night of the year according to the Julian calendar.  Derived from the Latin word lux, her name means light, and St. Lucy is the patron saint of those who are blind. Mignarda’s concert program presented Vespers antiphons for the feast day, as well as polyphonic motets on related texts, arranged for the celestial combination of solo voice, lute and harp.

Falling on the winter solstice, St. Lucy’s feast day was a significant event and common to several European traditions, including that of England prior to its dalliance with the reformed church in the 16th century. Catholic recusants, including John Dowland and John Donne, continued to recognize the significance of St. Lucy’s Day.  Dowland made the association with Lucy, Countess of Bedford, to whom his Second Booke of Songs or Ayres (1600) was dedicated. Both Dowland and John Donne were among the luminaries within the artistic circle of the Countesses’ patronage, and the first stanza of Donne’s poem, “A Nocturnal upon St. Lucie’s Day, being the shortest day” is quoted below:

‘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 ;
The world’s whole sap is sunk ;
The general balm th’ hydroptic earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the bed’s-feet, life is shrunk,
Dead and interr’d ; yet all these seem to laugh,
Compared with me, who am their epitaph.

The star composer of our concert program was Adriano Willaert ( c.1490 – 1562), with his sublime setting of the St. Lucy motet, In tua patientia, and his equally serene and evocative setting of O magnum mysterium. Willaert was a Flemish composer who occupied the post of maestro di cappella at the Basilica of St. Mark’s in Venice from 1527 until 1562, and is sometimes credited as founder of the polychoral tradition more typically associated with his protege, Andrea Gabrieli.  Another student, Gioseffo Zarlino, called Willaert  Il nuovo Pitagora (“the new Pythagoras”) for his intelligent musical use of the opposing choir lofts in the spacious Basilica, creating a style of antiphonal music that made use of the inherent delay by strategically placing groups of singers and instrumentalists playing either in unison or in opposition to one another.

Willaert is known to lutenists as the arranger of Philippe Verdelot’s Intavolatura de li madrigali di Verdelotto (1536).  But his sacred motets with their long intertwining threads of musical ideas offer a perfectly sublime indulgence for those of us who still possess an attention span.

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