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

December 17, 2014

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.

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