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Saturday morning quotes 8.45: Plainchant

June 25, 2022

We are very pleased to announce the release of Donna Stewart’s second album of solo plainchant, Veni, Sancte Spiritus. The album is available for streaming at the usual sites, and CDs will be available on our website by mid-July.

“Plainchant is liturgical music, music to be performed during the celebration of a divine service…Practically the whole of the plainchant repertory is music sung with a text. This is another reason why the music cannot always be discussed as a thing in itself: one has to see whether, and how, it articulates the texts being sung.”

– David Hiley, Western Plainchant: A Handbook, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1993, p. 1.

“The music at the fountainhead of the Western musical experience, Gregorian chant, arose in the late eighth century from complex adjustments in the long-term geopolitics of east and west involving Franks, Romans and Byzantines. The work seems to have begun when the first Carolingian kings of the Franks resolved to import Roman plainsong into certain churches…Charlemagne did not think like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, distinguishing the political domain from the religious, and the familiar view that the Carolingians disseminated Gregorian chant by acting as a central power, sending out court-trained singers to the provinces, is precisely the kind of judgement one might now wish to refine.”

– Christopher Page, The Christian West and Its Singers: The First Thousand Years, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2010, p.3.

Plainchant is the very foundation upon which western historical music is built, and to perform early music without making an effort to understand the role of plainchant in the daily musical experience of our ancestors is akin to debating civil rights in the US today without having read the Constitution and/or Declaration of Independence—that is to say, embarrassingly uninformed and sadly all too common.

Modern lute revivalists simply cannot comprehend the true role of our instrument and its historical music without gaining a working familiarity with plainsong melodies upon which many pieces in the repertory are based. For instance, the circa 1517 Vincenzo Capirola manuscript (pages 129 and 132), where Et in terra pax and Qui tollis peccata mundi, drawn from the Gloria movement of Missa Pange lingua by Josquin des Prés, are arranged for solo lute and copied into the manuscript in sequence. Or the piece for solo lute from the Herbert of Cherbury manuscript (f. 67) titled “Susanne un jour” and attributed to Jacob Polonois, where the plainsong melody of Ave maris stella is quoted verbatim in the bass line. Or the many contrapuntal “In nomine” variation settings for consort and solo instruments by English composers from the Elizabethan age (linked example from the Marsh lute ms., p. 426), the theme of which is drawn from the Gloria tibi Trinitas plainsong tune quoted in the Benedictus of John Taverner’s Missa Gloria Tibi Trinitas a 6. There are many, many other examples from the lute music of Francesco da Milano to that of John Dowland, but we’ve made our point.

“I prepared a little talk for a local choir this week, and the piece we focused on particularly was Palestrina’s Sicut cervus, and I was searching around—we’ve all got a favorite recording—but I found a beautiful recording by Mignarda, which is an American lute and voice duo, and the whole motet is just sung as a song with lute, and it’s revelatory, I think, in terms of the sunniness and the longing in Palestrina’s writing.”

– David Allinson, Director of Music at Canterbury Christ Church University, February 5, 2021

“Mignarda, the longstanding soprano-lute duo of Donna Stewart and Ron Andrico, doubled its forces at St. John’s Cathedral on Sunday afternoon, February 24 for “Byrd songes,” a program of devotional and liturgical music by William Byrd. By adding José Gotera and Malina Rauschenfels to their roster, Mignarda created a splendid vocal quartet who sang revelatory versions of Byrd’s Mass for Four Voices and Ave verum corpus.”

– Daniel Hathaway, March 11, 2019.

“Revelatory” is a descriptor that frequently crops up in reviews and commentary on our music and, in all humility, while we appreciate the observation it is just us doing our job well. We have taken the time to immerse ourselves in the aesthetic of the music we perform, and there is simply no substitute for attaining authenticity in performance. Historical music for voice and lute in our repertory is convincing because we take the time and make the effort to understand the words and music and their historical context. The plainchant that permeates early music is more easily recognized and interpreted by performers who actually understand the perspective of historical musicians and their experience of singing the Mass.

“…Stewart makes full use of the church’s reverberent acoustic. Each phrase gets a chance to resolve itself into silence. And she doesn’t hesitate to use a judicious amount of rubato in her singing – never schmaltzy – just the right amount of plasticity that beautiful vocal lines demand. Importantly, Stewart has the beautiful voice equal to those melodies; it is seamless and rich. Not an imitation boy-choir white tone, but a restrained and attractive adult woman’s voice…This is the album to give to folks who might find it a window into understanding the chant ethos. And it’s an album worth listening to yourself because its very different style can open an experienced singer to new ways of thinking about both text and melody.”

– Commentary on Donna Stewart’s Adoro Te, reviewed by Mary Jane Ballou, August 20, 2014.

Since cats rule the internet, we share an unsolicited testimonial.

“The Lady listening to Donna Stewart’s  voice on “Adoro Te” – usually she leaves when I put on music…She seems to enjoy Donna’s singing! It has been interesting to watch her as she seems to listen to the music. BTW I can recommend this CD wholeheartedly – A complete recording for voice alone. The first production of that kind I really enjoyed listening in one run.”
– Thomas Schall

We’re very pleased with this new recording, available for streaming and download now, and we invite you to check out the video below for more background and samples.

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