A Medieval Ladymass

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About This Performance

Performing 13th- and 14th-century polyphony and chant, the haunting, otherworldly voices of this Grammy-winning quartet return to the album that made them an international sensation.

“A certain parish priest, a man of upright life, knew no other Mass than the Mass of the Blessed Virgin, which he constantly chanted in her honor. Being accused thereof to the bishop, he was forthwith arraigned before him. When he avowed that he knew no other Mass, the bishop harshly upbraided him as an impostor, suspended him from his cure, and forbade him to chant the said Mass thereafter. The following night the Blessed Mary appeared to the bishop, belabored him with reproaches, and demanded the reason of his ill treatment of her servant; and she further said that the bishop would die within 30 days unless he restored the priest to his office. All atremble, the bishop summoned the priest and begged his forgiveness, commanding him to celebrate no other Mass than that of the Blessed Virgin.” (The Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine, 13th century. G. Ryan & H. Ripperger, trans., Ayer Company [Salem, NH, 1987], p. 528. Reproduced by permission.)

Stories of the miracles of the Blessed Virgin abound from the late Middle Ages. Her powers of intercession with her Son were apparently limitless; murderers, thieves, and every variety of miscreant could turn to Mary to be saved from their well-deserved punishment. She was the key to heaven – the kindly Mother who would not fail to smuggle an erring child into Paradise. And her cult was strong.
In the 13th century, a Mass to the Virgin, a Ladymass, was offered daily in the Lady chapel of Salisbury Cathedral. Most large churches had Lady chapels where such votive Masses were celebrated, either daily, as at Salisbury, or on Saturday, a day especially dedicated to Mary. Of the English polyphony preserved from this time, almost all of which is sacred, roughly two-thirds is in honor of the Virgin; much of this music could play a role in the Ladymass. For this performance, we have used liturgical polyphony and chant, along with other devotional works from the 13th and early 14th centuries, to create a composite Ladymass.

Among these liturgical and votive works, the major genres of vocal polyphony are represented, along with “new” chant forms, invented in the time of Charlemagne. The sequence, or prosa, is a specific poetic form, in which a series of rhymed couplets are set to “rhymed” musical verses: aa bb cc, etc. Added to the Mass in the Frankish era, following the Alleluia, this Frankish-era invention had become quite standardized in scansion by the 13th century, so that almost any sequence text could be set to almost any sequence melody. The trope, another Frankish innovation, is any addition of music and text to an existing plainchant. A trope was usually added to make a chant more specific to a saint or feast, or to increase its length and thus its solemnity. Tropes could be and were added to almost any kind of chant. Thousands of medieval tropes and sequences – representing a vast outpouring of musical creativity– were virtually abolished by the Council of Trent (mid-16th century), with only a handful, like “Dies Irae” and “Victimae paschali laudes,” surviving into the present day Catholic liturgy.

With the exception of the virtuoso three-voice setting of the Alleluia (“Virga ferax aaron”), the rest of the Mass Propers (Introit: “Salve sancta parens,” Gradual: “Benedicta et venerabilis,” Troped Offertory: “Recordare virgo-Mater patris,” Communion: “Beata viscera”) are set in plainchant of the highest art from the 13th-century Sarum Gradual. The three-voice song “Beata viscera” sets a poetic paraphrase of the communion chant, to which it is not musically related.

There is no direct association of items of the Mass Ordinary (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus dei, Ite missa est) with the plan of the Ladymass. We have chosen a polyphonic Kyrie trope in the form of a motet (“Lux polis/Lux et gloria/[Kyrieleyson]”). The bold, ebullient Gloria succeeds despite carefree violation of proper word accentuation. The Agnus dei is set in “alternatim” style, the liturgical plainchant alternating with a polyphonic Marian trope. And the Sanctus is one of many polyphonic English chant settings (chant carried in the tenor voice) featuring the rich triadic harmony that characterized the 15th-century contenance angloise of Dunstable and Dufay. The jolly, virtuosic “Ite missa est” is another of the relatively few four-voice liturgical settings.
Since it was normal practice to substitute a new sequence for the one that is liturgically prescribed, many new sequences were composed in the Middle Ages. We have used some of these works to augment our Ladymass. The rich, three-voice “O ceteris preamabilis,” set in conductus style, occurs at the usual place of the mass sequence. We open the program with the plainsong prosa “Gaude virgo salutata” from the 14th-century Dublin Troper. The gymel-style (voices crossing, harmonizing in thirds and sixths) “Jesu cristes milde moder” is a two-voice English setting of the Stabat mater sequence text.

The medieval motet presents an approach to text setting that is the antithesis of plainchant’s unity, with two or three different poems sung at the same time over an untexted tenor that is derived from plainchant. Four-voice texture was relatively rare at that time. Our two examples, the motets “In odore/Gracia viam/[Quadruplum]/[In odorem]” and “O quam glorifica/O quam beata/O quam felix/[Tenor]” are both masterpieces. The quadruplum line of “In odore” is a reconstruction by editor Ernest Sanders.

The British polyphonic conductus, with all voices declaiming the same text together, is quite varied in style, structure, and expressive means. Though it is found in two British sources, stylistic traits in the virtuoso conductus “Ave tuos benedic” suggest that it may originally have been a French composition, and a similar sound and style are also detectable in the rousing “Ave maria salus hominum.” The phrases of the hauntingly simple conductus “Salve mater salvatoris” are written out in a way that tells the singers to exchange text and tune at each turn of phrase.

We have also included devotional works in other genres: a strophic song (“Edi beo thu hevene quene”); and the simple and lovely Vespers hymn “Ave maris stella,” from a 13th-century manuscript at Worcester.

The fragmentary and scattered state of 13th- and 14th-century English polyphonic sources makes the creation of an edition a daunting task. There exists not even one substantial intact manuscript source from which to work. Instead, there are hundreds of strips, scraps, pastedowns, and flyleaves to be found, matched, deciphered, and transcribed. Reconstructions, ranging from a few notes to an entire voice part, are often necessary. Imaginative scholarship and subtle musical grace were apparent in all of Ernest Sanders’ transcriptions and restorations in the editions from which we drew these polyphonic works for our Ladymass. It has been a pleasure to bring them to life.

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