First things first - this is a stunningly beautiful CD.
Now I am first to admit that not everyone is enthusiastic about
giving ‘devotion’ to
Our Lady.’ There are strong theological positions within
the various branches of the Christian Church which fight
shy of any form of words or art that raises the ‘Mother of
Our Lord’ to a position anywhere approaching her Divine Son.
However, increasingly in our age, theologians have been led
to examine the dynamic contribution of Mary to the development
of ‘Feminist and Ecological’ theological thinking.
But if I nail my colours to the mast, I am a ‘high church Anglican’.
The trappings of the historic ‘Catholic’ church are vitally
important to me – from an aesthetic perspective. It is through ‘tradition’ that
I can best relate to the ‘faith of my fathers’. I like nothing
better than attending High Mass at All Saints, Margaret Street:
the powerful sound of the organ, the singing of the choir,
the processions, the bells and incense and genuflections
all add to the numinous quality of worship. Of course the
music – choral, organ and hymnic is all part of this almost
theatrical - I do not use this word in a derogatory manner
- presentation of the Gospel. And preferably the texts should
be from the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Bible
and the words of the Saints and Fathers of the Church.
Part of the ‘Catholic’ tradition is devotion to Our Lady. The bottom
line is that Christianity cannot divorce itself entirely
from Mary. Certain theologies may disagree with her role
and position within the hierarchy of the Communion of Saints,
but no-one will deny the huge historical part she played
in the Christian version of the history of Salvation. To
the Christian, it was Mary’s ‘Yes’ to the Angel Gabriel,
and hence God the Father that began the journey of Jesus
to the Cross and the Resurrection.
This importance has led to a vast array of works of art:
authors and painters and sculptors and composers have sought
the biblical story of Mary. Sometimes they have used the
texts as presented in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Frequently
they have appealed to the ‘old dispensation’ for symbolical
and typological shadowing of the Virgins life. And often
apocryphal writers have filled out ‘what must really have
happened’ stories where the biblical accounts were too sketchy.
And then there is the historical liturgy of the Church which
has assembled the texts of the ages in the form of hymns,
antiphons and collects and extracts from the Fathers and
This CD presents an outline of Our Lady’s life ranging from the prophecies
of the Old Testament through to her ‘Coronation’ sitting
at the right-hand side of her Son in Glory. The texts set
are derived from the whole variety of written material.
The programme opens with Howells’ delightful anthem ‘A
Spotless Rose’. Often used at Advent Sunday carol services
there are few offerings where the words and music are so
perfectly matched. The words allude to the prophecies of
The two following pieces are vocal and instrumental evocations
of the Angel Gabriel’s approach to Mary and her acquiescence
in God’s plan for her and all humanity. The gorgeous anthem, Ave,
Maria by Marcel Dupré is followed by Max Reger’s similarly
titled organ voluntary. This is an attractive, if a touch
heavy, representation of the Annunciation.
Then our journey moves on to the ‘classic’ Anglican Cathedral sound-scape
of Stanford’s Magnificat in G. This is perhaps one
of the loveliest examples of this text setting. The soloist
balances the chorus giving an almost perfect impression of
innocence and acceptance.
Francis Poulenc provides a fine piece celebrating the Nativity. The
text, O magnum mysterium is taken from the Breviary
and is the ‘fourth respond for Matins on Christmas Day’.
No-one could remain unmoved by the simplicity and sincerity
of this near perfect setting.
The anthem, Prayer for a New Mother, was written for Christmastide
and is by the composer Richard Shepherd. He has a close connection
with Salisbury having both taught at the Cathedral School
and having sung in the choir. Interestingly, the text to
this anthem is by Dorothy Parker - yes! the Dorothy
Parker - and well succeeds in presenting Mary in her maternal
I am not so impressed by James Macmillan’s organ piece Gaudeamus
in loci pace. It is not that there is anything particularly
difficult or outlandish about this Messiaen-inspired piece.
To my ear it just seems to lack conviction. It was written
in 1995 in celebration of the re-foundation of Pluscarden
Abbey in Aberdeenshire. The title of the piece is taken
from the ‘Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary’ but
it seems a little out of place at this point in Our Lady’s
The short anthem, ‘When to the Temple Mary
went’ by Johannes Eccard is a delightful meditation
on the ‘Presentation of Christ in the Temple’. This is
a beautifully proportioned and quite restrained piece that
well complements the words of Simeon: ‘Lord, now lettest
thou thy servant: depart in peace: according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen: thy salvation …’
Ever since being a child my favourite Christian
imagery has always been the Epiphany – or the Coming of the
Magi or Wise Men. Usually rolled up by the media into a part
of Christmas, this event was traditionally deemed to have
taken place when Our Lord was a toddler rather than a babe
wrapped in swaddling clothes. But the ‘Feast of the Epiphany’ is
about more that just wise men, as the words of Luca Marenzio’s
madrigal, Tribus miraculis, points out. It is ‘a day
sanctified by three miracles: today a star led the Wise Men
to the manger; today water was changed into wine at the marriage
feast; today Christ chose to be baptized by John in the Jordan
for our salvation.’
Most listeners do not normally associate Pablo
Casals with composition. Perhaps it was his work at presenting
the Bach Cello Suites to the world in the 1930s that
is regarded as his single greatest achievement. Yet this
great musician was composer and conductor as well as cellist.
The anthem ‘O vos omnes' is a beautiful short work
that is heart-achingly appropriate to the text from Lamentations
which is seen as a prophecy of the Crucifixion – ‘Is it nothing
to you, all you who pass by? Behold and see if there is any
sorrow like my sorrow.’
The deep sadness of Our Lady’s presence at the
foot of the Cross is explored in a short extract from Pergolesi’s
gorgeous Stabat Mater. Pergolesi was a court musician
who was largely torn between writing sacred and secular music.
Of course he left a number of liturgical settings but the
most famous is definitely the Stabat Mater. This was
originally scored for soprano, alto, strings and organ. It
was written whilst the composer was on retreat at a Franciscan
The journey has now passed the time of despair
and sadness for Our Lady. We are heading towards the point
when she was assumed into paradise and was crowned as Queen
The organ piece by Jean Langlais is a meditation
on the angel’s song, Ave Maria, Ave Maria Stella – ‘Hail
Mary full of Grace: Hail thou Star of the Sea’. The work
is really a little triptych with the first part concerning
the angel’s supplication followed by the Prayer of Man on
lower registers. However it finishes in serenity and confidence
with a reprise of the Angels’ Song. Lovely string sounds
on the Willis/Harrison & Harrison Salisbury Cathedral
organ give this piece an ethereal and numinous quality.
The compilers of this CD have given us two versions
of the Salve Regina – ‘Hail
Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy; Hail our life, our sweetness
and our hope! To thee do we cry, poor banished children of
Eve; To thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping
in this valley of tears.’
The first is a traditional plainsong melody of one
of the Antiphons to the Virgin Mary. The second is a lovely
anthem written by the Catholic Peter Philips at the time
of the reign of Elizabeth I. It would have originally have
been sung around the shrine of Our Lady at the conclusion
of High Mass. Shepherd based his music on the original plainsong
The work by Carlo Gesualdo is perhaps the most surprising
and possibly the most beautiful on this CD. He was an Italian
composer, lutenist, nobleman and most perversely a notable
murderer! He lived in the late 16th century at a time when
intrigue in political, social and even artistic circles had
developed into an industry. The genius of this present setting
of Ave, dulcissima Maria lies in the near perfect
balance of diatonic writing with chromatic harmonies being
introduced in a very subtle and intriguing manner.
I am normally a great enthusiast of the music of
Lennox Berkeley, yet I cannot warm to his anthem Regina
coeli laetare. The programme notes suggest that it is
a fusion between the polyphony of the Renaissance and a more
astringent neo-classical harmonic style. The words call for
celebratory music to underscore ‘Queen
of Heaven rejoice, alleluia: For He whom you merited to bear,
alleluia, has risen as He said, alleluia’. There is no doubt
that Berkeley provides exciting music – yet somehow the mood
does not seem quite right. I am sure that many will disagree
The journey finishes in Glory: Mary is crowned
as Queen of Heaven. Peter Philips makes his second appearance
on this CD with his superb setting of Ave Regina coelorum.
The CD liner notes describe this as being ‘scored for five
parts and is an elaborate devotional offering to the Blessed
Virgin Mary’. It is a fine anthem to conclude this journey
in company with Our Lady:-
Hail, Queen of heaven;
Hail, Mistress of the Angels;
Hail, Root of Jesus;
Hail, the Gate through which the
Light rose over the earth.
Rejoice, Virgin most renowned
And of unsurpassed beauty,
And pray for us to Christ.
I thoroughly enjoyed this CD. Of course there
are high points and not so high points in this repertoire.
But that is only to be expected and is largely subjective.
However taken in the round this is an extremely pleasing
and quite moving release that has great value in both a musical
sense and from a liturgical point of view.
The performance of the choir under their musical
director David Halls is superb and lacks nothing.
As I noted above, not everyone is ‘devoted’ to
the Blessed Virgin. But I guess most people, whether from
the ‘Catholic’ Tradition or not, will be moved by this profound
meditation on the life of one of the great ‘icons’ of mankind’s
Gerard Hoffnung CDs
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