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The Virgin Mary’s Journey
Herbert Howells (1892-1983) A Spotless Rose [3:18]
Marcel DuprÉ (1886-1971) Ave Maria [2:41]
Max Reger (1873-1916) Ave Maria [3:48]
Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) Magnificat in G [4:05]
Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) O Magnum Mysterium [3:12]
Richard Shepherd (b. 1949) Prayer for a New Mother [2:53]
James MacMillan (b. 1959) Gaudeamus in loci pace (1995) [5:01]
Johannes Eccard (1553-1611) When to the temple Mary went [3:15]
Luca Marenzio (1553-1599) Tribus miraculis [3:05]
Pablo Casals (1876-1973) O vos omnes (1942) [3:51]
Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736) Stabat Mater (1736) [3:53]
Jean Langlais (1907-1991) Ave Maria, Ave maris stella (1934) [5:42]; Salve Regina (plainsong) 2:55]
Peter Philips (c. 1561-1628) Ave Regina [4:28]
Carlo GesuAldo (c. 1560-1613) Ave, dulcissima [5:21]
Lennox Berkeley (1903-1989) Regina coeli laetare [2:47]
Peter Philips (c. 1561-1628) Ave Regina coelorum [3:32]
Salisbury Cathedral Choir/David Halls
Daniel Cook, Simon Jacobs (organ)
rec. Salisbury Cathedral, 1-3 May 2006. DDD
GRIFFIN GCCD 4054 [63:35]

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 to interpret 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 Saints.
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 Isaiah.
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 role.
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 journey.
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 monastery.
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 of Heaven.
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 melody.
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 with me.
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 religious progress.

John France





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