The greatest flowering of the Cult of the Virgin occurred, as is well known, during the period popularly known as “the waning of the Middle Ages,” that is, the fourteenth, fifteenth, and early sixteenth centuries. During this time, the response of the suffering Virgin standing by the cross, venerated as the mater dolorous, served as a model for all later faithful as they, like her, contemplated Christ’s suffering and death. The first formal manifestation of a devotion directed specifically to Mary’s Sorrows was the institution of the indulgenced Feast of the Compassion by the Synod of Cologne in 1423. Soon after, the Virgin’s sufferings came to include events outside her immediate experience of the Passion, extending back to Simeon’s prophecy at the Presentation that a sword would pierce Mary’s soul. Early enumerations of the Virgin’s sorrows ranged from five to as many as 150, but perhaps because of the long-standing association of Mary with the number seven, the Sorrows were eventually set at seven, later to be matched by seven Marian Joys.
The Seven Sorrows, in the form adopted as part of the official Latin rite by Pope Benedict XIII in 1727, were already widely celebrated in the Low Countries in the final decade of the fifteenth century, particularly through the support of Philip the Fair, Duke of Burgundy. The years following the early death of Philip’s mother, Mary of Burgundy, in 1482 had been filled with internal warfare, food shortages, and plague. To help the populace persevere through the difficult times, prominent members of Philip’s court encouraged people to align their hardships with those of the Virgin Mary. In 1497, two years after he applied for it, Philip received Papal approval for the Seven Sorrows devotion and its accompanying feast. The devotion continued to flourish through confraternities, plays, processions, art works, devotional texts, and the celebration of numerous Marian miracles. In Philip’s day, celebration of the feast occurred on the Saturday before Palm Sunday; in 1913 it was re-assigned to September 15, its current location in the Roman calendar.
In the early 1490s, Philip sponsored an unprecedented competition to generate new plainchant for his newly approved feast. Imitating the competitions that had long existed in literary guilds, he designed a liturgical equivalent to promote the Confraternity of the Seven Sorrows. A jury of prominent religious leaders and members of Philip’s court chose an office by Peter Verhoeven, a priest and ardent supporter of the devotion, to be set to music. They judged the music then composed by Pierre Duwez (d. 1508), a singer in the Burgundian-Habsburg court chapel, the winner. The plainchant that we hear tonight, transmitted anonymously in the sources, is believed to be his.
What, specifically, are the Seven Sorrows? The First Sorrow, as mentioned above, comes from the Evangelist Luke, in whose Gospel Simeon at the Presentation tells Mary that a sword will pierce her soul (Simeon’s Prophecy in the Temple). Second Sorrow: the Holy Family’s Flight into Egypt to escape Herod’s Slaughter of the Innocents. Third Sorrow: Mary’s separation from the twelve-year-old Jesus, who stays behind in the Temple with the elders when his parents depart from Jerusalem. Fourth Sorrow: Mary meeting Jesus carrying the cross to Calvary. Fifth Sorrow: Mary at the foot of the cross during the Crucifixion. Sixth Sorrow: the Deposition of Jesus from the cross, when Mary holds her Son’s lifeless body in her lap (as in Michelangelo’s Pietà). Seventh Sorrow: the burial of Jesus.
The music of the first half of the program comes, with one exception (Josquin’s Ave Maria), from a single manuscript dating from the early sixteenth-century. That source, Brussels, Bibliothèque royale, MS 215-216, originated in Philip’s court and contains both plainchant and polyphony, all of it intended for the Feast of the Seven Sorrows. The music from our program’s second half, in contrast, comes from diverse sources. While all of it celebrates themes of the Feast, none was written specifically for that occasion.
In Brussels 215-216, we find not only Pierre de la Rue’s famous five-voice Missa De septem doloribus beatissime Marie virginis (from which we hear the Kyrie tonight), a Mass that survives in four later sources as well, but also an anonymous four-voice Missa De septum dolorous (from which we hear the Agnus Dei), Pipelare’s seven-voice Memorare mater, Josquin’s Stabat mater, and what we believe to be Duwez’s plainchant. This manuscript is the only one among the more than sixty produced by the prestigious Alamire scriptorium to be devoted to a single feast.
The chants, polyphonic motets, and two polyphonic Mass settings from Brussels 215-216 were no doubt sung for members of the Seven Sorrows Confraternity; these works may also have been performed at court. Pierre de la Rue, who composed the darkly sonorous Kyrie on today’s program, had a close association with the Burgundian-Habsburg rulers, serving in their chapels for almost 25 years. His music appears more frequently than that of any other composer in the manuscripts prepared by the Alamire scriptorium. Five of these manuscripts are devoted exclusively to his music, while the collection as a whole contains 29 Masses by him in all. La Rue’s Missa De septum dolorous and the anonymous Seven Sorrows Mass of Brussels 215-216 share the same combination of cantus firmus texts (tenor voice), almost all of which are drawn from the hymn Salve virgo generosa.
It might, on first glance, appear that the Feast of the Seven Sorrows, with its emphasis on the emotion of grief, should have inspired passionate new music from its first celebrations in the 1490s. What we hear tonight, however, is that polyphonic composers of that time, especially Pierre de la Rue and Pipelare, approached the task of writing such music as proponents of contemporary aesthetics, which did not yet value passionate expression. On the contrary, the art forms of that time were still anchored to the ritualistic approach that had informed sacred painting and music for centuries. Certainly, the forms of high Renaissance art, in both painting and music, were graceful and idealized, much more so than in the art of the preceding centuries. But the affective spirit of skillful polyphony from ca. 1500 aligns more closely with the contemplative mood of plainchant than with that of theatrical drama. This is because such music strives for solemn dignity and beauty of form rather than illustrative effects. The virtuosic display of abstract contrapuntal skill heard in tonight’s anonymous Agnus Dei—note particularly the flamboyant, basse danse-like final section—only underscores the music’s detachment from everyday concerns. (A great change in artistic values is evident in the works by Giaches de Wert and Orlande de Lassus in the second half of the program.)
Josquin Desprez’s Ave Maria…virgo serena, famous in his day as well as ours, was the lead work in Ottaviano de’ Petrucci’s Motetti A of 1502, the first book of motets printed from movable type. It is based on a five-voice Ave Maria…virgo serena by Johannes Regis, itself a setting of a plainchant Marian sequence (labeled “De beatissima virgine Maria prosa” in one 13th-century source). Josquin’s motet has been admired in recent times for its transparency, directness, and classic beauty, the very features, we assume, that won it its position of prestige in Petrucci’s print. Once thought to be a product of Joquin’s maturity ca. 1500, just before its appearance in Motetti A, the Ave Maria was subsequently assigned to Josquin’s earliest works on the basis of its appearance in a manuscript written in part on paper that could be dated to ca. 1476. A re-dating of the pages in question has now set the date of this particular copy to ca. 1484, still confirming Josquin’s Ave Maria as one of his earliest works and the earliest music in our program. An unusual feature of Marian music, perhaps resulting from the ubiquity of Marian services in the later Middle Ages, is that it can be sung at any Marian feast—whereas Christmas music cannot be sung at Easter, nor Lenten music at Pentecost. The Josquin Ave Maria, extolling Mary’s virtues in six strophes followed by a couplet of supplication (to make a Marian seven poetic units in all), therefore suits any Marian feast or votive Mass, including a celebration of the Seven Sorrows.
Pipelare’s Memorare mater survives uniquely in Brussels 215-216. An illumination on the opening folio of the manuscript depicts the mater dolorous with seven swords surrounding her like rays, each sword representing a sorrow. Pipelare labels the seven voices of his motet symbolically from high to low, Primus dolor, Secundus dolor, Tertius dolor… Septimus dolor. The rhymed text narrates each of the Virgin’s Seven Sorrows in turn and begs her intercession, in order that our death, in contrast to Jesus’, might be sweet (dulce). Juan Urrede’s three-voice Nunca fué pena major—a work widely known in the early sixteenth century from Spain to the Netherlands to Italy—serves as Pipelare’s cantus firmus. By their juxtaposition with the main text, the composer has sacralized the heartbroken lover’s Spanish words. Pipelare’s seven voices produce an imposing sonority, declaiming the text in recitative-like repeated pitches that give the effect of massive, slow-moving chords.
Josquin’s Stabat mater, which is found in the sumptuous Burgundian manuscript Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, MS Chigi C VIII 234 of ca. 1501, represents one of the earliest polyphonic settings of the famous sequence poem once attributed to the poet Jacopone da Todi (d. 1306), a text that spells out in detail the meaning of the Fifth Sorrow. In a practice employed also by Pipelare in his Memorare mater, Josquin selects the tenor voice of a famous chanson to serve as the cantus firmus in the middle register of his five-voice setting, in this case, the tenor from Binchois’s sorrowful rondeau Comme femme, an abandoned lover’s expression of grief. Perhaps the most memorable feature of Josquin’s Stabat mater, with its animated and warmly sonorous homophony, is its charged, emotional character—highly unusual at this period—which foreshadows musical effects achieved by most other composers only two generations later. Like his contemporary Michelangelo, Josquin dared to move beyond the conventions of his time.
We sense a new spirit at work in the anonymous reworking of Josquin’s Ave Maria that opens our program’s second half. The reworker has left Josquin’s four voices intact but significantly changed the character of the music by the addition of two voices in the alto and baritone ranges. We notice at once that the post-Josquinian version has sacrificed transparency for a different musical ideal: florid, richly sonorous textures. Musical density supersedes clarity, and complexity takes priority over simplicity, in keeping with a new model for high art music in the period between Josquin and Lassus. In this powerful reworking, we understand that Renaissance polyphony has left its classic phase behind.
Victoria’s Senex puerum portabat for the Feast of the Presentation radiates with the coloristic effects we have come to expect from Spanish music of nearly every era. Like most of Victoria’s works, the Presentation motet, published in 1572 when Victoria was 24 years old, stands out for its intensity of expression. Although it emphasizes words by repeating them to motives sung by some or all of the voices one after the other—the technique first perfected by Josquin—the effect seems less motivated by the pursuit of formal symmetry than by an attempt to persuade through rhetorical force. As mentioned above, the Presentation was the setting of the First Sorrow.
Vox in Rama, first published in Giaches de Wert’s second book of motets in 1581, catches the listener’s attention because of its remarkable chromatic harmonies and unusual melodic leaps, enlisted by the composer to emphasize the horrendous nature of the Slaughter of the Innocents. In its telling of the story of Herod’s ferocity, the Gospel of Matthew recalls Rachel from the Book of Jeremiah, weeping in Rama for her children and inconsolable, even as the mothers in Bethlehem weep for their slain baby sons. Warned in advance by an angel in a dream of Herod’s imminent massacre, Joseph had already fled into Egypt with Mary and Jesus—Mary’s Second Sorrow. Wert employs a relentless chromaticism—polyphonic music’s new device for expressing pain (however exquisite)—to engage us in Rachel’s anguish. As we listen, we realize that this pathbreaking work has less to do with sacred ritual than with musical drama.
Palestrina’s Adjuro vos, filiae Jerusalem comes from a volume of the composer’s motets devoted exclusively to texts drawn from the Song of Songs. In one widespread Christian interpretation of the Cantica canticorum, the female lover is identified with Mary, the male lover with Jesus, with all physical attributes (e.g., “ruddy”) to be understood metaphorically. In this reading, the lover’s fruitless search for her beloved prefigures Mary’s desperate search for the twelve-year-old Jesus, the Third Sorrow. (Palestrina himself suggests in the introduction to his volume that the male and female voices of the Song of Songs could represent Jesus and his spiritual bride, the Church.) Adjuro vos, with its mellifluous textures and focused repetitions of classically balanced motifs, has an abstract quality not unlike that of contrapuntal polyphony ca. 1500. Developing along a different stylistic path from the music of Mannerists like Wert, Palestrina’s works strive for a serene transcendence. Even the different voices in the dialogue of the text set here hardly emerge as those of separate speakers. The emphasis is rather on a continuous, calm flow of music, during which the thoughts of the listener can rise above all earthly concerns to the contemplative region which Palestrina’s flawless counterpoint seems regularly to inhabit.
Alfonso Ferrabosco, an Italian by birth, served Queen Elizabeth I as a courtier on and off for sixteen years, beginning in 1562. When he wasn’t in England he is known to have worked for the French royal court and for the duke of Savoy, and also to have spent time in Rome and Bologna. Though he won acclaim everywhere for his musical skills, his efforts to navigate between Protestant England (where he was suspected of harboring Catholic sentiments) and the Inquisition in Italy (where he was suspected of being a spy for the English crown) led to a troubled career. The text of O vos omnes, taken from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, is sung as the fifth responsory of Holy Saturday Matins, on which occasion the Old Testament words are understood to be Jesus’ as well, perhaps as he carries the cross on the road to Calvary—the Fourth Sorrow. Ferrabosco’s affective harmonies pile one on top of the other like waves of sadness.
Vide, homo, a Latin motet, concludes Lassus’s cycle of madrigal spiritual by the poet Luigi Tansillo, the Lagrime di San Pietro (“Tears of St. Peter”), expressing regret for the Disciple’s betrayal of Christ. For Tansillo, the Italian poems served as personal statements of remorse, and this seems to have been true for Lassus as well, who set twenty of Tansillo’s forty-two madrigals to music for seven voices in the final year of his life. He completed the set three weeks before his death in 1594 with the motet Vide homo, also for seven voices, the Latin text of which he may have written himself. The words are understood to be Jesus’ own, spoken from the cross and expressing despair for humanity’s ingratitude. In this his swan song, Lassus created one of the finest pieces in his enormous output, a work that achieves extraordinary musical continuity despite its non-stop harmonic instability. For our concert, Vide homo serves as a fitting conclusion to the theme of Mary’s sorrows, for can there be any doubt that the greatest Sorrow of all was the fifth, when the mater dolorous stood at the foot of the cross? For Jesus, as for Mary, the the greatest pain was spiritual, since he suffered most intensely not from the nails but from seeing mankind so blind and indifferent.