Georges de La Tour (13 March 1593 – 30 January 1652)
Last year, on Christmas day, I wrote the following post:
We were at Notre-Dame de Paris (NDP), listening to Marian hymns, but Notre-Dame no longer provides the internet with recordings of its liturgical music. However, we have the music it used to provide.
Basic Marian Hymnology: Notre-Dame de Paris
To put it in a nutshell, Marian music consists of approximately 32 hymns (general term), the most important of which are the four antiphons listed below. At Notre-Dame de Paris, where we are nevertheless traveling, four other Marian hymns are sung daily, one of which is a canticle (cantique in French) or song of praise: the Magnificat. When Mary heard that her cousin Elizabeth was pregnant, she sang the Magnificat. Elizabeth’s child was John the Baptist.
The other Marian hymns sung at Notre-Dame are the Hail Mary or Ave Maria, the Angelus and the Ave Maris Stella. The Angelus is explained at NDP, but not performed. Every hymn is translated into English.
An antiphon is a call and respond song. It resembles a refrain. That is an over-simplification, but a first step.
A canticle is a song of praise such as the Nunc Dimittis.
As stated above, altogether, there are approximately 32 Marian hymns, including the four Antiphons. However, to these we must add the works of composers who have written oratorios, cantatas, motets and have also set Marian texts to other musical forms. These may contain music composed for Christmas, the birth of Christ, where Mary is a central character. To my knowledge, there is no oratorio honoring the Virgin, except segments of larger works. Examples are J. S. Bach‘s Magnificat (from the Chrismas Oratorio) and parts of Händel’s Messiah.
Beyond Notre-Dame’s Daily Marian Hymns
Given the Catholic Church’s devotion to Mary Mother of God, large musical works are likely to incorporate music to the Virgin. Oratorios are among large compositions and could be described as long cantatas. However, they resemble operas. Oratorios require an orchestra and a choir. Moreover, they may contain solos or, at times, multi-voice compositions that are not sung by the choir, but by four soloists.
At one point in the history of music, polyphony included more than the four voices we are accustomed to: soprano, alto, tenor, bass or SATB. We are not discussing such works, many of which are madrigals. We will focus instead on famous Oratorios associated with the birth, life and death of Christ and usually performed during the Christmas season or at Easter.
- Johann Sebastian Bach (31 March 1685 – 28 July 1750) wrote a Christmas Oratorio (Weihnachts-Oratorium, BWV 248), but he also composed Passions (St Matthew, St John) that are oratorios. As well, J. S. Bach composed the Magnificat in D major BWV 243a. It has two versions. In 1723, it was composed for Christmas, in E-flat major, but in 1733 (BWV 243) it was reworked for the feast of the Visitation, in the key in D major.
- George Frederic Händel‘s (23 February 1685 – 14 April 1759) Messiah (HWV 56), composed in England on an English-language scriptural text compiled by Charles Jennens. The text finds its origins in the King James Version of the Bible and in the Psalms included in the Book of Common Prayer. The Messiah was composed in 1741 and first performed in Dublin, on 13 April 1742.
- Joseph Haydn‘s (31 March 1732 – 31 May 1809) The Creation (Die Schöpfung), H. 21/2, was composed between 1796 and 1798. Its English libretto (the text) was written anonymously and translated by Gottfried van Swieten (29 October 1733 in Leiden – 29 March 1803 in Vienna).
A cantata (from the Latin cantare: to sing) is a shorter and less complex work than the oratorio. It dates back to the early 1600s, which are the years the first operas were composed. Originally, only one person sang the cantata; it was monophonic. In this regard, it resembled early madrigals. But as the madrigal evolved into a multi-voice composition or polyphony, so did cantatas. We tend to associate cantatas with J. S. Bach who composed approximately 200, one of which, number 142, is entitled the Christmas Cantata: “Uns ist ein Kind geboren” (Unto us a Child is born) is a lovely cantata.
Tampereen Kamarimusiikkiseura (Tampere Chamber Music Society) (Finland)
According to late 13th-century theorist Johannes de Grocheio (c. 1255 – c. 1320) motets are “not intended for the vulgar who do not understand its finer points and derive no pleasure from hearing it: it is meant for educated people and those who look for refinement in art.”J.S. Bach – Christmas Oratorio BWV 248 © Micheline Walker 27 December 2012 WordPress