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Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus… Every day, all around the world, in places of worship or in the privacy of the home, in various languages and dialects, millions of people repeat this salutation. Some wind a rosary through their fingers as they repeat it; others are lulled by the sound of their own voice, the rhythm of the verse, the inspiration of the words. Appeasement, strength, juxtaposition of biblical text and Christian prayer, it is not surprising that the Hail Mary, or Ave Maria, was integrated into religious services as early as the 5th century. Two centuries later, the “Angelic Salutation” to the Virgin Mary during the Annunciation (Luke 1:28), to which is appended that of Elisabeth during the Visitation, would become a preferred form of personal prayer. While initially, prelates preferred their flocks to focus more on their Credos and Pater nosters, the Ave Maria would become part of children’s religious education starting with the Council of Béziers in 1246. Its definitive form was promulgated by Pope Pius V in 1568.

The Ave Maria appeared in the Gregorian Antiphonary and its melody often formed the reciting tone in Ars antique motets and the unifying theme in 16th century masses. However, composers more frequently treated it as an element of the liturgy, as an antiphon or the offertory. The Ave Maria of Josquin des Prez is based on a sequence (chant sung after the alleluia during certain feasts) and develops one trope in particular. (This unofficial amplification of liturgical texts aimed to give them a more solemn character; one of the most well known is the Ave verum, which emerges from the Sanctus. This recording features a version by William Byrd.) The version falsely attributed to Jacques Arcadelt was in fact composed in the 19th century by Pierre-Louis Dietsch, chapel master at La Madeleine in Paris, who freely adapted the 16th-century composer’s three-voice madrigal “Nous voyons que les hommes.” Anton Bruckner revisited the Ave Maria three times during his career. The second, a seven-voice a capella version and the most widely sung today, was premiered in 1861, after his five years of formal study in Vienna, to commemorate the founding of the Liedertagel Frohsinn choir, which he conducted at the time.

The three most famous Ave Marias are undoubtedly those attributed to Schubert, Gounod, and Caccini. Franz Schubert’s version was originally a setting of “Ellen’s Third Song” in the German translation of Walter Scott’s epic poem The Lady of the Lake. It was only later that the Latin text replaced the German. When Charles Gounod improvised a countermelody to the first prelude of Bach’s Well-tempered Clavier, his father-in-law, Pierre Zimmermann, transcribed it. Here, too, the familiar Latin text only later replaced the original, Alphonse de Lamartine’s poem “Le Livre de la vie.” The Ave Maria attributed to Giulio Caccini was in fact composed by Vladimir Vavilov about 40 years ago (he first recorded it on the Melodiya label in 1970). After Vavilov’s death, organist Mark Shakhin sent the “newly discovered” work to other musicians to ensure its renown.
According to the Gospel of St. Luke, when the Angel informed Mary that she would give birth to the Saviour, her first words were in praise of God: Magnificat anima mea Dominum (My soul doth magnify the Lord). This song, or canticle, transposed into the liturgy of the Vespers, and becoming an integral part of it, would also engender many musical settings.

Claudio Monteverdi wrote two versions, published in 1610 in his Vespers for the Blessed Virgin, dedicated to Pope Paul V. The first, in seven voices supported by six instruments and basso continuo, is more grandiose in nature. The second, heard here, is a six-part work with continuo that plays the intimacy card but remains one of the most inspired works of the choral repertoire from any period. Few works have so masterfully united the austerity of Gregorian chant with the virtuosity of festal choral style.

In 1989, Arvo Pärt set the same text in a work for solo soprano and a capella choir, divided into verses (the solo voice anchored to one note over a lower melodic line) and tutti sections (in three, four or six voices). Pärt’s Magnificat is a remarkable example of “tintinnabulation,” a style developed by the Estonian composer in which the notes of a root-position chord are treated like three bells, with repetitive musical gestures creating a sensation of timelessness or a continuous present.

© Lucie Renaud
Translation: Peter Christensen

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Daniel Taylor
Theatre of Early Music
Giulio Caccini
AN 2 9841

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