ANNUNCIATION Article by Glenn Peirson
Stunning Story, Marvellous Lineage of Music
The Music Times November, 2009 edition
The story of the Annunciation is simply a stunning tale, whether one is a follower of the Christian faith or not: a young Jewish girl is visited by an angel of the Lord and informed that she has found favour with God and will miraculously conceive a son who will be the Messiah – ‘Emmanuel’.
This is not your everyday story. The drama and sanctity are heightened by a number of key elements. First, Mary is a virgin and will conceive immaculately by the Holy Spirit. Second, she is not to have just any baby, but rather ‘Jesus,’ ‘Son of the Most High,’ who will inherit the throne of David and reign forever. Stunning! Third, she is likely a young, poor, simple girl living with her family in Nazareth – Hebrew-Mediterranean in appearance, blackened fingernails by olive picking, hard-working, and clothed as any peasant of her day.
Finally, Mary was already betrothed to a man, presumably from the same neighbourhood, named Joseph (who actually stands in the line of King David). This is extremely tricky territory. In Matthew’s gospel, Joseph decides to divorce Mary quietly, hopefully to avoid social condemnation and the risk of severe punishment. He is then visited by an angel in a dream sequence and convinced to accept Mary, yet withhold from any sexual relations with her until after the birth of Jesus.
We have high drama here, but most specifically in the singular image of the angel Gabriel descending upon Mary in annunciation. This scene has inspired a heavenly-host of spectacular artwork and has equally provided inspiration to innumerable composers in setting virtuosic music that glorifies Mary.
As a member of the vocal octet TACTUS, dedicated to music of the Renaissance and its imagination, I have the pleasure of helping program our very? varied concerts. Saturday November 28th sees us into our 15th season of singing. Our concert is dedicated strictly to Marian music and focuses on the Annunciation. This is a true Advent program, with only a whiff of Christmas on the eve of the first Sunday of Advent.
Our only dilemma in creating this concert is choosing what not to sing. There is no end to magnificent Marian musical options: songs, Magnificats, motets – Ave Maria, Ave Maris Stella, Nesciens Mater – hymns, plainchants – Latin, English, French, German, Spanish – ancient, modern settings. And of course, this ignores the wealth of Marian music written for other seasons and purposes, especially Lent and Holy Week; for example, the famous medieval poem, Stabat Mater. In our concert, Gabriel’s Greeting, TACTUS starts, in English, with the traditional Basque carol, ‘The angel Gabriel from heaven came.’ It is a jaunty throwback, nostalgically reset in the late Victorian era, but sets the stage so well. Juxtaposed against this somewhat anachronistic musical language is Thomas Morley’s austere, simple and congregational Magnificat, which we will use as a processional after singing from the back of St. John’s-Kilmarnock Chapel. TACTUS also has the great benefit and privilege of our guests’ artistry – Greensleaves, on viols, recorders, lute and guitar – will accompany some of our music while providing virtuosity of their own, all Marian inspired.
Without getting too ‘listy’, Gabriel’s Greeting will navigate its way through Sarum chant and the mysticism of Hildegard von Bingen (both 11th C.) through German chorales and their Bach arrangements through 16th C. and Appalachian carols. We even include the modernism of Howells and Stravinsky and Britten’s atmospheric ‘A Hymn to the Virgin’ for double-choir. The backbone of our concert will be the beautiful and serene Magnificat Octavi Toni by Orlando Lassus (16th C.), which we will perform in interspersed through the concert.
Aside from endless analysis, the question remains: what is the central reason for the artistic inspiration of Mary’s Annunciation? I believe the most satisfactory approach to the musical/compositional face of this question is clearly answered in the fact that a picture is worth a thousand words. The supreme quality, genius, elevated creativity of the last millennium’s Annunciation inspired artwork gives all the answer necessary for understanding the power behind the music.
There is no rose of swych vertu
As is the rose that bare Jesu.
For in this rose conteyned was
Heven and erthe in lytle space,
Be that rose we my weel see
That he is God in persones thre,
The aungelys sungyn the sheperdes to:
Gloria in excelsis Deo.
Leive we al this worldly merthe,
And folwe we this joyful berthe: