Nicki Crush (soprano), Ria Favoreel (mezzo), Marita Thomas (alto)
Mick Swithinbank (tenor & direction)
Jim Foulkes (baritone) & Edward Seymour (bass)
* with Teija Immonen (17-19)
The Art of Music takes its name from the title of an anonymous treatise on musical theory written in Scotland in the late 16th century. The group was set up in 1993 by Eric Hartley with the principal aim of performing English and Scottish renaissance church music. This still remains at the core of the group's repertoire, and is represented on this disc by Tallis, Peebles and Taverner. In addition, however, the concerts of recent years have branched out both geographically, to include works from mainland Europe, and chronologically, into the Middle Ages.
'Ave Maris Stella' (Hail, star of the sea) is the title of a plainsong hymn dating from no later than the 9th century, which clearly enjoyed great popularity throughout the Middle Ages and beyond. It must have owed its appeal to a combination of factors: its pleasing melody, the devotion it expresses to the Virgin Mary and its poetic imagery. Ironically, the image of Mary as the star of the sea, which the poet took as his starting point, may have previously originated through a scribe's error, 'stilla' becoming 'stella'. The idea of Mary as 'maris stilla' - one drop in the ocean of humanity, albeit one uniquely chosen - is attractive enough, yet 'maris stella' possesses a different resonance, partly because it is a visual image and cannot so readily be reduced logically to any abstract notion.
Dunstaple was one of many composers who adapted this ancient hymn. His approach, a common one in his day, was to incorporate a decorated version of the plainsong melody in his setting - in this case in the top line - while leaving alternate verses to be sung to the original plainsong unadorned and unaccompanied. The Dufay piece applies the same procedure to another plainsong hymn, and Brumel, although writing later, adopted a rather similar technique in his Dies Irae.
In the Middle Ages, the rose garden was a symbol of virginity, and the rose was therefore another of the many images of the Virgin Mary, as in the medieval Christmas carol 'There is no rose of such virtue' which opens this disk. Hildegard, on the other hand, addresses her as 'frondens virga' - a flourishing branch of the tree of Jesse (referring to the family tree through which Mary traced her lineage back to him).
Also addressed to the Virgin are 'Ave Maria', Victoria's setting of the Angel Gabriel's words at the Annunciation, and the anonymous lauda 'O divina virgo'. This is in Italian, and would have been sung not by the church's regular singers but by devout laymen who formed societies for this purpose.
The pieces on this disk are drawn from four concert programmes dating from October 1998 to October 1999, one of which had the title 'Laments and Requiems'. It included the requiem-mass movements by Brumel and the little-known 17th century Lorraine composer Charles d'Helfer which are featured here, as well as Ockeghem's lament on the death of Binchois (c. 1460) and Josquin's lament on the death of Ockeghem (c. 1497), both of which are heart-felt settings of French poems sung to the accompaniment of Latin texts from the requiem mass. The words make it clear that these widely admired composers whom the world has lost are irreplaceable; at the same time, these settings and those from the requiem mass serve to remind us of our own mortality and perhaps, through some mysterious process, to reconcile us to it in some degree.
'Si quis diliget me' by Peebles was one of the first pieces learned by The Art of Music in its early days under the directorship of Eric Hartley. While the tenor sustains the notes of a passage of plainsong drawn out to such vast length that time almost seems to stand still, the other parts create slowly changing harmonies, into which small fragments of faster, but unfailingly calm, melody are woven. This piece has always retained a special place in the singers' affections, and the aim of presenting to audiences such rarely performed gems as this is the whole reason for the group's existence.
concerts recorded live in St John's Church, Luxembourg-Grund
and Olingen Church