Tuesday 12 December 2017

More Christmas Music - Nesciens Mater

To continue with the theme of Bruce Charlton's last post. 

One of the most beautiful pieces of Renaissance polyphony I know of is by the French composer Jean Mouton who lived from around 1459-1522. It's for 8 voices and composed in the form of a canon with the 4 higher voices imitating the four lower voices five notes above them and two bars later. From such a seemingly mechanical construction comes astonishing beauty. The anonymous text is for Christmastide which is a rather lovely word suggesting reverential but excited waiting for a miracle birth.

Nesciens mater virgo virum,
peperit sine dolore salvatorem saeculorum,
ipsum regem angelorum;
sola virgo lactabat, ubere de caelo pleno.

The virgin mother, knowing no man,
gave birth without pangs to the saviour of world,
the very king of angels;
the virgin alone gave him suck with the milk of heaven.

But what's this got to do with Albion? Admittedly nothing, but it's such a glorious piece of music I hope I can be forgiven for drawing attention to it. However I can slightly justify its inclusion here because the same text was set at around the same time by the Englishman Walter Lambe in almost as accomplished a musical version.

 This is taken from the famous Eton Choirbook,  one of the very  few collections of English sacred music to have survived the Reformation. It contains pieces composed around the end of the 15th century in the highly elaborate style of the period with composers such as William Cornysh, John Browne and Robert Fayrfax well represented. Musically speaking, it represents Albion at a rarely equalled peak. See more about it on an earlier post here.

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