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There's Something About Mary

A mosaic of the Virgin Mary.

There's something about Mary – the Virgin Mary, that is! She's been the subject of countless sacred works throughout the history of western art music, and as we'll see this hour, Mary plays a role in some secular music as well. We'll also take a listen to music from quote "the crossroads where court music and folk music meet," from Brian Kay's 2014 album Three Ravens: The Folk Song Tradition of Albion.

Music from Brian Kay's 2014 recording Three Ravens: The Folk Song Tradition of Albion.

Glorious and Blessed Virgin

Sub tuum praesidium is the oldest known hymn to the Virgin Mary, preserved on an Egyptian papyrus from the 3rd century:

We fly to Thy protection, O Holy Mother of God;

Do not despise our petitions in our necessities,

but deliver us always

from all dangers,

O Glorious and Blessed Virgin.

French composer Louis-Nicolas Clérambault set this text for a treble instrument, bass voice, and basso continuo. Though he was a career church musician, he is today known mostly for his secular cantatas and violin sonatas. Though simple, this setting of the Sub tuum praesidium text is beautifully expressive, with excellent examples of text painting. From the album Motets à 3 voix d'hommes et symphonies, this is Ensemble Sébastien de Brossard performing Clérambault's setting of Sub tuum praesidium.

That was Ensemble Sébastien de Brossard performing Louis-Nicolas Clérambault's setting of Sub tuum praesidium. The text is from a 3rd century Egyptian papyrus, the music from mid-18th century France.

We now turn to one of the most notable instrumental composers of the 17th century – Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber. His Rosary Sonatas are rightly some of the most performed works by today's baroque violinists, known for their scordatura tunings and programmatic structure that follows the fifteen mysteries of the rosary. In keeping with our Marian theme, we'll listen to the fourteenth sonata, "The Assumption of the Virgin." From their 2004 album Biber: The Rosary Sonatas, this is violinist Andrew Manze with organist Richard Egarr.

From Andrew Manze and Richard Egarr, that was Biber's Rosary Sonata No. 14, "The Assumption of the Virgin."

Cantigas de Santa Maria

Compiled by King Alfonso X in the 13th century, the Cantigas de Santa Maria is a massive collection of songs honoring the Virgin Mary, completed between 1270 and 1290. These monophonic songs with ambiguous rhythmic notation leave modern performers with endless creative choices. Ensemble Gilles Binchois gives us a percussive, folky version of "A Virgen muy groriosa" from their 2005 recording, Cantigas de Santa Maria.

That was "A Virgen muy groriosa" from the Cantigas de Santa Maria, performed by Ensemble Gilles Binchois.

We now turn to a secular work with a very clear nod to the Virgin Mary. Machaut's Rose, liz opens:

Rose, lily, springtime, greenery,

Flower balm, and sweetest fragrance,

Lovely Lady, you surpass them all in sweetness.

This same imagery of springtime, sweet odors, and flowers (particularly the rose and lily) are all found frequently in texts praising the Virgin Mary. Medieval composers were fond of mixing sacred and secular imagery, sometimes even placing a sacred Marian text in one voice and a secular text about pure courtly love in another. Ensemble Project Ars Nova provides us with an iconic version of Rose, liz from their album Remede de fortune.Â

We've just heard Ensemble Project Ars Nova from their album Remede de fortune performing Rose, liz.

A Garland of Roses

As we continue our exploration of all things Marian, we turn to Guillame Dufay's Nuper rosarum flores. Written to celebrate the consecration of the Florence cathedral, the text links the Virgin Mary with flowers, specifically a garland of roses. The structural proportions of this work have been thought by some scholars to mimic the proportions of the Florence cathedral and the biblical Temple of Solomon. Whether or not this is intentional or even mathematically accurate, Dufay's Nuper rosarum flores, performed here by Pomerium, is one of Dufay's most beautiful works.

That was Guillame Dufay's Nuper rosarum flores, written for the consecration of the Florence catherdral and performed here by Pomerium from their album The Virgin & the Temple.

To conclude our tour of Marian-inspired works, we turn to an imaginative pairing by Three Notch'd Road, a Virginia-based early music ensemble. They've combined the old English carol "A Virgin Most Pure" with an American carol published in 1820, "A Virgin Unspotted." This arrangement is from their debut album, Shepherd's Star: Music for Twelfth Night.Â

We heard music from Virginia-based early music ensemble Three Notch'd Road.

Three Ravens

In our last few minutes, we'll explore our featured recording, Brian Kay's 2014 release Three Ravens: The Folk Song Tradition of Albion. He describes the CD as having a "focus on the British song tradition and the crossroads where court music and folk music meet." This album finds Kay  both singing and playing a variety of instruments, including the lute, oud, goblet drum, and penny whistle-and he's also joined by a cast of well-known early music artists, including Ronn MacFarlane, Tina Chancey, Olivier Brault, and Mark Cudek.

First up is John Dowland's famous tune "Come Again," given a new twist with Brian's sweet, folksy tenor voice. We'll follow this up with "Three Ravens," a cheery little ballad in which a trio of birds sits in a tree and ponders making dinner out of a dead knight.

That was "Come Again" and "Three Ravens," two tracks from Brian Kay's album Three Ravens: The Folk Song Tradition of Albion. For a fitting close to our show, one final track from Brian Kay's album, "Farewell and adieu," a sea shanty about sailors making promises they can't keep.

We heard music from Brian Kay's CD Three Ravens: The Folk Song Tradition of Albion.

Break and theme music

:30, Biber: The Rosary Sonatas, Andrew Manze and Richard Egarr, harmonia mundi 2005, D. 2, Tr. 19 III. CanzonaÂ

:60, Biber: The Rosary Sonatas, Andrew Manze and Richard Egarr, harmonia mundi 2005, D. 2, Tr. 20 IV. SarabandaÂ

:30, Three Ravens: The Folk Song Tradition of Albion, Brian Kay, Brian Kay Music 2015, Tr. 11 O Mistress mineÂ

Theme:Â Danse Royale, Ensemble Alcatraz, Elektra Nonesuch 79240-2 1992 B000005J0B, Tr. 12 La Prime Estampie Royal

The writer for this edition of Harmonia was David McCormick.

Learn more about recent early music CDs on the Harmonia Early Music Podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes or at

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