Service music

Feast of the Annunciation (March 25, 2020)

Within the Anglican tradition, there are two sets of Propers that may be sung on the Feast of the Annunciation. The first set contains the texts from the traditional Western Rite, texts which relies heavily on passages from Psalm 45. The Introit from the Western Rite presents the scene of the royal wedding that is depicted in Psalm 45:

The rich also among the people shall make their supplication before thee; she shall be brought unto the King in a raiment of needlework: the virgins that be her fellows shall be brought unto thee, with joy and gladness. My heart is inditing of a good matter: I speak of the things which I have made unto the King.

This psalm depicts the bride of the King being brought before him adorned in splendid garments. There is a Messianic allusion here, a reference to the Church’s eschatological presentation to her Bridegroom. Since the Virgin Mary is a type of the Church, the use of this text on a feast day in which the role of Mary is central alludes to Mary’s blessed standing as the handmaid of the Lord, an expression of faithfulness which anticipates the perfection of the Church.

The first three Latin words of this Introit are Vultum tuum deprecabuntur. Here is the traditional plainchant of this Introit as preserved in the Roman Gradual.

In the recording below, this Introit is sung by the women of the De Caelis Ensemble, directed by Laurence Brisset. Their interpretation of the traditional chant notation is more elaborate and exotic than the conventional renditions.

The Gradual and Tract for the Annunciation also present passages from Psalm 45, sustaining the imagery of a royal wedding.

[GRADUAL]  Full of grace are thy lips: because God hath blessed thee for ever. Because of the word of truth, of meekness, and righteousness: thy right hand shall teach thee terrible things.
[TRACT]  Hearken, O daughter, and consider, incline thine ear: for the King hath pleasure in thy beauty. The rich also among the people shall make their supplication before thee: king’s daughters were among the honourable women. She shall be brought unto the King in a raiment of needlework: the virgins that be her fellows shall bear her company, and shall be brought unto thee. With joy and gladness shall they be brought: and shall enter into the King’s palace.

The first sentence of this text is also used as the Offertory for Candlemas (also known as the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus Christ and the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary). It was set by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina and is performed here by The Sixteen, conducted by Harry Christophers.

Below is the Latin text of the Tract, and below the text is a recording of the Tract chanted by one of the sisters of the Mindenszentek Kármel Kórusa.

Audi filia, et vide, et inclina aurem tuam:
     Hearken, O daughter, and behold, and incline your ear:
quia concupivit Rex speciem tuam.
     for the king desires your beauty.
Vultum tuum deprecabuntur omnes divites plebis:
     All the rich among the people will implore your countenance:
filiae regum in honore tuo.
     your maids of honor are the daughters of kings.
Adducentur Regi virgines post eam:
    Virgins will be brought to the king in her retinue;
proximae ejus afferentur tibi.
     her companions will be taken to you.
Afferentur in laetitia, et exsultatione:
     They will be brought with gladness and rejoicing:
adducentur in templum Regis.
     they shall be brought into the temple of the king.

As mentioned above, there is an alternate set of texts used in the Anglican tradition on this feast day. The Introit uses part of the text from Isaiah that is also sung on the Fourth Sunday in Advent:

Drop down, ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness. Let the earth open, and let her bring forth salvation. And let righteousness spring up together: I the Lord have created it.

Parishoners may remember that the first sentence in this text is part of the Advent Prose. This past year, our choir sang the setting of the Advent Introit based on this text by Judith Weir. It is sung here by the Choir of Queens’ College Choir, Cambridge, conducted by Silas Wollston.

I know that it’s not Advent, but the Annunciation conveys the same sense of expectation that we experience during Advent: in the midst of Lent comes a marvelous and miraculous promise.

Rorate caeli is the Latin for “Drop down ye heavens,” and those verses have been set to music by many composers, including Francisco Guerrero (1528-1599). His version of this text is sung here by Musica Ficta, directed by Raúl Mallavibarrena.

The Gradual in the alternate set of texts is taken from Psalm 24, a text often sung during Advent and at the Ascension feast. It echoes the Messianic promise in Gabriel’s announcement:

Lift up your heads, O ye gates, and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors: and the King of glory shall come it. Who shall ascend unto the hill of the Lord, or who shall stand in his holy place: even he that hath clean hands, and a pure heart.

The following Tract presents the text from St. Luke 1:28ff.:

And the Angel came in unto her, and said: Hail, Mary, full of grace; the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women: and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee: and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee. Therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee: shall be called the Son of God.

Mary’s response to Gabriel is not included in any of the Propers for this feast. If we had been able to have a service tonight, our choir was planning to sing Dixit Maria, a motet that presents Mary’s own words. That piece is by Hans Leo Hassler (1564-1612).

Dixit Maria ad angelum:
     Mary said to the Angel:
Ecce ancilla Domini,
     Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord,
fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum.
     let it be done to me, according to your word.

This lovely late Renaissance motet is sung here by the Sicilian Ensemble Tactus.

Before leaving Dixit Maria, I must observe that Hassler took the main musical phrases from that short motet and wove them into a setting of the Ordinary of the Mass. Our choir has frequently sung the Agnus Dei from this Mass (which you may have recalled when listening to the motet on which it’s based). Since we’re not able to have a mass at All Saints tonight, you may want to take time to listen to Hassler’s Missa super Dixit Maria, sung here by the male voices of the Ensemble Vocal Européen de la Chapelle Royale, directed by Philippe Herreweghe.

The text for the Offertory for the Annunciation is the same for both sets of propers. It presents the words (from St. Luke’s Gospel) of Gabriel to Mary: “Hail, Mary, full of grace; the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women: and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.”

The Latin of this text — Ave, Maria — has been set by hundreds of composers. I’ve chosen to highlight the setting by Johannes Brahms, which features a women’s choir, originally accompanied by orchestral strings and woodwinds. In the performance below by the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, the orchestral parts have been transcribed for organ.

The Proper for Communion is the familiar prophecy from Isaiah 7: “Behold, a Virgin shall conceive, and bear a Son: and his Name shall be called Emmanuel.” George Frideric Handel left us a memorable recitative with this text in English. It lasts about 30 seconds.

The traditional plainchant setting of the Communion proper — sung below by the American ensemble Lionheart — is a wee bit longer.

A number of composers have treated this verse from Isaiah to more expansive musical settings. Here is William Byrd’s Latin rendition, sung by Stile Antico. (You already know the English; here’s the text in Latin: “Ecce virgo concipiet et pariet filium et vocabitur nomen eius Emmanuel.”

The Dutch composer Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621) was a rough contemporary of Byrd’s. Here is his setting of Ecce virgo concipiet, sing by the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, directed by Timothy Brown.

Heinrich Biber’s first Mystery Sonata explores the Annunciation’s meaning wordlessly. Violinist Fiona Hughes — a former member of our parish and choir — talked with me this week about playing this remarkable work. You can hear my conversation with Fiona and her performance of the work here.

On the Feast of the Annunciation we celebrate Mary’s faithfulness and the beginning of the Incarnation. So to conclude today’s survey of Annunciation music, here are two settings of the ultimate Incarnation text, St. John 1:14:

Verbum caro factum est et habitavit in nobis
     The word became flesh and lived among us
et vidimus gloriam ejus gloriam quasi unigeniti a Patre
     and we beheld his glory as of the only son of the Father
plenum gratiae et veritatis.
     full of grace and truth.

The first is a six-part setting by Hans Leo Hassler, sung by the Exon Singers.

Last, a setting of Verbum caro factum est by one of our choir’s favorite composers, John Sheppard (c. 1515-1558). It is sung by Stile Antico.