Advent Calendar Day 7: Alma redemptoris Mater (Dufay)

Did I mention that everyone and their best friend had done a version of Alma Redemptoris Mater? I could almost fill a calendar with just this text.

I found this version, by Guillaume Dufay, when I was looking for the one by Hildegarde of Bingen, and I think it’s just gorgeous.  It has that sound that we tend to associate with medieval music, which seems to be about open fifths, and lots of minor second intervals in the melody.  This is really a late medieval /early renaissance sound – Hildegarde is more contemporary with the Crusades and other really bad medieval ideas.

I’d never heard of Dufay before this, so I went and did a little internet research and discovered that Dufay was a Netherlandish composer of the fifteenth century.  This instantly makes me happy, because I am a bit of a Ricardian, and I know that Richard III spent a bit of time in the Netherlands when he was Richard of Gloucester, and this might have been the music he heard when he went to church there.  So maybe I’m sharing a musical experience with my favourite Plantagenet monarch here.

But even if I’m not, this is wonderful music, and I will have to seek out more of Dufay’s work.  I love the stillness in the solo sections and the clean, spare sound that somehow prevails even in the sections with the countermelody.  Very gorgeous stuff.


Advent Calendar Day 5: Alma Redemptoris Mater (Hildegard of Bingen)

There’s something about Hildegard of Bingen’s music that always feels cooling and soothing to the mind.  I think it’s the gentleness of the plainchant, and the sweetness of female voices which is so refreshing and relaxing.

The lyrics are a hymn to Mary (Sweet Mother of the Redeemer), and are a traditional text for Advent. Just about everyone has had a try at these lyrics (in fact, I understand that Palestrina wrote two different versions, which might be a thought for another day), but I love the simplicity of Hildegard’s version, and the sense of unity in time and space that one gets from listening to music that is nearly a thousand years old… and yet written for the season we are in today.

Advent Calendar Day 12 – Alma Redemptoris Mater (Victoria)

A little polyphony to start your week… and yes, it’s more Mary stuff. I don’t have much to say about this piece of music except that I find it beautiful. I can tell you that Victoria was a late 16th – early 17th century Spanish composer, and that the text is that of a hymn for Mary that is generally used in Advent (see what I did there?), but really, I chose this because I loved listening to it.

And, actually, that’s at least somewhat appropriate for this style of music. The thing with polyphony is that even if you are fluent in the language it is being sung in, it’s not generally easy to pick out meaning from the words when everyone is singing different things at different times, and composers of this era, being smart cookies, were well aware of this. Add to this an era when, perhaps, relatively few of the people listening to church music could understand Latin anyway and you get a whole lot of church music which is intended to aid contemplation and prayer rather than teach or provide meaning. (Tomorrow, we shall see some of the other things that happen, musically speaking, when the the congregation cannot, on the whole, understand the language of the church…)