About this Recording
8.573260 - MISSA CONCEPTIO TUA - Medieval and Renaissance Music for Advent (Schola Antiqua of Chicago, M.A. Anderson)

Missa Conceptio tua
Medieval and Renaissance Music for Advent


Advent is the four-week season of expectation that precedes the annual celebration of Jesus’ nativity feast—Christmas Day. In the late Middle Ages and Renaissance there was abundant music to commemorate Advent, expressed in a number of genres and styles. This collection of works for the Advent season provides a glimpse of the pre-modern soundscape in the days of anticipation and hope leading up to Christmas.

The recording begins with a set of related plainchants more than 1200 years old, which are appropriate for this time of Christian expectation. The seven O Antiphons [1][7] each begin with the vocative “O” (O Sapientia, O Radix Iesse, etc.), summoning Christ by different titles (Wisdom, Root of Jesse, etc.) and pleading with him to come (veni) and save his people. Historically, only one O Antiphon would be sung each day for the seven days leading up to Christmas Eve. It has been noticed that the first letters of the seven antiphons (after the “O”)—when read in reverse order—form the acrostic ERO CRAS (Latin: Tomorrow I will be present), thus playing on the theme of Jesus’ imminent arrival. The daily O Antiphon frames the recitation of Mary’s canticle (the Magnificat) at Vespers, in many ways the pinnacle of evening service. The formulaic tone of the Magnificat is heard only once on this recording [1]. The O Antiphons presented here come from a version found in a twelfth-century liturgical book from the Abbey of St Denis, best known as the burial site for French kings.

Another melody called an antiphon—but neither paired with a Magnificat nor a psalm tone recitation—is the plainchant Alma Redemptoris Mater [13]. The oldest of the four so-called Marian antiphons, Alma Redemptoris Mater is one of the most important melodies heard during Advent, sung daily at the service of Compline. Though there were countless melodic variants of Alma Redemptoris Mater (this version is from a fourteenth-century Portuguese manuscript), most contain an exhilarating ascent through an octave in the opening phrase.

The Feast of the Immaculate Conception is a special commemoration of the Virgin Mary that occurs in the midst of the Advent season. Proclaimed as dogma in 1854, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception has a complicated history that is centred on the question of Mary’s sinlessness at the moment of her conception in the womb of St Anne, the name of Jesus’ apocryphal grandmother. The teaching about the conception holds that Mary was uniquely and miraculously conceived in sinlessness and not sanctified in utero, as was the belief of “maculists”. Disagreement on this doctrine continued in the early modern period, even after Pope Sixtus IV established the annual feast day of the Immaculate Conception on 8 December in 1477. It was not long after this time that Pierre de la Rue (?1452–1518) penned a full Mass expressly on the subject of the Immaculate Conception.

Having joined the chapel of the Habsburg-Burgundian court in 1492, La Rue spent his professional life serving some of the most influential rulers of that time, including the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, his son Philip the Fair, and Philip’s sister Margaret of Austria, the regent of the Netherlands. La Rue’s music became widely circulated in manuscripts, courtesy of the court’s illustrious workshop for manuscript compilation headed by Petrus Alamire. The composer’s reputation was further enhanced when his noble patrons brought the court chapel on its travels, performing his works for political allies. La Rue’s compositions were deservingly emblematic of Habsburg-Burgundian prestige and authority.

Dating from around the early 1510s, La Rue’s Mass for the Immaculate Conception (Missa Conceptio tua) was written for five voice parts and survives in seven manuscripts, all books prepared at the Alamire scriptorium. No Mass by La Rue was copied more than seven times in Alamire’s workshop, making the Missa Conceptio tua one of the most widely disseminated Masses of its time. Two of the seven manuscripts that preserve the Missa Conceptio tua were destined for the court of Frederick the Wise, the Elector of Saxony and famous protector of Martin Luther.

One can imagine that no recordings of the Missa Conceptio tua [8][12] have appeared because of the exceptionally low range of the piece. The Bass II voice generally hovers around the D below the bass clef with some regularity, including at many cadences. Although one cannot claim with complete confidence that La Rue’s works were sung at the written pitch, the composer seems to have been deliberate with his choice of clefs to specify a circumscribed range of notes. Much of his Mass music in fact lies in a low range, which suggests that La Rue probably had access to unusually low bass voices at the Habsburg-Burgundian chapel.

The musical underpinnings of most of La Rue’s Masses are obscured through what are called “paraphrasing” techniques, but his Missa Conceptio tua is a welcome exception. The entire Mass is known to be based on the antiphon Conceptio tua, a plainchant sung with the Vespers Magnificat on the feast of the Conception. The antiphon translates: “Your conception, O Virgin Mother of God, announces joy to the whole world; out of you has arisen indeed the sun of justice, Christ our God.” La Rue went to great lengths to emphasize the melody of this plainchant in the polyphonic fabric. One can hear a paraphrase of the melody at the head of each Mass section (Kyrie, Gloria, etc.) and often at the beginning of major subsections. The first tenor part, placed in the middle of the five-voice texture, further declaims the melody in long notes for a good portion of the Mass, only to bequeath it to the highest voice for a dramatic effect in the final section of the Agnus Dei. At every turn it seems, La Rue reminds the informed listener to remain attuned to the plainchant Conceptio tua from the feast of the Conception.

For all of its musical emphasis in the Mass, the governing antiphon of La Rue’s Missa Conceptio tua curiously says nothing about the exact nature of the Virgin’s conception in the womb of her mother St Anne (the root of the doctrinal polemic). Instead, there are extra-musical factors that guide La Rue’s Mass for the Conception toward an immaculist position. The intricate illuminations accompanying the Mass in some of the sources provide an unambiguous apology for the Immaculate Conception, as musicologist Bonnie Blackburn has demonstrated. Two manuscripts in fact feature miniatures remarkably depicting individual defenders of the doctrine (from the thirteenth-century philosopher Duns Scotus to Pope Sixtus IV), each accompanied by a hearty theological quotation for reinforcement. The Alamire workshop left no uncertainty about the stance taken by the Habsburg-Burgundian court when it came to the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.

This album of early music for the Advent season concludes with three anonymous English carols [14][16], surviving in various fifteenth-century manuscripts. All centre on the Virgin Mary’s birth of the Christ child. Carols from the late Middle Ages were not properly liturgical and were distinctive because of their musical form. They alternate between a refrain (called a “burden”) and verses, presumably sung by single voices. The carol There is no rose of swych vertu [14] may be the most familiar carol in this set. The final carol Nova, Nova [16] mixes English with snippets of popular church Latin. These carols reflect a time when the “Great Vowel Shift” was beginning to transform Middle English into the modern English language; hence, modern ears may have some trouble understanding the period pronunciation.

This recording was made possible through generous donations to a Kickstarter campaign. Schola Antiqua especially would like to thank Pamela Piane, Calvin M. Bower, Donald Peck, Patrick Sinozich, Joe Labozetta, Julie Brubaker, Matthew Dean, and the Lumen Christi Institute for their support. We would also like to recognize Kristi Castleberry for assistance with language coaching.

Michael Alan Anderson

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