Immaculate Conception: Feast, and Your Halls Are Crowded

Already the first great jewel threaded onto the strands of the new liturgical year is upon us: the glorious Feast of the Immaculate Conception. This year, December 8 falls on a Sunday. Yet this feast is so important that it supersedes the Mass of the Second Sunday of Advent in the traditional calendar. Dom Prosper Guéranger tells us in his Liturgical Year that the Church has celebrated the Immaculate Conception in the liturgy since the sixth century, if not earlier. In the Middle Ages, European monarchs vied with each other to honor this privilege of Our Lady.

If we lived in a Catholic country, surely, this feast would always be a holiday. But since it falls upon a Sunday this year, happily, we have leisure to plan suitable festivities. The Mass, naturally, will be the first item on the agenda, and in some places, splendid torchlight processions in honor of Our Lady will take place after dark. A truly Catholic spirit demands extra-liturgical celebration as well: good company, festive clothing, fine foods, beautiful music. Our Lady is, after all, the glory of Jerusalem, the joy of Israel, and the honor of our people.

But perhaps you’re somewhere far from friends and family — or perhaps they would be unsympathetic to your Catholic joie de vivre. If so, permit me to make a suggestion: pour yourself a glass of wine; locate a bowl of nuts, a slice of French cheese, or a dish of olives; and settle back in an armchair to listen to Josquin des Prez’s Ave Maria. You may be alone, but you’re celebrating in the best of company: Our Lady’s, along with the angels in Heaven and the whole communion of saints, living and dead.

If you already love sacred polyphony, read no farther. Just lean back, sip your wine, and let the music flow over you. But if not, bear with my attempts to convince you it’s worthwhile.

Full disclosure: I’m an amateur when it comes to music, in the original sense of the word. I listen for love without any more expertise than the average person. But like the great cathedrals of Europe, sacred music was made for average people. Professionals composed it and performed it, but they did it for the glory of God and the benefit of ordinary people — people who need to be elevated above the mundane, who can’t necessarily tell you about counterpoint and texture but who need to pray, to contemplate, to worship, to rejoice, to sorrow, to repent, to love. Thanks to its peculiar intellectual and emotional impact, sacred music is a doorway into this world of spiritual action.

And Josquin’s Ave Maria is particularly suited to this first great feast of Our Lady in the liturgical year. It opens with the words of the Angelic Salutation and then dedicates five verses to five great events in Our Lady’s life: first the Immaculate Conception, then the Nativity of Our Lady, followed by the Annunciation, the Purification, and lastly her Assumption into Heaven. The motet ends with the humble prayer, “O Mother of God, remember me. Amen.”

In Craig Wright’s Listening to Western Music, we’re told that Josquin organized the structure of this motet in the same way that an orator would construct a persuasive address. If we think of ourselves as humble supplicants making our case to Our Lady, in hopes that she’ll be our advocate before Our Lord, this makes perfect sense.

Aristotle admitted the existence of four parts to a speech: the proem (or introduction), the statement, the argument, and the epilogue. To explain the introduction in his Rhetoric, he used a musical comparison: “As flute players play first some brilliant passage they know well and then fit it on to the opening notes of the piece itself, so in speeches of display the writer should proceed in the same way.” In Josquin’s Ave Maria, we begin with a brilliant passage of words that we know will please our heavenly listener, the opening to the Hail Mary. It is set to a technique Wright tells us is imitation, voices echoing similar melodic lines, creating a rich and complex weave of sounds that the fanciful might picture as a kind of tapestry of praise to Our Lady.

At first listen, you may find that the opening bars sound a touch medieval and that the harmonies aren’t quite what we’re used to hearing in more modern music, and rightly so: apparently, this first part of the piece is based on a Gregorian chant melody, which naturally sounds a bit medieval and otherworldly.

I’m not sure what Craig Wright would say about this, but it seems to me that the statement and the argument in this piece are intertwined. Having begged the Queen of Heaven to lend an ear to his piece, Josquin sets forth the matter of his address. Like a courtier elaborating on the theme of his sovereign’s victories, he devotes individual sections of musical eloquence to five separate glories of Mary. The key word “Ave,” Wright tells us, “sparks a succession of salutes to the Virgin, each making reference to one of her principal feast days.” Josquin returns to the “Ave” each time he announces a new theme: “Ave, cujus conceptio… Ave, cujus Nativitas… Ave pia humilitas… Ave vera virginitas… Ave, praeclara omnibus…” [Hail, whose conception… hail, whose nativity… hail, holy humility… hail, true virginity…]

Personally, my favorite sections in this piece (I’m not sure experts are allowed to have favorite sections, but it’s probably all right for common-or-garden listeners) are the “Ave, cujus, conceptio,” which is the verse celebrating the Immaculate Conception, and the “O Mater Dei” at the end. At the “Ave, cujus conceptio,” the voices split into two groups, one echoing the other, until the whole choir sings “Solemni plena gaudio” together in what sounds like a golden burst of joyful fireworks — the human race is filled with overwhelming gratitude at the magnificent goodness of God in preserving Mary from original sin so that she might be worthy to bring us the Savior. The voices split up again, chasing each other in a sort of glorious race through the rocky terrain of “caelestia, terrestria, nova replet laetitia” (Heaven and Earth are filled with new joy).

As epilogue, our courtier Josquin presents the favor that he hopes to obtain from the Queen of Heaven. It’s deceptively simple. “O Mother of God,” he begs, “remember me. Amen.” In Latin it is O Mater Dei, memento mei. Amen, and it is set “to striking chords, with each syllable of text receiving its own chord… text and music must work together to persuade and move the listener,” as Wright tells us. Elsewhere, he writes that this concluding supplication “is supported by a beautifully shaped arch of sonic sincerity, a fitting end to this restful votive offering to the Virgin.”

To me, this section is intensely moving, reminiscent of the words of the Good Thief: “Remember me when thou shalt come into thy kingdom.” It doesn’t ask for much, yet it asks for everything. Josquin is confident that the Lady to whom he addresses his prayer will know what he needs better than he knows himself.

And now, I’d suggest a second glass of wine. Today, as we hear at the Second Vespers of the feast, a branch has shot forth from the Root of Jesse; today Mary was conceived without stain of sin; today she has crushed the head of the ancient serpent. If that’s not matter for celebration, what is?

Recording by the Tallis Scholars (Youtube)

Recording by Theater of Early Music (Apple Music, track 4)

Lyrics and translation (taken from CPDL)

Ave Maria, Gratia plena,
Dominus tecum, Virgo serena.
Ave, cuius Conceptio,
Solemni plena gaudio,
Caelestia, Terrestria,
Nova replet laetitia.
Ave, cuius Nativitas
Nostra fuit solemnitas,
Ut lucifer lux oriens
Verum solem praeveniens.
Ave pia humilitas,
Sine viro fecunditas,
Cuius Annuntiatio
Nostra fuit salvatio.
Ave vera virginitas,
Immaculata castitas,
Cuius Purificatio
Nostra fuit purgatio.
Ave, praeclara omnibus
Angelicis virtutibus,
Cuius fuit Assumptio
Nostra fuit glorificatio.
O Mater Dei,
Memento mei. Amen.
Hail Mary, full of grace,
The Lord is with thee, serene Virgin.
Hail, thou whose Conception,
Full of great joy,
Fills heaven and earth
With new gladness.
Hail, thou whose Nativity
Became our great celebration,
As the light-bearing Morning Star
anticipates the true Sun.
Hail, faithful humility,
Fruitful without man,
Whose Annunciation
Was our salvation.
Hail, true virginity,
Immaculate chastity,
Whose Purification
Was our cleansing.
Hail, glorious one
In all angelic virtues,
Whose Assumption
Was our glorification.
O Mother of God,
Remember me. Amen.


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