World Choir Games Flanders 2023

The Many Faces of Mary – A Choral Journey by Kelly Galbraith

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    Eve and Mary by Sr. Grace Remington, O.C.S.O

    Having grown up a Baptist I was not one of one of those little girls that went to bed with prayer cards of the Virgin Mary on my night table and a rosary around my lampshade. My first paying gigs were as organist at United and Anglican churches so there were no icons of the BVM anywhere. When I was a first year music student at Mount Allison University,  I had an opportunity to conduct Pergolesi’s ‘Stabat Mater‘ (which is featured later in this post). That was the beginning of my love affair with choral music and a fascination with the symbolism and beautiful music written in Mary’s honour.


    Studio del Magnificat in canto gregoriano, Schola gregoriana Mediolanensis   


    Most little girls who have been involved in Sunday School Pagents long to be the child that plays Mary by putting on the blue terry cloth robe and clutching a baby Jesus doll.  I was never Mary and thank goodness I never played the tail end of the donkey.  Usually I ended up with tin foil wings strapped to my back standing on a ladder while the Gospel of Saint Luke with Mary’s Magnificat was read.   Mary sings these words in her hymn The Magnificat:   “…for behold from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.”   

    Mary was called blessed but she was given many other names too.  Mary full of Grace, the Queen of Heaven,Mater Dolorosa, the Star of the Sea and the Second Eve.  She was seen in many cultures as the great Virgin Mother and yet the human mother, the Mother of Jesus.  Interestingly enough, Mary also came to symbolize the courtly unrequited  love of the troubadours.  But first, her song in her own  words –  ’The Magnificat’.



    Arvo Part: Magnficat 

    The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir
    Paul Hiller
    Mariology reached its height in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance.  Many religious communities sprang up dedicated to the veneration of Mary.  “Between 1170-1270, in France alone, over 100 churches and 80 cathedrals were built in her honour.”  From the 11th to the 15th centuries, the popular understanding of Mary underwent a constant evolution.   Anthems extolling her virtues have been offered in thanksgiving or as petition. Artists and poets reflected in their art how people felt about the Blessed Virgin.   Generations of composers continue to draw on texts from these earliest hymns for much of their inspiration.  The most beloved of these ancient poems is the ‘Ave Maria'.

    Chanticleer – Ave Maria (Franz Biebl)

    ‘Ave Maria, Gratia Plena’…Hail Mary, Full of Grace”  Mary has been seen as theMadonna of Grace.  Sophronius, the sophist of Jerusalem wrote in the early 7th century, “Who could describe your splendor   Who could tell of your mystery?  We acclaim:   Hail, Mary Full of Grace!”




    Hail, Mary, full of grace! – Laterna Magica

    The Medieval world was mesmerized by the heavens and the mysterious wandering of the stars in the night sky.  Today western society takes more than a passing interest in astrology.  Out of curiosity I too look up my daily horoscope in the Globe & Mail.  The glare of city lights make star gazing pretty difficult in Toronto.  But for early Christians,  the stars and moon figured prominently in poetic and visual imagery.  The imagination of early theologians was fueled by a verse from the New Testament book ofRevelation.  “And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; A Woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars”.  Revelation 12:1

    The Antiphon ‘Ave Regina Caelorum’, ‘Hail, Queen of Heaven, Hail Empress of the Angels‘   concludes with a petition, humanity’s plea - “Pray to God for us, Alleluia.”


    Mozart – Regina Coeli Laetare RV 108

    Queen of Heaven – and Star of the Sea – ‘Ave Maris Stella Mare” – comes from the Latin ‘mare’, meaning sea. The stern male image of the Christian faith has been softened.   Mary, now Stella Maris – Star of the Sea takes her title from Isis evoking the ocean as well as sky and the heavenly sea of stars. Many composers set the text  ’Ave Maris Stella’ to music:   ”Hail, thou star of ocean!  Portal of the sky!  Ever Virgin Mother Of the Lord most high! Oh, by Gabriel’s Ave, Uttered long ago, Eve’s name reversing,‘… To thy shelter take us; Gentlest of the gentle! Chaste and gentle make us. Still as on we journey…”



    Ave Maris Stella – Claudio Monteverdi (Vespro della Beata Vergine)

    Like children who run to their Mom to break bad news to Dad, early Christians also needed a compassionate Mary.  They wanted a goddess like figure who not only held the exalted position of Queen of Heaven & Sea  but whose love for humanity could plea to the stern Father, God Almighty, for understanding in dealing with mortal sinners.  St. Anselm in his prayer to the Virgin: “So the accused flees from the just God to the Good Mother of the Merciful God.

    An excerpt from the text of the Salve Regina: “Hail, Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy.  To You do we Send up our signs, mourning and weeping in this veil of tears…”


    Sonia Prina & Accademina Bizantina Ottavio Dantone


    For many Roman Catholics, the Virgin Mary represents the sinners last hope of escaping eternal damnation.  Mary is the compassionate mother whose heartfelt plea no son could refuse.  Mary is Intercessor.  It is to her that one presents a list or litany of petitions.  For composer Francis Poulenc, it was the black Virgin, ‘Litanies a la Virge Noire’that inspired him.  He was dealing with his grief of tragically losing a dear friend and sought solace in a chapel.  This sanctuary housed a statue of the black virgin.  The history of the black virgin is unclear.  Perhaps it originated from statues of the Virgin being carved in ebony.  Perhaps it was the smoke from candles after centuries of burning that blackened the wood of the statue. These statues are considered especially wonder working.  Poulenc’s setting is very personal.  Grief laid bare.  He doesn’t set the Latin text but chooses instead his language, French, for a direct petition to Mary.

    The Westminster Singers sing “Litanies à la Vierge Noire:
    Notre-Dame de Rocamadour by Francis Poulenc
    City of London Sinfonia Richard Hickox, conductor

    Mary having witnessed the death of her Son could now make petitions for Christians on behalf of their salvation.  She understood suffering and loss.  Mary as sufferer – the Mater Dolorosa.


    A Syrian poet from the 6th century describes Mary’s feelings after the crucifixion in the following way: ‘I am over whelmed, O my Son. I am overwhelmed by love and I cannot endure that I should be in my chamber.  And you on the wood of the cross.  I in this house and you in the tomb.’





    The writer of the Stabat Mater beautifully wrote:   

    At the cross her station keeping,

    stood the mournful mother weeping,

    close to Jesus at the last.  

    Through her heart his sorrow sharing,

    all His bitter anguish bearing,

    now at length the sword had passed.

    Pergolesi, Stabat Mater Dolorosa

    Andreas Scholl & Barbara Bonney

    Christophe Rousset & Les Talens Lyriques


    The courtly love of the troubadours went hand-in-hand with the Marian cult. Poets addressed ladies of higher rank and posed as vassals.  What higher rank could there be than the Virgin Mary?  Brahms composed the ‘Marienlieder’ in 1859.  ’Marias lob’. ‘ Mary, true joy of heaven.  Delight of the world!  Who would not love you?  You are written upon me, engraved, indeed in deep letters upon my heart.”



    Brahms: Marias lob Arnold Schoenberg Chor, Erwin Ortner

    Eve – E-V-E-;  Ave A-V-E.   A difference of just one letter but what a world of contrasts.  The parallels and dissimilarities between Mary and her ancient forebearer Eve are more than hinted at in the Anglican Breviary.  ’Eve wept, but Mary laughed.  Eve’s womb was big with tears but Mary’s womb was big with gladness.  Eve gave birth to a sinner but Mary gave birth to the sinless one.”

    And finally, what of Mary, the human Mary, the Mary of the Gospels?  According to the the New Testament, Mary was a mortal woman who found favour with God.  She gave birth to God but was herself not a goddess. In the Apocraphal New Testament the book of James tells of Saint Joachim, an Israelite fasting for 40 days & nights in prayer because he had no children.  Both he and his wife Anna, are past child bearing years. Anna also prays and an angel appears to Anna saying “Thou shalt conceive”  Mary, the gentle maiden, herself, is the answer to the prayers of a childless couple.


    Patrick Hadley (1899-1973): I sing of a maiden
    Words: Medieval carol
    The Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge
    Christopher Robinson, director

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