Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Hail Star of the Sea

I heard one of my favourite pieces today, a lovely unaccompanied choral miniature by Edvard Grieg called Ave Maris Stella. In it we hear two verses followed by a short 'Amen'. Grieg hymns the Virgin Mary with all the harmonic freshness for which he's known. Each verse begins with a memorable two-bar melodic phrase over a deep drone in the basses. The phrase is then repeated but with new harmonies - harmonies that sound like those favoured by our own Frederick Delius. Each verse ends with just the high voices left floating like angels. 

Grieg was not the only composer to set the words of this old plainchant vesper hymn, whose title in English means "Hail Star of the Sea". The old plainchant melody that originally accompanied those words is itself a beautiful one. You can here the Gregorian chant here.

You can also here the plainchant melody unadorned in this piece by Guillaume Dufay. The plainchant, however, alternates with Dufay's own take on the melody. Simply put, Dufay writes his own variation on the the Ave Maris Stella chant which he gives to the uppermost voices of his three-part texture. Using a popular technique of the time known as fauxbourdon, the middle voices then sing this same melody a perfect fourth below the upper voices - the same melody proceeding in parallel with the upper voices. The lowest voices, however, sing a more elaborate variant of the tune in the uppermost voices but regularly shadow the others by moving in parallel at the distance of a sixth with the upper voices. Simple but magical in effect, don't you think?

Moving on a century and a half to the Ave Maris Stella of Hans Leo Hassler, who died 400 years ago this year. Hassler is a very significant figure in German music, being the man who essentially brought the new Venetian style of the Gabrielis to Germany, leading to the start of the Baroque in that country. His 4-part setting of Ave Maris Stella shows off his style charmingly, though it is still strongly redolent of the late Renaissance. Again you will here the Gregorian plainchant melody alternating with the composer's own take on the melody. Hassler embellishes its opening phrase, sending it out like with the sopranos like a chorale before going off at a melodic tangent of his own devising. Isn't there an intriguing foretaste of Bach in Hassler's handling of those opening phrases?

Back in Venice Claudio Monteverdi was to compose one of the earliest and greatest masterpieces of the Baroque, the glorious Vespers of 1610. In the Vespers there is, for me, what is indisputably the finest of all these settings of Ave Maris Stella. Monteverdi's take is fascinating in that it juxtaposes passages of pure late Renaissance writing with others in the new Baroque style. You'll hear the Gregorian chant threading its dignified way through the opening Renaissance-style section before being transformed into a memorable and lively melody set against a typical Baroque triple-time lilt. A magical instrumental ritornello from the same Baroque family tree links the various repetitions of this passage. Textures, both choral and instrumental, change delightfully as the two Baroque sections step before us again and again before all the forces join in splendour for the final section. The result is very charismatic, is it not? 

Grieg's little gem didn't use the old plainchant however. He wrote his own tune. Moving back to Grieg's time, his contemporary Franz Liszt did pretty much the same in his Ave Maris Stella, S34 for mixed choir and organ, though you are unlikely to miss the fact that he begins with a short, ironed-out, non modal quotation of the second phrase from the chant - and re-uses this phrase several times later before making an explicit reference to the first phrase of the chant in his closing bars. His setting is quite simple and surprisingly homely in its harmonies (compared with Grieg); however, it is thoroughly charming. 

Composers are still setting the words of Ave Maris Stella. One popular (and masterly) setting is by Grieg's fellow countryman, Trond Kverno (b1945). It's composed in that vein of open-hearted tonality spiced with bitter-sweet dissonances which modern audiences appreciate so much, with a gentle tunefulness at its heart that Grieg himself might well have enjoyed.

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