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Program: #23-31   Air Date: Jul 31, 2023


Suzi Digby is back with us, as her Ora Singers presents a program for the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

For a limited time, this new release is free to listen for all visitors as a special gift from Millennium of Music.

NOTE: All of the music on this program comes from recording on the Harmonia Mundi label with the Ora Singers directed by our guest Suzi Digby. It is CD # HMM 905334.35.

This recording takes the listener on a fantasy choral journey using the traditional services of Vespers and Benediction as its guide. It weaves hypnotic plainchant around renaissance gems and modern masterpieces.

The music of the great Renaissance masters Palestrina, Guerrero and Anerio sit alongside distinctive voices from the twenty first century: James MacMIllan, Julian Anderson, John Joubert, Sven-David Sandström and Matthew Martin.

Sanctissima: Vespers & Benediction for the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary

The Office:

You shall make an altar on which to burn incense... And when Aaron sets up the lamps at twilight, he shall burn it, a regular incense offering before the Lord throughout your generations.’ Exodus 30, 1&8 (ESV) ‘She buried him before the Prime, She was dead herself ere Evensong time.’ (The Three Ravens, pub. T.Ravenscroft, 1611). The sixth of the seven canonical hours as set out in the Roman Breviary, vespers is the office of evening prayer in the Roman Catholic Church. Its origins can be traced back at least as far as the early Christian Church. As the General Instruction on the Liturgy of the Hours states: ‘From the very beginning the baptised ‘remained faithful to the teaching of the apostles, to the brotherhood, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers.’ (Acts 2: 42) And Henry Chadwick writes: ‘Hippolytus in the Apostolic Tradition directed that Christians should pray seven times a day – on rising, at the lighting of the evening lamp, at bedtime, at midnight, and... at the third, sixth and ninth hours of the day, being hours associated with Christ’s Passion. [These] are similarly mentioned by Tertullian, Cyprian, Clement of Alexandria and Origen...’ (The Early Church, 1993).

In this the faithful were following the ancient Jewish practice of reciting psalms and prayers at particular hours of the day and night, as described, amongst other sources, in the Acts of the Apostles (chapters 10 and 16, for example). The derivation of the name is clear enough. The Latin word ‘vesper’ means evening, or indeed evening meal. Perhaps, though, another shade of meaning is more informative here, that of ‘evening star’. Another early name for vespers was ‘Lucenarium’, corresponding to the Greek Lichnikon which is the term used by the (probably) 4th century author (thought to be Egeria, a pilgrim from Gallaecia or Gaul) of the letter known as ‘Peregrinatio’. This text, from a time before the universal adoption of December 25th as the Feast of the Nativity, gives valuable insight both into the early development of the liturgical year, and into daily patterns of worship. We learn that this office took place at the tenth hour (4pm) and was an office of lights: celebrated in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, all the lamps and torches were lit, creating an ‘infinite light’. The Antiphonary of Bangor, a 6th century Irish source, gives the time as 6pm, and refers to it as ‘hora incensi’ (the hour of incense) or ‘hora cereum benedicendum’ (the hour of blessing of candles).

The Orthodox tradition gives us another clue: it is the first part of the daily worship, a prayerful preparation for the day ahead. As well as its obvious parallel in the concept of the Jewish Sabbath beginning at sundown, it is not difficult to compare this with Aaron’s rituals in the Old Testament, and probably not fanciful to trace its concept to the beginning of Biblical time:’ And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.’ Genesis 1:5 (ESV) For the ancient Israelites as well as for Ravenscroft’s folk singer, the hours of the day and the daily office have been indistinguishable. The Divine Office, the Opus Dei, has been, over millennia, as much a part of the rhythm of daily life as the tides and the seasons are of nature.

The Feast:

The early historical narrative of the end of the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary is obscure. There is no account in the New Testament, and little in early Christian writing. By the late 4th century, the writings of Epiphanius of Salamis (bishop, Saint and Church Father) make it clear that there was still little clarity. Three possibilities are offered: a normal, peaceful death; martyrdom; immortality; assumption into heaven, following the example of Elijah (2 Kings 2:11). The Catholic Feast of the Assumption (15th August) developed from the Early Church (and still Orthodox) tradition of the Dormition of the Mother of God, which affirms the belief that Mary died without suffering: having been informed by the Archangel Gabriel that her death would occur three days later, she was joined by the apostles, miraculously transported to her side from around the world. She died in their presence and was buried in Gethsemane. Thomas, having been absent, and perhaps being customarily dubious, wished to see her grave, but on arrival they found it empty, with only a sweet fragrance left behind. It is interesting in this context to note that, in contrast with the several heads of John the Baptist, and with the exception of some hair, there have never been any claims of first class (bodily) relics of Mary. By the 9th century it was referred to in Western liturgical calendars as the Assumption of the Blessed Mother of God, and it was given a vigil and an octave by Pope Leo IV (r.847-855). Pope Nicholas I (r.858-867) appeared to give it the same dignity as Christmas, raising it to a similar level of importance as the Incarnation itself. Despite this long tradition, it was only solemnly defined ex cathedra as the fourth Marian dogma by Venerable Pius XII in 1950 in the apostolic constitution ‘Munificentissimus Deus’ (The most bountiful God), the first explicit use of Papal infallibility since the ruling on this subject at the First Vatican Council (1869-1870). Blessed Pius IX had issued a similar statement with ‘lneffabilis Deus’ (Ineffable God) in 1854 on the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, a dogma closely linked with the Assumption: as per St John Damascene, Mary was without Original Sin, had kept her virginity intact during childbirth and thus must have been spared bodily decay. Instead: ‘the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.’ (Munificentissimus Deus, 44)

The Recording:

Apart from the customary ORA reflections, along with various interpolations and accretions, the programme presented here represents the sung plainchant sections of the standard version of Second Vespers of the Assumption (Double of the first Class with common Octave) according to the Tridentine Rite. The solemn tone versicle and response (‘Deus in adiutorium’) are followed by the Gloria Patri, which lead to the appointed psalms (109, 112, 121, 126 and 147) with their respective antiphons, all of which are as prescribed in the Liber Usualis. Following the (omitted) Capitulum is the great mediaeval Marian hymn, ‘Ave Maris Stella’ (Hail, Star of the Sea); the melody is a variant on arguably the most well known of those employed in the Roman rite, and the words are from at leas as early as the 9th century, often attributed to St Venantius Fortunatus (c.530-c.600/609) or Paul the Deacon (d.787). This precedes the florid versicle and response ‘Exaltata est sancti Dei Genitrix’ (The Holy Mother of God has bee exalted). The canticle at vespers, particularly apposite for a Marian feast, is the Magnificat, Mary’s song from the Gospel of St Luke (1:46- 55); it is bookended by the joyful antiphon ‘Hodie Maria Virgo’ (Today the Virgin Mary ascends to the heavens: rejoice, for she reigns with Christ for ever). The traditional office of vespers concludes here with the versicle and response ‘Benedicamus Domino: Deo gratias’ (Let us bless the Lord: thanks be to God).Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament is a separate rite in itself, but is often used as a conclusion to other services such as vespers. Following the tradition followed in English-speaking countries, as set down in ‘Ritus servandus’ (synod of the Province of Westminster), the first hymn sung is ‘O Salutaris Hostia’ (O Saving Sacrifice), the last two stanzas of a longer hymn (‘Verbum supernum prodiens’) written circa 1264, for the newly instituted Feast of Corpus Christi, by the theologian and Doctor of the Church, St Thomas Aquinas. Following the (extra-liturgical) motet is another hymn of Aquinas, ‘Tantum ergo Sacramentum’ (Therefore so great a sacrament), the concluding stanzas of ‘Pange lingua’. The prayer at the Reposition of the Blessed Sacrament, ‘Adoremus in aeternum’ (Let us adore for ever), either side of verses from Psalm 116, concludes this rite.The singing of Marian antiphons, while not liturgically part of Vespers or Benediction, follows a strong devotional tradition, and can be traced deep in English choral history. The traditional seasonal rota would prescribe Salve Regina for this Feast, but following revisions in 1969, this was relaxed, thus allowing the more supplicatory ‘Salve’ to be replaced here with the more celebratory text and solemn tone of ‘Ave Regina Caelorum’ (Hail, Queen of Heaven) which concludes: ‘Glorious Virgin, joy to thee, Loveliest whom in Heaven they see, Fairest thou where all are fair!Plead with Christ our sins to spare.’ (tr. Edward Caswall 1814-1878)


Disc 1

  1. [Bells] 0:52
  2. Assumpta est Maria (a) 6:15
  3. Deus in adjutorium 0:54
  4. Assumpta est Maria in cælum 0:23
  5. Assumpta est Maria (b) 3:36
  6. Dixit Dominus 1:59
  7. Assumpta est Maria (c) 0:27
  8. Maria Virgo assumpta est 0:29
  9. In Homeward Flight 4:48
  10. Laudate pueri 1:47
  11. Maria Virgo assumpta est (reprise) 0:32
  12. In odorem unguentorum quorum currimus 0:24
  13. In odorem 3:54
  14. Lætatus sum 2:04
  15. In odorem unguentorum quorum currimus (reprise) 0:27
  16. Benedicta filia tua Domino 0:29
  17. Benedicta filia 3:51
  18. Nisi Dominus 1:45
  19. Benedicta filia tua Domino (reprise) 0:31
  20. Pulchra es et decora filia Jerusalem 0:29
  21. Pulchra es et decora 3:47
  22. Lauda Jerusalem Dominum 2:19
  23. Pulchra es et decora, filia Jerusalem (reprise) 0:29
  24. Ave Maris Stella (a) 2:56
  25. Ave Maris Stella (b) 4:26

Disc 2

  1. Exaltata est 0:38
  2. Hodie Maria Virgo cælos ascendit 0:32
  3. Magnificat 9:16
  4. Hodie Maria Virgo cælos ascendit (reprise) 0:35
  5. Benedicamus Domino 0:31
  6. O salutaris hostia 4:03
  7. Ave Virgo sanctissima 4:01
  8. Sanctissima 4:15
  9. Tantum ergo 2:58
  10. Adoremus 1:39
  11. Ave Regina cælorum (a) 1:26
  12. Ave Regina cælorum (b) 5:19

Composer Info

Palestrina, Guerrero, Anerio

CD Info

Harmonia Mundi label CD # HMM 905334.35

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