Pain and consolation in eleven centuries

Festival 20.21 in Leuven packed out last Thursday with Near the Cross, a largely vocal programme dedicated to the pain in Mary’s life. The Prague vocal ensemble Capella Mariana, specialising in polyphony and early Baroque, formed a duo with the Belgian Goeyvaerts String Trio dedicated to 20th- and 21st-century repertoire. A combination that was not very obvious but perhaps for that very reason proved to work wonderfully well.

Leuven’s St Geertruikerk was for one evening the centre of dialogue between old and new music, a journey from the 10th to the 21st century. The birth of Mary was sung in the anonymous Alle celeste nec non from the 10th century. This is a so-called sequentia, originally a Gregorian chant. It was inspired by the Alleluia, to which the composer added poetry and a rising melody line. During their concert, the four male voices of Capella Mariana stepped around the audience and joined the female voices. That circular approach made all the nuances come alive and worked acoustically perfectly. Moreover, it further underlined the ritual significance of the alpha et omega, which, according to the Bible, expresses the omnipotence of God.

Feast of Light

In Alleluia Pascha nostrum by Perotinus (c.1150 – 1225), Gregorian chant is also the starting point but now at least two different vocal lines are added. This particular polyphony of the Notre Dame repertoire (1170 – 1250) also uses a rhythmic notation system for the first time. This Easter chant is a classic example of this form. The musicians went to great lengths to make the three voices in the polyphonic parts of this piece dance and at times almost swing. Over a steady and flawless basso continuo, this was a celebration of Light.

Ma fin est mon commencement is a groundbreaking composition by Frenchman Guillaume de Machaut (c. 1300 – 1377). He made serious efforts to further develop rhythmic notations. But above all, he pioneered the use of “formes fixes” such as the ballad, the virelai and, in this case, the rondeau. The song of this concerto consists of two halves that are the mirror image of each other. The title refers to the alpha et omega. Again, the vocal ensemble made creative use of the possibilities of a church building with a trio of male voices on one side of the audience entering into a dialogue with a mixed duo on the other. The syllabic circulating motifs came through well, all the more so as the Goeyvaerts String Trio held back.

Of course, the Franco-Flemish composer Johannes Ockeghem (c. 1410 – 1497) could not be missing from this programme. Mort, tu as navré de ton dart is a four-part ballad in honour of the death of his colleague Gilles Binchois in 1460. The (lament) song is unique because of its mixed setup. The main text is sung by the soprano but the three remaining voices sing other texts, mostly from the requiem liturgy. In the interpretation of the musicians, this time the choice was made for an arrangement of the singers among the string instruments, with the addition of an organetto (Catalina Vicens). The lead role was given to countertenor Filip Dámec, who gave us a glimpse of heaven through his smooth and fluid performance.


The production of lamentations did not really take off until the transition from the 15th to the 16th century. A good example is Proch dolor, attributed to Josquin Desprez (c. 1450 – 1521). The song, for as many as seven voices, was probably sung in memory of Emperor Maximilian I of Austria. Four voices sing a text in honour of the deceased emperor and the remaining three a canon on the text Pie Jesu domine, taken from the traditional requiem mass. As for the scoring, the musicians did not shy away from some creativity – in this piece, cellist Pieter Stas sang the baritone part. Soprano Elionor Martinez sang a convincing part, partly because her voice was lovingly embedded in the rest of the ensemble.

Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) was able to boost his popularity spectacularly by rigorously opting for simplicity and purified aesthetics. The use of only the three notes of a well-defined triad, for instance, added to the avoidance of modulations, leads to the absence of climax. And yet his music is not static. In his four-part choral work Da pacem Domine, Gregorian roots remain within reach. The altos and basses take care of supple diphthongs and the tenors and sopranos meander around them, allowing the occasional dissonant to emerge. Capella Mariana’s approach was more a tempo than usual in this kind of choral work, allowing a refreshing transparency to float through the ranks. Instead of a dark and deathly religious consciousness, a fragrant flowering Alpine meadow unfolded here. It turned out to be a good place to stay for a while.

The Czech composer Martin Smolka (b1959) composed Maria je commissioned by Capella Mariana in 2020. It is a personal prayer in honour of Mary. The form is a litany for five-part choir and, especially for this performance, a string trio. Smolka’s trademark is the use of infinitesimal small tonal distances. He does this without the use of electronics, but goes entirely by ear. Smolka draws inspiration from sounds in nature. In this church, the feathery light fragments were given an extra emotional charge in the form of a self-reinforcing stillness. The short strokes of the male voices, flanking the flat smooth lines of the soprano, worked like cooling breezes. The gentle accompaniment of the organetta underlined the power that comes from restraint.

The choice for the finale of At the Cross was obvious: a Stabat Mater, and specifically Arvo Pärt’s. This work is based on the confrontation of pain with consolation that Mary experiences at Christ’s death on the cross. Pärt’s version, for three vocal voices and three strings, is also a balancing exercise between long and short note values, entirely in line with the text. Mary’s pain was vocally translated by the soprano, countertenor and tenor. The strings took care of the consoling part with energetic, sometimes even up-beat passages. Here, too, it appeared that cherishing individual tones are emotionally expressive in relation to tutti passages. This was most evident in the final passage where the dying away strings showed that extremely softly played notes linger longest.

WHAT: At the cross (Bij het kruis)

WHO: Capella Mariana and Goeyvaerts String Trio

HEARD: Festival 20.21, Sint-Geertruikerk, Leuven, 29 September 2022

PHOTOS: Helena Gaudeus

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