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"Magdalena – Medieval Songs for Mary Magdalen"

Dir: Belinda Sykes

rec: April 2003, Toddington (UK), St Andrew's Church
AVIE - AV0026 (69'09")

anon : Ave, beata femina; Ave, plena Magdalena; Benedicamus Domino/Victime paschali laudes; Benedicamus Domino Magdalena; Chanter voel par grant amour; Co la madre del beato; Hodie mater gaudeat ecclesia; Magdalena degna da laudare (lauda); Magdalenam laude plenam; Novum festum celebremus; O Madalena ch’andasti al sepolcro (lauda); O Maria Magdalena; O Maria, prius via; Ortorum virentium/Virga Yesse/Victime paschali laudes; Parlamento (istampita); Peccatrice nominata (instr); Peccatrice nominata (lauda); Psallat immensas chorus; Salve, pia Magdalena; Christian of Lilienfeld: Ave, clari generis dulcis Magdalena; Conon de Béthune: Chançon legiere (estampie); Philippe de Grève: O Maria, noli flere; St Lorenzo Giustiniani: O Magdalena che portasti; Wipo of Burgundy; Victime paschali laude

Jenny Cassidy, Caitríona O’Leary, Dessislava Stefanova, Belinda Sykes, voice; Riccardo Delfino, voice, medieval harps, hurdy-gurdy; Ben Davis, medieval fidel

"O Mary Magdalen, you, whose sins divine grace washed in full, intercede with Jesus Christ on our behalf, so that, with pardon given, He may lead us out of this wretchedness into eternal joy."

This text ('O Maria Magdalena') sums up the role of Mary Magdalen in the Christian Church of the Middle Ages.
Mary Magdalen was one of the women who followed Christ and served him with their possessions ('Ave, clari generis'). She also witnessed Jesus' crucifixion and his resurrection. In particular the crucial role of Mary Magdalen on Easter morning, looking for the body of Jesus ('O Maria, noli flere'), meeting him as the resurrected and ordered by him to report his resurrection to his disciples ('Victime paschali laudes'), gave her a central role in the Christian Church.

As so often with biblical characters worshipped as saints, a whole web of myths was woven around her. Very little of her is known from the gospels. The facts which are told were used to create a picture of a sinful woman, saved by Christ, and therefore ideally suited to model the Church and the (sinful) believers.
According to the Bible seven devils were driven from her. These devils were associated with specific sins ('O Maria, prius via'). And Pope Gregory the Great, in the late 6th century, associated her with the 'sinful woman' from Luke 7, who washed Jesus' feet ('O Magdalena che portasti'), and also with Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus ('Peccatrice nominata'). One of the sins associated with her - probably referring to the woman Luke reports about - is prostitution ('Magdalenam laude plenam'). As a repentant sinner, seeking forgiveness from Jesus and being forgiven by him ('Chanter voel par grant amour'), she was the ideal role model for the Church: "Let us praise the Lord, O Magdalen, bride of Jesus Christ and our patron, you, the model of repentance and mirror of the church" ('Benedicamus Domino'). Being originally peccatrix (sinner), meretrix (prostitute), she became dilectrix Christi (lover of Christ) or even – in a typical medieval metaphor - sposa Jhesu Christi (bride of Jesus Christ). And she was asked for intervention on behalf of the sinners, and even was hailed as "blessed woman" who was able to "dissolve all our sins" ('Ave, beata femina').

The importance of Mary Magdalen in the Christian Church of the Middle Ages is reflected in the repertoire recorded here. Most pieces are anonymous and date from the 14th century or earlier. Some have the form of motets, others are reflecting the style of the trouvère repertoire. There are also more 'popular' pieces, the so-called laude. These were sung at meetings of the laudesi, fraternities founded in the 13th century. Most of these laude are strophic and have refrains. The vocal works are interspersed by some instrumental pieces.

The line of approach by Belinda Sykes is very original. It is interesting to see how the official views of the Church and popular beliefs influenced each other. And more than any scientific treatise the music and the texts presented here demonstrate the importance and the mystic character of the worship of saints in the Christian Church of the Middle Ages.

The performance is excellent. The voices are all very clear and blend well. Only a couple of instruments are used when that is appropriate, but in a very moderate and tasteful way. The character of the pieces – ranging from intimacy to exaltation - is well delivered. A little questionable is the nasal sound of the first piece - I don't see why a 'popular' piece should be sung that way.
In the booklet Susan Haskins has written an excellent essay about the origin and development of the worshipping of Mary Magdalen, but I missed some information about the music.

I would recommend this recording very highly, since the repertoire and the performance are enthralling.

Johan van Veen (© 2003)

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