Editorial Statement: During the month of May (Mary’s Month), Church Life Journal celebrates the month of Mary by consider the nature of the Marian imagination in art, music, folk customs, private devotion, and ritual action.
The dedication of May as Mary's Month is attested by several traditions, rather than by one definitive tradition. The earliest mention of it is from King Alfonso X of Castille in the 13th century. The king speaks about honoring Mary on various dates in May in his Cantigas de Santa Maria. However, the dedication of the full month only developed sometime between the 17th and 18th centuries.
If that explanation is not precise enough for you, then here's Gerard Manley Hopkins' poetic attempt at one in "The May Magnificat":
MAY is Mary’s month, and I
Muse at that and wonder why:
Her feasts follow reason,
Dated due to season—
Candlemas, Lady Day;
But the Lady Month, May,
Why fasten that upon her,
With a feasting in her honour?
Is it only its being brighter
Than the most are must delight her?
Is it opportunest
And flowers finds soonest?
Ask of her, the mighty mother:
Her reply puts this other
Question: What is Spring?—
Growth in every thing—
Flesh and fleece, fur and feather,
Grass and greenworld all together;
Throstle above her nested
Cluster of bugle blue eggs thin
Forms and warms the life within;
And bird and blossom swell
In sod or sheath or shell.
All things rising, all things sizing
Mary sees, sympathising
With that world of good,
Their magnifying of each its kind
With delight calls to mind
How she did in her stored
Magnify the Lord.
Well but there was more than this:
Spring’s universal bliss
Much, had much to say
To offering Mary May.
Bloom lights the orchard-apple
And thicket and thorp are merry
With silver-surfèd cherry
And azuring-over greybell makes
Wood banks and brakes wash wet like lakes
And magic cuckoocall
Caps, clears, and clinches all—
This ecstasy all through mothering earth
Tells Mary her mirth till Christ’s birth
To remember and exultation
In God who was her salvation.
Below you will find the liner notes for the Church Life Journal "Marian Music" playlist. The playlist can be accessed here, by searching for "Notre Dame Liturgy" and selecting the "Marian Music" playlist in the Spotify app, or, through the embedded widget at the bottom of this post.
Awed By the Beauty
A theotokion is a troparion or hymn to Mary the Theotokos (God-bearer), sung in the Orthodox and other Eastern Rite Churches, often at the conclusion of the Divine Services (or Vespers). In this recording, the Byzantine chant has been arranged for three-part treble choir. The poetic text evokes the cosmic import of the Annunciation and describes the moment when the even archangel Gabriel stands “amazed . . . lost and bewildered” in the face of the Virgin Mary’s radiant purity. Struggling to find words to offer her fitting greeting, in the end, Gabriel resolves, “I shall greet thee as I was commanded: Hail! Thou that art full of grace!”
I Beheld Her Beautiful as a Dove (Healey Willan, 1928)
A responsory for an eighth-century Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary provides the text for this lovely little anthem, a text which is saturated with images from the Song of Songs. The responsory text with its structure of brief repeated phrases in turn determines the structure of this piece, and Willan sets off the responsorial phrases with musical contrasts. The first and final lyrical sections speaks of the beloved, who is “beautiful as a dove,” and “girded with rosebuds and lilies of the valley,” while the middle section (rooted in a minor key and more strong and acclamatory than lyrical) speaks of her lover, who “cometh up from the desert like a wreath of sweet smoke arising from frankincense and myrrh.” Overall, the piece invites the listener to consider Mary’s radiant purity and the beautiful intimacy between the Virgin and her God—the Father who chose her to bring forth the Son by the power of the Spirit.
Rosary Sonatas: No. 15 in C major, “Coronatio Beatae Mariae Virginis” (Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, ca. 1676)
This movement from Biber’s Rosary Sonatas holds a unique place on this playlist as the only purely instrumental work. Through the interaction between the solo violin and the basso continuo (accompanying instruments), Biber provides a musical commentary on each of the mysteries of the Rosary. In this particular movement, the violin’s melody with its virtuosic flourishes gives a sense of the effusive joy to be found in contemplating Mary as Queen of Heaven and Earth.
Let It Be (Paul McCartney, 1970)
Although Paul McCartney has stated that he did not intend to refer to the Blessed Virgin when he wrote of “Mother Mary” in this well-known song, he has also stated that people are invited to lend their own interpretation to the lyric, and for many, this song has taken on the tone of a prayer. While the phrase “Let it be” might suggest an interpretation of “Leave it alone,” when one imagines our Mother Mary speaking these words to us ‘in our hour of darkness,’ one hears an echo of her words to the angel, “Let it be done to me according to your word” (see Lk 1:38). To say “Let it be,” then, can become our way of assenting to the will of God, even when we are uncertain of what that might entail for our lives.
Troparian to the Assumption of the Most Holy Mother of God
The title of this hymn refers to the solemnity of the Assumption, the celebration of Mary being taken up into heaven body and soul. However, in the Eastern Church, this feast is celebrated as Mary’s Dormition, or falling asleep at the end of her earthly life. This beautiful troparion states: “In giving birth, O Mother of God, you preserved your virginity and in your falling asleep you did not forsake the world. Being the Mother of Life, you have passed over into life, and by your prayers you deliver our souls from death.”
Stabat Mater: I. Stabat Mater Dolorosa (Francis Poulenc, 1950–51)
The Stabat Mater is a sequence that dates from the thirteenth century. Numerous composers have set this heart-rending text to music, as early as Palestrina (ca. 1590) and as recently as Arvo Pärt (1985) and James MacMillan (2017). The pathos of the text is undeniable, as it invites us to contemplate the Sorrowful Mother and to take our place beside her at the foot of Jesus’ Cross. This first movement from the setting by French composer Francis Poulenc feels heavy with its darkly-colored orchestrations; the somber tempo suggests a plodding walk along the via dolorosa, yet the “Très calme” tempo marking—like Mary’s serenely beautiful face in Michelangelo’s Pietà— indicates a peaceful acceptance of the will of God, even in the face of agonizing suffering.
Regina Caeli Laetare a 8 (Tomás Luis de Victoria, 1576)
This ancient text is the Marian antiphon sung after Compline (Night Prayer in the Divine Office) throughout the Easter season. Victoria has built this stunning eight-voice motet on the pre-existing chant melody, which can be heard clearly in the first notes of the piece. The buoyant, even playful imitation imbues the piece with a graceful lightness, particularly in the “Alleluia” sections. “Queen of heaven, rejoice, alleluia! For He whom you did merit to bear, alleluia! Has risen, as he said, alleluia! Pray for us to God, alleluia! Rejoice and be glad, O Virgin Mary, alleluia! For the Lord has truly risen, alleluia!”
Ave Maris Stella (Edvard Grieg, 1898)
Another ancient Marian text (possibly as early as the 8th century) often sung as a hymn in the Divine Office and the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin, this beautiful hymn refers to Mary as the “Star of the Ocean,” a name by which she was often invoked by travelers and sailors. This choral setting is in fact an arrangement Edvard Grieg created of an earlier solo version he had composed. The melodic lines soar and the harmonies shift into unexpected sonorities, suggesting the rise and fall of the ocean’s tide and the eddying swirls of the water; yet the overall tone is one of utter comfort and complete trust that she who is our Mother will guide and protect us throughout all of life’s dangers.
Sweet Afton (Robert Burns, Chris Thile, 2000)
Sweet Afton is a poem by Scotsman Robert Burns dating from 1791. Like Paul McCartney’s Let It Be, the Mary mentioned in this poem is not intended to refer to the Blessed Virgin; however, if one utilizes the same generosity of interpretation here as with the Beatles song, Sweet Afton also takes on a beautiful depth. For instance, as I listen to these lyrics, I imagine them being sung in the heart of St. Joseph as he contemplates his sleeping spouse and her Son while the Holy Family rests on the flight into Egypt. Chris Thile’s unaffected melody, coupled with the harmonies and the instrumental brilliance of the other members of Nickel Creek, complements Burns’ text perfectly, resulting in a sweet, simple lullaby that lends itself well to a Marian imagination.
Ave Generosa (Hildegard of Bingen, ca. 1140–80)
Poet, composer, naturalist, and mystic St. Hildegard of Bingen penned here a courtly hymn in praise of the fruitful virginity of the Blessed Virgin. As Nathaniel Campbell has pointed out, the word “generosa” refers to one born to a noble family, who would thus have been reared to be generous toward those less fortunate. Indeed, Mary’s generosity and her pity toward the poor are unmatched among God’s creatures, for she generously offered her very body in order that the eternal Word might become flesh within her virginal womb; she raised her Son Jesus, the God-man, “with love beyond all telling”; she offered him back to God as she stood beneath the Cross; she prayed with the infant Church with maternal solicitude before the gift of the Spirit; and she continues to pray for all of her children as the generous Queen of heaven and earth, blessed among all women and exalted above all creatures.
Bogurodzica (text attr. Adalbert of Prague, ca. 10th–13th)
This is the extant oldest Polish hymn in existence. Its title translates to “Mother of God” or “Theotokos” (God-bearer), and it is a two-fold prayer. First, the text addresses Mary, asking her to obtain Jesus’ mercy through her intercession on our behalf. Then, the text addresses Jesus himself, asking for a favorable answer to the prayer and begging for eternal life in paradise after life on earth has ended. By the early fifteenth century, this hymn was sung by Polish knights before entering into battle, as well as royal coronations, earning it the designation carmen patrium or “hymn of the motherland.”
Virgen de Guadalupe (traditional; performed by Patty Griffin, feat. Raul Malo, 2010)
This traditional Mexican hymn has long been sung as a farewell to Our Lady of Guadalupe. Often, it serves as accompaniment to the final procession of the image found on St. Juan Diego’s tilma, when the celebrations of the feast day are concluded. Here, noted American singer-songwriter Patty Griffin performs the hymn with a brilliant guitar accompaniment and vocal harmonization provided by Raul Malo.
A Hymn to the Virgin (Benjamin Britten, 1930)
The macaronic text for this hymn dates from around 1300, and Benjamin Britten composed this setting when he was only sixteen years old. Two choirs of mixed voices engage in a dialogue with one another, each language elucidating what is being said by the other in a kind of symbiotic relationship. The image of Mary as a foil for Eve holds prominent place here: the knot of disobedience tied by the latter is undone by the obedience of the former, and the sadness that entered the world through Eve’s sinfulness is overcome by the joy that entered the world through the birth of Mary’s Son, the Messiah.
Tota Pulchra Es (Ola Gjeilo, 2001)
Like many of the works on this list, the text for this piece is ancient, dating from around the fourth century. This text is still sung (albeit divided up) as the three psalm antiphons during second Vespers for the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception in the Liturgy of the Hours. Drawing from the Song of Songs (4:7) and the book of Judith (15:9), this text employs a typological scriptural imagination in which Mary is seen as the fulfillment of the Old Testament texts. The three-part treble voices soar, and the four-part bass voices answer in kind, until the full chorus joins together in its praise of the Virgin, a musical representation of Mary’s prophecy that all generations will call her blessed (cf. Lk 1:48b).
All-Night Vigil, Op. 37: Troparion for the Virgin Mary—Bogoróditse Djévo (Sergei Rachmaninoff, 1915)
Famed Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff composed this fifteen-movement a capella choral work in less than two weeks, utilizing texts taken from the all-night vigil service of the Russian Orthodox Church. Bogoróditse Djévo is the sixth movement, the final text taken from the Russian Orthodox Vespers service, and arguably the most famous movement of the work. The melodic movement is deeply rooted in the musical tradition of Orthodox chant, with graceful melismas (one syllable of text sung across multiple notes) and a mostly homophonic texture (all voices singing the same syllables simultaneously to allow for textual clarity). The long, sustained notes seem to suspend the melody in mid-air, while the gently moving inner voices propel the piece forward through its glorious highpoint and to its peaceful resolution.
Ave Maria (James MacMillan, 2010)
Throughout this piece, the dialogue between the organ and the choir seems to evoke the dialogue between heaven and earth that existed both at the moment of the Annunciation, and that continues today whenever the faithful lift up their voices in prayer. As in much of his sacred choral music, MacMillan incorporates delicate gestures of ornamentation in both the choral and instrumental parts, as well as surprising harmonic language that seems almost dissonant. The overall effect is one of great solemnity, a noble setting of the words prayed most often to the Mother of God and our Mother.
Magnificent (U2, 2009)
Lead singer Bono has long been known for incorporating religious images and themes into his music, and this song is no exception. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Bono confirmed that this song was in fact inspired by the Blessed Virgin Mary, particularly her canticle, the Magnificat (Lk 1:46–55), explaining elsewhere that the speaker in the song is trying to determine how best to his life an act of worship through love, for in the end, “only love can leave such a mark.”
Virgencita (Arvo Pärt, 2012)
When Arvo Pärt was invited to visit Mexico by their ambassador to his native Estonia, he was immediately inspired to create a new work rooted in the sixteenth-century Marian apparition to St. Juan Diego. The music of this piece incorporates Pärt’s characteristic ‘holy minimalism,’ and utilizes silence and dissonance to great effect as well. The overall tone of the work is melancholy, pleading, but the use of the term of endearment “Virgencita” indicates a deep, trusting intimacy with Our Lady of Guadalupe. She is the loving Mother to whom one can turn in the darkest hours of one’s life, and she will always answer us as she answered St. Juan Diego: “Listen and let it penetrate your heart . . . do not be troubled or weighed down with grief. Do not fear any illness of vexation, anxiety or pain. Am I not here who am your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? . . . Are you not in the folds of my mantle?”
Annunciation (John Tavener, 1992)
This stunning a capella choral work by John Tavener features the question Mary poses to the angel Gabriel sung by three-part treble voices: “How can this be, seeing I know not a man?” The full chorus replies in ethereally lovely harmonies with the angelic greeting: “Hail! Thou that art highly favored. Hail! The Lord is with thee.” The music of the angel’s response spans an incredibly wide vocal range: the choir is rooted in the lowest bass notes while simultaneously soaring to the heights of the treble range. Although the listener is left with Mary’s question as the final statement, even remains rooted in the chorus’ earlier response, and there is a sense that this question is not one born of doubt, but of a deep faith.
Magnificat in D Major, BWV 243: Et Exultavit Spiritus Meus (Johann Sebastian Bach, 1733)
In this final piece on the playlist, we hear the words of Mary’s canticle of praise set to music by the inimitable master of counterpoint, Johann Sebastian Bach. This second movement of Bach’s setting of the Magnificat consists of a jubilant soprano aria, and so we are invited to hear it as Bach’s musical vision of how Mary herself might have sung these words. The melody and the accompaniment pair perfectly with one another in a musical pax de deux, while the ornamentation and imitation convey the text: “My spirit rejoices in God, my Savior.” Mary rejoices, not in herself, but in her God, who has done great things for and in her, who has exalted her, his humble handmaid, and who will lift up the lowly, drawing them to himself in love.
Again, you can access the playlist at: