Across the cultural and religious scenes of the last two millennia, the figure of Mary, mother of Jesus Christ, has undoubtedly held a prominent place. Acknowledged and identified in the sacred books of many major religions, including the Talmud, Quran and New Testament, she is attributed more or less explicitly with her son’s conception through divine intervention. The unique degree of veneration that the Catholic Church accords her today—called ‘hyperdulia’, a kind of midpoint bet – ween ‘latria’ (offered to God alone) and ‘dulia’ (granted to the saints)—is underlined by the four dogmas of faith associated exclusively with Mary, which have been defined and confirmed over the centuries by means of encyclicals, constitutions and conciliar dispositions: Perpetual Virgi – nity (before, during and after the birth of Jesus), Divine Maternity (defining her as Mother of God), Immaculate Conception (conceived without the stain of original sin) and Assumption into heaven (assumed body and soul into heavenly glory). This distinctive form of veneration has found a place in the most diverse types of artistic media, and particularly in music, where Marian themes have given rise to several of the finest and most emotional moments in the history of Western music.
Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when, together with Spain, Portugal availed itself of its epithet as bastion of Catholic orthodoxy, the Lusitanian composers who forged what has come to be known as the ‘Golden Age’ of Portuguese music were very consistently devoted to the figure and cult of Mary, adapting the Marian theme to the liturgical needs of the time. This period was crucial to the strengthening of a close relationship between the cult of Mary and Portuguese history since the foundation of its kingdom: following the restoration of Portugal’s inde – pendence after six decades of the Iberian Union (1580– 1640), the Portuguese King John IV proclaimed Our Lady of the Conception as Queen and Patron Saint of Portugal in a royal decree of 1646 and accordingly crowned her. No Portuguese king would ever again wear the royal crown after that symbolic gesture. This devotion had repercussions on musical production, as illustrated by the fact that three of the most acclaimed Portuguese musicians of the time— Duarte Lobo (c1565–1646), Manuel Cardoso (1566–1650) and Filipe de Magalhães (c1571–1652), all of whom enjoyed the patronage of John IV—devoted a considerable part of their published work to the Marian repertoire.
Unlike his three illustrious contemporaries, Pedro de Cristo (c1550–1618) did not manage to publish any of the more than 250 works that may be confidently attributed to him. Remaining in his birthplace of Coimbra, on 4 September 1571 he joined the Monastery of Santa Cruz, at that time one of the most prestigious centres of musical activity in Europe. He was probably a disciple of Francisco de Santa Maria (c1532–1597) and succeeded him as chapelmaster of the monastery, a position he would also occupy at the Monastery of São Vicente de Fora in Lisbon. He was a rounded and versatile musician, adept in several keyboard instruments as well as harp, bassoon and flute, and his death certificate mentions that he would be ‘highly missed in religion and by the many friends’ he left behind after a fatal fall on 16 December 1618.
Among the rich legacy attributable to Pedro de Cristo— which spans many manuscripts from that period linked to the Monastery of Santa Cruz and currently preserved in the General Library of Coimbra University—a powerful Marian influence is clearly visible. The only complete Mass (including all five parts of the Ordinary: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei) that can be confidently accredited to Cristo is the Missa Salve regina, found in MM 33. It is based on the chant melody of the corres – ponding Antiphon—where Mary is praised as a genuinely royal figure—whose distinctive initial motif is inventively manipulated in each successive part. A polyphonic version of alternate verses of the Salve regina Antiphon appears in that manuscript, a few folios after the Mass that bears its name. Both works exhibit an unusually small range of just sixteen notes across four mixed voices. One of Cristo’s signature traits, this feature is also to be found, encompassing a slightly larger range of seventeen notes, in a setting of Virgo prudentissima, an Antiphon also located in MM 33, in which praise is offered to Mary’s sagacity and pulchritude, and in Ave maris stella, the Office Hymn at Marian Vespers, whose odd-numbered stanzas are present, in a polyphonic version, between folios 50v and 54r of MM 36.
Also found in MM 33 are Quae est ista and Beata Dei genitrix, two five-voice works whose possible attribution to Cristo must be regarded with caution. According to Owen Rees,1 these works were added to the manuscript at a later date, and both display the text incomplete or in only a few voices. In any case, the much broader tessitura of these works (about three octaves) contrasts with those mentioned above. Conversely, Alma redemptoris mater and Ave regina caelorum, Antiphons in two sections from MM 36, in which Mary is urged to intercede with her son for the salvation of sinners, display great clarity and motivic variation, together with remarkable concision in the arti – culation of the text, with successive syllables often assigned to consecutive crotchets. This latter device appears even more strikingly in Sancta et immaculata and Beata viscera Mariae, two vivid Christmas Responsories (in MM 8 and MM 36 respectively) with direct allusions to the Nativity. Set against the birth of Jesus, one of this recording’s culminating moments is reached in the allusion to the Passion. Cristo’s version of the first two stanzas of the Hymn Stabat mater, aptly referred to as the ‘Lamentation of the Virgin Mary’ in MM 53 and which poignantly portrays Mary’s immeasurable pain upon seeing her son crucified, is juxtaposed with the exultant Regina caeli, in which the resurrection is proclaimed through an effusive succession of binary and ternary measures.
Two examples of Cristo’s surviving polychoral works (of which there are only eight known to us), the Magnificat and Ave Maria, take as their theme the archangel Gabriel’s Annunciation to Mary and the Visitation of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth. In both cases, Cristo makes conspicuous use of the alternation between tutti and reduced-voice sections, shaping the distinctive atmospheres that follow— sometimes sweet and contemplative, at other times martial and assertive, but always with characteristic respect for the punctuation, prosody and structure of the sung text.
LUÍS TOSCANO © 2022
Translation MARIA JOÃO VIEIRA
1.Owen Rees: Music by Pedro de Cristo (c1550–1618): An edition of the motets from Coimbra Biblioteca Geral da Universidade, MM 33 (The Netherlands: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1998)
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