Epiphany - from the Greek meaning “manifestation” or “appearance” - is the traditional Christian feast that celebrates the revelation of God the Son as a human being in Jesus. Christians in the West mark the feast with the story of the biblical Magi, the “three kings” that followed the star and brought the famous gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh for the baby Jesus. Schola Antiqua's album features pieces written expressly for the season of Epiphany, chiefly by sixteenth-century composers who fashioned ornate polyphonic choral works to commemorate the feast.
The most compositionally ambitious pieces in this collection are two motets by the English composer John Sheppard, Reges Tharsis (Track 1) and Salvator mundi (Track 2). Each is rooted in plainchant and scored for six voices. Reges Tharsis means “Kings of Tharsis,” which we take for the title of our recording. The placename is a biblical reference to some distant realm, possibly as far west as modern-day Spain. The musical basis of the motet is a responsory chant of the same name sung on the feast of Epiphany, with text drawn from Psalm 72. Sheppard situated the plainchant in the tenor voice in long, sustained notes, as was customary in his motets. The composer’s Salvator mundi is a hymn that was used during the brief evening service of Compline specifically from Christmas until the week after Epiphany. It is an example of praxis alternatim, in which strophes in plainchant alternate with those in polyphony.
Plainchant undergirds other pieces on this album, the earliest of which is Omnes de Saba (Track 3) by one Magister Leoninus (Leonin). One of the first nameable composers in western music, Leonin flourished in Paris in the closing decades of the twelfth century. He wrote elaborate two-voice duets called organum, based on especially virtuosic plainchant that would normally be sung by cantors in the Mass or Office. In Omnes de Saba, the gradual for Epiphany, one can hear the contrast between soloists and chorus and between polyphony and chant. The long, wordless passages sung on vowels, the quicker dance-like sections, and the highly melismatic chant sung by the choir all reinforce the ecstatic character of these pieces.
Polyphony alternates with plainchant in the sequence Epiphaniam Domino (Track 4), a text that originated in France, probably around the year 900. The sequence—sometimes called a “prose” (prosa)—functions as exegesis of a given feast and usually features paired verses. The polyphony of Epiphaniam Domino was composed by Guillaume Du Fay around 1433-34. In the splendid sections of polyphony, Du Fay places the melody of the plainchant—now rhythmicized and ornamented—in the highest of the three voices (cantus). The melody is still quite recognizable in this arrangement, especially for those who know the chant well.
The chanted hymn Hostis herodes impie, usually sung at the service of First Vespers on the feast of Epiphany, forms the basis for two works by different composers on this recording, each of which exhibits praxis alternatim. Orlande de Lassus was one of the most prolific and admired composers of the sixteenth century, who served as chapel master for the Bavarian dukes for some thirty years. His hymn Hostis herodes impie (Track 5), from around 1580, is scored for five voices in its polyphonic strophes; the plainchant is declaimed in the first tenor voice, which is itself hidden in the middle of the texture.
In 1581, the Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Victoria composed a similar polyphonic setting of Hostis herodes impie (Track 6) but for four voices in alternation with plainchant. He composed the hymn during his activity in Rome as chaplain of San Girolamo della Carità. Victoria presents the melody in two different ways, though always encountered in elongated notes. It is heard audibly in the soprano part during the first polyphonic verse, only to be relegated to the tenor part for the second polyphonic verse.
Although all of the pieces mentioned are based on chant, only one work on this recording is presented solely as a chant. Hodie celesti sponso (Track 7) is an antiphon enumerating the principal themes of Epiphany. The antiphon frames the recitation of the Magnificat, the canticle of Mary from the Gospel of Luke. Hodie celesti sponso and its accompanying Magnificat constituted the musical highlight of the Vespers on Epiphany and directly preceded the Gospel reading at that service.
The album concludes with three devotional works for Epiphany (Tracks 8-10) known as villancicos (or villanescas) all from the hand of the Spanish composer Francisco Guerrero in his series of 31 Canciones y villanescas espirituales (Venice, 1589). Guerrero’s villancicos feature a four- or five-part refrain (estribillo) set against a stanza (copla) for a smaller ensemble or soloist. The dialogue that takes place in Mi fe, vengo de Belén (Track 8) suggests possible use on the stage, betraying the villancico’s secular origins. The choral sections of Guerrero’s villancicos contrast free imitative part-writing with moments of stark homophony, in which the parts unite to declaim the text sonorously and with great spirit.