Our discussion of Mary as a new Eve, particularly the garden imagery that Ephrem uses to create a kind of rhyme between the two women, put me in mind of two songs. If, like me, you were ever a member in a girls' chorus during the Christmas season, you have probably sung or at least heard of Benjamin Britten's magnificent cantata A Ceremony of Carols for harp and 3-part treble choir. In my high school career, I had the exhausting but pleasurable task of singing this for three years of Christmases (one year with three different ensembles, to boot) so the songs are fairly engraved in my memory and my understanding of Mary, because the music serves so well to deepen the meaning set forth with the Middle English poetry that forms its libretto.
After a beautiful processional chant ('Hodie Christus Natus Est') and a boistrous 'Wolcom Yole,' the tone of the music shifts to a contemplative one in the third movement, 'There is No Rose'. The choir sings a contemplative text about the miracle of the Virgin--the rose with which we are now familiar--in whom is contained 'heaven and earth in little space' and 'one God in persons three' (interestingly, each syllable of 'per-sons three' is an inversion of the same chord--musical theology!). Each verse is punctuated by unified moments of Latin chant, and the harp part is simple and repetitive, suggesting a kind of advancing (to Bethlehem? to heaven?). The final, soaring moment of Latin is set to the 'transeamus' (let us cross over) that implies the miraculous threshold we mortals may cross through the Virgin.
The penultimate movement 'Deo Gracias' connects Mary more explicitly to Eve, but here the musical flavor is less reverent and more urgent, with a quick-moving harp part that suggests more of a run that a stately procession. The choir sings a breathless praise of both Mary and Eve's taking of the fruit, narrating how 'ne had the appil takè ben [...] ne hadde never our lady a-ben hevenè quene' with notes in small, low tessitura that eventually breaks out into bright leaps of larger intervals and harp glissandos in a canon of cries of 'deo gracias!' that eventually unite in a glorious final chord. To me, the musical transition from the verse telling of Adam and Eve's relation to mary into the 'chorus' of 'thanks be to God!' that takes the melody from low and rumbling to striking and alive implies a kind of duality, perhaps between earthly Eve and heavenly Mary, each necessary in her role, since mankind cannot be redeemed without sin. Had the apple not been taken, Mary would not be queen, after all.
This might be a good point to disclose that although I've been a chorister for years, I've never studied anything beyond basic theory and composition, so my conclusions are all based on a kind of armchair musicology and are probably not up to the standards of actual scholarship. That said, I'd like to dive in now with one last piece of music and posit that it, too, could be in praise of the Virgin.
Singing in different ensembles at the same time has the side effect of juxtaposing pieces of music that are seemingly unrelated, either in subject matter, musical tradition, or both, and for me, at least, this makes some of the ideas cross-pollinate (no pun intended, re: garden imagery) a little. While performing seasonal iterations of the Britten with my professional girls' chorus, I also sang an incredible beautiful piece by contemporary composer Eric Whitacre with my school chorus. The song is one of a cycle entitled 'Three Songs of Faith' and is a setting of an E. E. Cummings poem 'i will wade out' (here is a YouTube link, but if you have Spotify installed, this is a much better recording).
The poetry is beautiful, of course, sensual and almost sexy (I'm surprised it didn't raise more eyebrows being sung by 17-year-olds, really) but I think that when it became lyrics to a song, it also became like a new kind of Magnificat. So many of the elements make me think of Mary: it's sung in the first person, by she who 'leaps into the ripe air, alive with closed eyes' in faith and trust of the role that God has given her, 'to dash against the darkness' of sin. The 'fingers of smooth mastery' are God's, entering the 'sleeping curves' of Mary's body so that she, the stella maris, might 'with chasteness of sea-girls complete the mystery of [her] flesh.' The music itself suggests the kind of reaction I've always imagined in the tone of the text of the Magnificat: the 'A' section is frantic, unstable, but excited, too thrilled to sit still with three treble voices leaping up and down in canon. The 'B' section is grounded, a tighter harmony that evokes the earthliness of the verse-sections of 'Deo Gracias', suggesting the redemption and fulfillment to come. And then the piece recapitulates musically back to the ethereal and insistent joy of the present even as it sets forth new text: 'i will rise after a thousand years, lipping flowers.'
Hopefully I haven't gone too far from the topic at hand, but I was so glad to finally have a forum to air out all these thoughts about Mary that have been rolling around in my mind since I first began (literally) singing her praises. As a bonus, because I'm a music nerd and through the magic of the internet, I made a playlist of my a few of my favorite Mary songs (you will need Spotify to listen to it). I hope the music inspires some of you like it has me.