This monumental eight-part antiphon, which takes pride of place as the opening piece in the Eton Choirbook, is symbolic in a variety of ways. The third and fourth stanzas of the text speak of the rod of Aaron – one of the more well-known Marian metaphors of the Middle Ages. The Book of Numbers (17:1–11) describes how Jahweh resolved the leadership of the twelve tribes of Israel by ordering that the leader of each tribe was to lay a rod in the tabernacle of witness. The rod of the man chosen to be leader of all the tribes (Aaron) would then flourish. Through this example of the unfertilised bearing of fruit, and because of the similarity of the Latin words virgo (virgin) and virga (rod), Aaron’s rod came to be associated with Mary’s virginity.
The scoring of the work for eight voices is also highly significant. Early Christian writers came to associate the number eight with the concept of regeneratio or re-birth into a new life. This is thought to derive from the saving of eight souls ‘by water’ during the building of the Ark (1 Peter 3:20), and is the reason that many baptismal fonts are octagonal. A striking example of the structural use of the number eight can be seen in the magnificent Octagon of Ely Cathedral, whose eight beams each measure sixty-four (eight times eight) feet in length. In Leonardo’s painting Salvator mundi, the orphery of Christ’s stole has two series of eight threads, and the central jewel is surrounded by an eight-pointed star. Similarly, in Fra Angelico’s Virgin and Child Enthroned, Mary’s coat also shows an eight-pointed star. Christ’s throne is surrounded by eight saints, one of whom, St Dominic, has an eight-pointed star in his halo.
Finally, the fact that the text has twelve stanzas may be intended to identify Mary with the woman of chapter 12 of the Book of Revelation, who is wearing a crown of twelve stars.
Much of this information is derived from Willem Elders, Symbolic scores: Studies in the Music of the Renaissance (New York, 1994).
SATTTTBB, ii + 26 pp, 190 × 270 mm.
Click here to view a sample of this piece.
This edition has been recorded by the choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford on Choirs of Angels (AV2184). It was also broadcast live from the 2018 BBC Proms by The Tallis Scholars.