So last night I was rehearsing with the Women's Chant Choir, and at the end of the rehearsal decided to teach them this Ave Maris Stella hymn. I've sung this hymn at a chant retreat that I've attended the last few years, and it always seems to have a different kind of energy than other Gregorian hymns I've sung. It's so simple, and the way the word stresses fall make it feel more rhythmic without actually putting any dotted rhythms into it. There's kind of a wild energy that can happen with this piece, especially when you start throwing drones into it, or maybe some organum, and it's really cool. I tried to communicate that to the choir, but don't think I did a very good job of it.
It started me thinking this morning, though, about how the kind of energy that I hear in this piece might reflect on the person it was written about. Did Mary have that wild energy? Was she fierce? What you read about her in the bible is so sketchy - there are very few places that actually mention her - that it's possible to read all kinds of things into her. But I think the answer to my questions is 'yes', she was fierce. While probably her most famous line, "Let it be done to me according to your will", is fairly passive, I think it took enormous willpower to then get up and go out and face the neighbors knowing they were at least likely to think you were crazy, if not worse. And, having been pregnant a couple of times, I can tell you that riding anywhere on a donkey near the end of my pregnancy would have been beyond my capability. Anyone who's ever dealt with a 2-year-old knows it takes some attitude. There's only so many times you can stand to hear the word "No"! And in the end, she witnessed the death of her child, and I don't care how your child dies, crucifixion or cancer or stupid teenage drinking accidents, coping with it takes a strength that I'm not sure I have. The brief mentions she gets in the Bible smooth out so much of the stuff of daily life that she comes out submissive, "contemplating things in her heart" instead of taking an active part in the proceedings. But anyone who's ever been a parent knows that can't be the whole story.
To me this hymn is sung to the young Mary, the one who talked to the Angel and rode the donkey and gave birth in the manger. It's a young girl's voice I hear, and I can't altogether explain it. But I know it needs a different kind of energy than what we usually bring to chant, and I want the Chant Choir to have the range needed to capture that, as well as the more subdued stuff. It took a fierce and awesome will to accomplish what she did and I want this hymn to be a tribute to that.