Why Mary of Hungary was gifted a canon of music on a tablecloth

Eric Jas in Sancta Maria Succurre Miseris

Screenshot van Benedictus Appenzellers canon en een afbeelding van Maria van Hongarije.

Governor of the Netherlands Mary of Hungary (1505-1558) received a canon in 1548. In itself nothing unusual, nobles were often given musical compositions, only this particular canon was printed on a tablecloth. In the mini-documentary Sancta Maria Succurre Miseris: A Canon for Mary of Hungary, music scholar Eric Jas explains the canon’s underlying message and why the composer chose this printing method.

The court composer of the governor

“Mary of Hungary was a sister of Emperor Charles V,” Jas explains. Charles (1500-1558) was king of Spain, emperor of the Roman-German Empire, and lord of the Dutch provinces. “At his request, Mary succeeded her aunt Margaret of Austria as governess of the Netherlands in 1531. She would remain so until she and Charles bid farewell to the Low Countries in 1555.”

Dr. Eric Jas
Dr Eric Jas

“Residing at Mary’s court in Brussels was Benedictus Appenzeller (ca. 1480-1558). Appenzeller was Mary’s court composer and composed sacred music for the liturgical services in her chapel as well as polyphonic chansons for entertainment during and after meals.”

Ode to Mary of Hungary

One of Appenzeller’s works is the canon, an ode to Mary of Hungary. “As the first line ‘Sancta Maria succurre miseris’ shows, the canon has the text of a Marian chant,” Jas says. “But it’s clear that there is an underlying message.”

Appenzeller composed the canon in 1548, the year of the Transaction of Augsburg. “This is an agreement in which Charles V’s Habsburg Netherlands were brought together in the so-called Burgundian Kreits. This allowed the Low Countries to protect itself against an invasion by France through an alliance with the Holy Roman Empire, while also remaining independent. And it was mainly thanks to Mary and her advisers that this agreement was reached.”

An exceptional canon on a tablecloth

Appenzeller’s ode to Mary of Hungary is an exceptional canon, Jas explains. “It’s an extremely complicated piece. Two singers sing their melodies simply as printed and two other singers sing those same melodies, but have to ‘mirror’ all the intervals. For them, every interval up in the piece becomes an interval down, and vice versa.”

So during performance, two of the four singers always had to do the opposite of what was printed in the music. To make it a little easier for them, Appenzeller thought of printing the canon on a tablecloth. “Not only did it give the work an even more special look, but when the singers sat two by two opposite each other at the table, two of them looked at their parts upside down. This is actually convenient, as when you look at sheet music on its head and read the melodies from right to left, a step up becomes a step down. So they were able to read their melodies properly.”