A somewhat inexact term for several chants with texts about the Blessed Virgin, or addressed to her. They originated during the Middle Ages when feasts of the Virgin were provided, and when the custom arose of celebrating special offices honoring her, which also required special music. The chants were used in different ways in different places; they might be used as antiphons in the ordinary sense—to introduce and to follow the chanting of a psalm or canticle in the office (see liturgy of the hours); alone as processional chants; or singly as a votive antiphon after one of the offices, particularly after Compline.
The four Marian antiphons remaining in use today are alma redemptoris mater, ave regina caelorum, regina caeli, and salve regina. One of them is sung every day after Compline, according to the season. Other medieval Marian antiphons are Ibo mihi ad montem myrrhae, Quam pulchra es et quam decora, Speciosa facta es, Sancta Maria succurre miseris, and 0 gloriosa genetrix virgo ; all are found in the late 13th-century MS Cambridge University Library Mm. ii. 9, as reproduced in Antiphonale Sarisburiense, ed. W. H. Frere (1901–25); Nesciens mater and Mater ora filium (used at Lincoln, England, 1380); Sancta Maria virgo (used at Salisbury, 1395); and Sub tuam protectionem, Haec est regina, and Tota pulchra es (used at Senlis, France, late 14th century). J. dunstable (d. 1453) set the second, third, and fourth Cambridge texts for three voices, but did not quote their chant melodies.
Composers of the later Middle Ages and Renaissance frequently set the texts of Marian antiphons, occasionally quoting the melody in the process. Nesciens mater by Byttering (English, active c. 1420) involves the chant theme in all three of its voices in turn; Sancta Maria virgo, in an English source from the second half of the 14th century, is composed for three voices, the lower two sharing the cantus firmus. These settings were in rather simple style, but others were more elaborate, e.g., Lionel power's Mater ora filium, Plummer's Tota pulchra es, and Forest's Tota pulchra es —all from the early 15th century. Composers continued setting these antiphons polyphonically well into the 16th century. Perhaps the most remarkable of all Renaissance compositions in which Marian antiphons are quoted is a motet by gombert (prefaced by the words "Diversi diversa orant") in which both words and melodies of seven Marian chants are enveloped in rich polyphony.
Bibliography: "Les Auteurs présumés du Salve Regina, " La Tribune de Saint-Gervais 18 (1912) 76. f. l. harrison, Music in Medieval Britain (New York 1958). g. reese, Music in the Middle Ages (New York 1940). b. stÄblein, "Antiphon," Die Musik in Geschchte und Gegenwart, ed. f. blume (Kassel-Basel 1949–) 1:523–545. p. wagner, Einführung in die gregorianischen Melodien, 3 v. (Leizig); repr. (Hildesheim 1962). w. apel, Gregorian Chant (Bloomington, Ind. 1958).