musica Dei donum

CD reviews

"Ars elaboratio"

Ensemble Scholastica
Dir: Rebecca Bain

rec: March 4 - 6, 2016, Montréal, Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours
ATMA - ACD2 2755 (© 2017) (72'15")
Liner-notes: E/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

plainchant, arr. Ensemble Scholastica: Ad sit Johannis baptiste, versus [5]; Alleluia. Adducentur regi virgines [2]; Benedicamus Domino. Laudamus Dominum; Benedicamus Domino. Tu lux refulge; Cantantibus organis, responsory [6]; Celsa secreta in columbe specie, antiphon [1]; Claris vocibus, sequence [4]; Dilexisti iustitiam, introit [2]; Dum aurora finem daret, antiphon [3]; Quinque prudentes virgines, communion [2]; Sancti baptiste, sequence [6]; Velox impulit/Hic leta canit/Vestiunt silve/MULIERUM

Sources of the plainchant: [1] Benevento, Biblioteca Capitolare; [2] Einsiedeln, Stiftsbibliothek; [3] Klosterneuburg, Augustiner-Chorherrenstiftsbibliothek; [4] Oxford, Bodleian Library; [5] Paris, Biliothèque Nationale; [6] St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek

Anne Sophie da Silva, Elizabeth Ekholm, Jody Freeman, Cynthia Gates, Carole LeDez, voice; Rebecca Bain, voice, fiddle; Catherine Herrmann, voice, organetto; Micheline Racicot, voice, psaltery; Angèle Trudeau, voice, symphonia

A considerable part of the musical repertoire of the past has come down to us without the name of the composer. In the case of music of the 17th and 18th centuries this is often the result of copyists not bothering to write down the name of the composer or even not knowing his identity. However, before the renaissance the name of the author of a text or the composer of music was not considered of any importance. Numerous liturgical texts have been handed down without the name of the author. Such texts were written in honour of God, the Virgin Mary or a saint, and therefore the name of the author did not matter. Only in some cases we know who wrote a text, such as Bernard of Clairvaux or Notker Balbulus. Liturgical texts were set to music in order to be sung during worship, but we hardly know the names of the composers. The earliest date from the time that polyphony made its appearance in sacred music, generally thought to be the 12th century.

However, the lack of names of authors and composers is not only an expresion of the medieval view on the importance - or rather lack of it - of human identity, it also reflects the fact that texts and music were the subject of constant change. Liturgical texts could be adapted to a different occasion, for instance a feast, or the veneration of a saint in a particular convent, and as a result some texts have come down to us in several versions. Even fixed parts of the liturgy, for instance the Ordinary of the mass, could be changed by adding new texts, so-called tropes.

Music was also the subject of elaboration. It would not have made any sense to write down the name of a composer, because a composition was never really finished. Like texts music could be adapted to different circumstances and needs. Part of such elaboration was the addition of polyphony. The first written-out pieces of polyphony date from the 12th century, but it seems likely that this was the result of a process of improvisation, in which performers added new lines to existing chants. And even after the first polyphonic chants were notated, the practice of improvisation continued. The Ensemble Scholastica has tried to recreate, as it were, this practice. Rebecca Bain, in her liner-notes, states that polyphonic composition "was subject to rules that were constantly evolving. The medieval student of music likely internalized these rules thoroughly and practised them often. Few if any musicians today have assimilated them to the point of being able to apply them in the same manner. Most modern performances of medieval music are taken from surviving versions of known pieces. It could be argued that, rather than limiting ourselves to the extant repertoire, an equally authentic approach would be to learn and apply the medieval art of elaboration."

This disc is a demonstration of how texts and music from the Middle Ages can be treated in a way, which possibly reflects the performance practice of the time. "Ensemble Scholastica first began to experiment with the art of elaboration while preparing its Birth of Polyphony program in 2013. For a portion of this program, we followed the medieval rules of polyphony and composed several of our own polyphonic versions of surviving monophonic pieces. Since that time, we have learned other medieval elaboration techniques - for composing monophonic elaborations, for example - and the result has been an entire program of newly elaborated medieval songs. The original songs were chosen from the medieval plainchant repertoire in homage to our favourite saints: Scholastica, our patroness and champion of education; Cecilia, patron saint of music; Catherine of Alexandria, champion of justice and female wisdom; and Saint John the Baptist, patron to our home province of Québec."

The practice of elaboration can take different forms which are represented in the programme. The starting point is always a chant which has survived in a particular manuscript. The programme opens with Celsa secreta in columbe specie, an antiphon for the Feast of Saint Scholastica, from a manuscript preserved in the south-Italian city Benevento. In this performance a verse has been added, whose text is taken from the Dialogues of Pope St Gregory the Great. Next follows an Alleluia, taken from a manuscript in Einsiedeln. It has been treated here as an organum: one voice is held, whereas polyphony in the typical florid style of the Notre Dame School is added by two voices.

Sancti baptistae is a sequence, and this is one of the very few pieces whose author is known: the above-mentioned Notker Balbulus. Here polyphony is added in the style practised at the abbey of St Martial de Limoges. Again from Einsiedeln is the introit Dilexisti iustitiam. This piece is the subject of the practice of adding tropes; they are taken from the 13th-century Codex Las Huelgas. A popular form in the late medieval period was a motet with various texts sung simultaneously; one of them consisting of a single word. In Velox impulit that is "mulierum", a long melisma taken from the Alleluia for the Feast of St John the Baptist. To this tenor three new voices are added. Whereas most pieces are performed a capella, in the responsory Cantantibus organis three instruments are used: symphonia, organetto and fiddle.

Ad sit Johannis baptiste dates from the early 12th century and is performed here as a three-part organum, inspired by the oldest extant three-voice composition, Congaudeant Catholici (preserved in the Codex Calixtinus). Benedicamus Domino is the dismissal at the end of every liturgical service. It is sung here twice, in different modes (the first and fifth respectively), and with different tropes. The poetry of Benedicamus Domino. Tu lux refulge sensibus is taken from an Ambrosian hymn, whereas the Benedicamus Domino. Laudamus Domino uses a paraphrase of Psalm 150.

"Our ultimate goal is to provide more insight into the world of medieval music by shaking up the usual rules of historically informed medieval music performance practice. On a more philosophical level, this project is also designed to encourage reflection on current attitudes towards authorship, intellectual property, the space between performer and composer, and the relationship between historical and modern performance." As far as the first goal is concerned: there are few ensembles for medieval music which don't treat the material they perform with considerable freedom. In particular the addition of polyphony is common practice. As an example I mention the recordings of Hildegard of Bingen's monodic songs by Sequentia. Only recently I reviewed a recording of monodic paraliturgical music by the ensembles Armoniosoincanto and Anonima Frottolisti; in many songs the performers add polyphony of their own invention. It is in the addition of new texts that the Ensemble Scholastica's approach seems most original; this aspect is certainly an interesting subject for debate. This review is not the place to discuss the second goal, but I think it goes too far to take the approach to medieval liturgical music as a model for performance practice of early music in general, since it has a character of its own.

This disc undoubtedly is a highly interesting contribution to the discography of early liturgical music, and it should encourage ensembles to explore the various ways such repertoire can be performed. Overall the performances are good, although I would prefer a more clear and vivid sound. The ensemble is excellent, and most of its members also convince in their solo contributions. However, some of the voices are a bit shaky, and there is some nervous vibrato here and there. Moreover, the uniform Italian pronunciation is questionable.

If you are interested in early liturgical music or in medieval music in general, this disc is well worth exploring.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

Relevant links:

Ensemble Scholastica

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