musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Early liturgical music

[I] "Paulus - Gregorian Chants to texts by Paul the Apostle"
Frauenschola Exsulta Sion Freiburg
Dir: Christoph Hönerlage

rec: March 8 - 10, 2007, Merzhausen, Kath. Pfarrkiche St. Gallus
Christophorus - CHR 77299 (© 2008) (58'03")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F

[Introitus] Scio cui credidi; [Introitus] Nos autem; [Responsorium graduale] Christus factus est; [Introitus] In nomine Domini; [Alleluia] Christus resurgens; [Communio] Pascha nostrum; [Introitus] Caritas Dei; [Communio] Omnes qui in Christo; [Responsorium prolixum] Salvatorem exspectamus; [Introitus] Gaudete; [Responsorium prolixum] Bonum certamen; [Antiphona ad Magnificat] Sancte Paule Apostole - Magnificat 8. toni

[II] NOTKER BALBULUS (c840-912): "Sequences, tropes & Gregorian chants from St Gall Abbey"
Ensemble Ordo Virtutum
Dir: Stefan Morent

rec: April 6 - 9, 2010, Zisterzienserkloster Bebenhausen (Germany) & June 7, 2010, Binningen, (Switzerland), Kirche Heilig Kreuz
Christophorus - CHR 77341 (© 2010) (59'36")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F

anon: [Alleluia] Dies sanctificatus; Notker Balbulus: [Sequence] natus ante saecula; anon: Dies sanctificatus; [Tropes] Primus init Stephanus - En vice nos Stephani; Notker Balbulus: [Sequence] Gaude Maria virgo; anon: [Tropes] Hodie clarissimam - Olim promissus - Forma speciosissimus - Olim quem vates; [Tropes] Ex numero frequentium - Quasi quid incredibile - Qui vobis terrigenis; [Trope] Consubstantialis patri; Notker Balbulus: [Sequence] Sancti spiritus assit nobis gratia; Occidentana (attr); anon: Einan kuning weiz ih (Ludwigslied, 882); Romana; [Introitus] Gaudeamus omnes; Notker Balbulus: [Sequence] Congaudent angelorum chori; Mater; [Alleluia] Iustus ut palma; Notker Balbulus: [Sequence] Dilecte Deo Galle

[III] "Bernard de Clairvaux: Medieval music of the Cistercians"
ensemble officium
Dir: Wilfried Rombach

rec: April 5 - 6, 2008, Tübingen, Kath. Pfarr- und Universitätskirche St. Johannes
Christophorus - CHR 77301 (© 2008) (61'25")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F

anon: [Invitatorium] Domine, labia mea aperies; [Hymnus in festo S. Bernhardis] Bernardus inclytis; [Jubilus rhythmicus de nomini Jesu] Jesu dulcis memoria; [Responsorium] Filiae Jerusalem; [Responsorium] Quam pulchra es; [Responsorium] Electa mea; [Responsorium] Et dilectus meus; [Responsorium in Nativitate] Verbum caro factum est; [Motet] Salve virgo nobilis/Verbum caro/Et veritate; [Responsorium] Ecce iste venit; [Responsorium] Quae est ista; [Responsorium] Surge, propera; [Motet] Anima mea/Descendi in hortum/Alma redemptoris mater; [Responsorium] Vox turturis; [Organum] Sancte Bernarde; [Hymnus in festo S. Bernhardis] Bernardus, doctor inclytus

[IV] "A Worcester Ladymass"
Trio Mediaeval

rec: Feb 2010, St Gerold (Austria), Propstei Sankt Gerold
ECM New Series - ECM 2166 (© 2011) (51'01")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - no translations
Cover & tracklist

anon: Salve sancta parens; Kyrie; Gloria; Munda Maria; Sponsa rectoris omnium; O sponsa Dei electa; O Maria virgo pia; Benedicta/Virgo Dei genitrix; Gavin BRYARS (*1943): Credo; anon: Felix namque; Salve rosa florum; Grata iuvencula; Inviolata integra mater; De supernis sedibus; Dulciflua tua memoria; Sanctus; plainchant: Agnus Dei; : Beata viscera; Alma Dei genitrix; Gavin BRYARS: Benedicamus Domino

In the first millennium of Western history music was sung from memory and not written down. The first manuscripts with music date from the 9th century. It is only liturgical music which has come down to us, as the convents were practically the only places where people were able to read and write. The oldest form of liturgical music is what is known as Gregorian chant, named after Pope Gregory the Great. For a long time it was thought that he played a crucial role in the creation of liturgical music, and even had composed a large number of chants himself. Later research suggests that his role has been highly exaggerated.

Gregorian chant is partly based on older forms of religious music, in particular as they were practiced in Rome. Although in the second millennium a large amount of polyphony was composed, the dominant position of Gregorian chant wasn't undermined in any way. It is still performed in some Roman Catholic churches and in monasteries. In our time it is gaining in popularity, even among those who don't consider themselves Christians. It is the solemnity and balance of Gregorian chant which seems in particular to appeal to people who lead a hectic life.

Recordings of Gregorian chant appear regularly but many of them are rather uninteresting from a historical point of view. They usually bring the most common chants, in the form in which they are sung in our time. It is mainly thanks to specialized ensembles for early music that we get to know the chants as they have been preserved in old manuscripts. The disc of the Frauenschola Exsulta Sion Freiburg is an example of a historically and musically interesting contribution to our knowledge of the oldest liturgical repertoire. It concentrates on settings of texts from the letters of the apostle Paul, arranged after a theological criterion. This way one gets an idea of the various aspects of his writings. What is especially interesting is the connection between text and music. It is often thought that in Gregorian chant there is no connection at all. But in his liner-notes Christoph Hönerlage proves otherwise. In a number of cases he points out how a text or its theological content are expressed in the music. The repertoire is impeccably and beautifully sung by the women schola. The interpretation is based on the latest research in the field of Gregorian chant.

One of the convents whose musical archives have played a crucial role in getting to know early liturgical music is the Benedictine Abbey of St Gallen in Switzerland. The best-known monk of this abbey was Notker Balbulus (c840-912), whose name means "the stammerer". He seems to have been exceptionally active as a composer of liturgical music. The word 'composer' has to be taken with a grain of salt, as in many cases he used existing melodies and adapted them to newly written texts. His name is specifically connected to the form of the sequence. He collected his sequences in the Liber hymnorum in which "he describes how external inspiration caused him to come upon the artistic principle governing sequences: poetic texts should be adapted to pre-existing melodies so that the smallest melodic units (singulae motus cantilenae) would exactly correspond to individual syllables in the harmonious unity of melody and inflexion". In the recording of Ordo Virtutum several sequences are followed by instrumental performances of the melodic model on which they are based. In addition we hear some tropes. Tradition has it that Notker also contributed to this genre, but that is hard to prove. The tropes on this disc are attributable to Notker himself or to people from his circle, but in any case to the traditions of the Abbey of St Gallen. As is so often the case with medieval music much of the information which is needed to perform this repertoire was missing. It is largely thanks to the wide distribution of his chants that various sources could be used to reconstruct the music on this disc.
There is just one piece on a German text: the so-called Ludwigslied. It describes the battle between Ludwig III, king of the West Franks, and the Normans in the Battle of Saucourt-en-Vimeu in 881. The reason of its inclusion is a bit far-fetched: monks who fled from monasteries attacked by the Normans took their music with them which could have inspired Notker. There is no evidence, though, that this song was known in St Gallen. Only the text has survived, and for this recording it is sung on music in the style of oral epics of the time. Ordo Virtutum has previously recorded interesting repertoire of ancient times (for instance music from the island monastery of Reichenau, and this is another production which is historically interesting and musically enthralling. The performances are excellent, and nobody with a more than average interest in ancient liturgical music should miss this disc.

Bernard of Clairvaux was the founder of the Cistercian order which developed a musical tradition of its own. This reflects the Christ mysticism which is characteristic of Bernard. The ensemble officium has recorded music from the Cistercian tradition which are all anonymous. Bernard of Clairvaux is the author of several texts, but not the composer as the disc's title could suggest. Bernard was an opponent of polyphony, and therefore most chants are monophonic. But several polyphonic pieces are known from the Cistercian monastery of Las Huelgas, and two of them are included in the programme. For the ensemble this was the reason to perform some monophonic chants polyphonically. One example is Jesu dulcis memoria - probably written by someone else - which is the thread of this disc. The stanzas of this poem are alternated by responsories and motets. This has resulted in an interesting production which provides a nice picture of the musical practice in Cistercian monasteries. The performances are technically impeccable and musically captivating.

The loss of so much repertoire is due to various circumstances like natural disasters, fires, wars and human carelessness. Sometimes music was destroyed, either because it was considered old-fashioned or because of a change in liturgical practice. The latter was the case in England, where Henry VIII's breakaway from the Church of Rome resulted in the destruction of traditional liturgical music. The Ladymass which the Trio Mediaeval has recorded, is put together from pieces which were sung in the Benedictine Abbey of St Mary's in Worcester in the 13th century. Here "an unusual number of single leaves and fragments have survived because they were cut up and used as binding material for other codices. These are known as the Worcester Fragments". A reconstruction of the surviving material has resulted in a collection of more than 100 chants. From this material an almost complete mass could be constructed. The stylistic variety of the repertoire is remarkable and is an indication of the high level of liturgical practice. A Ladymass is a votive mass to the Virgin Mary who was particularly venerated in Worcester. Trio Mediaeval presents a complete mass, including both ordinary and proper chants. The Agnus Dei is sung in plainchant. Spoken items as the Collect, the readings from the Epistles and Gospels, the Secret, Preface, Canon and Post-communion are replaced by conducti and motets from the Worcester Fragments. In this collection Credo and Benedicamus Domino are lacking. The contemporary composer Gavin Bryars has been asked to set them. His idiom is different from the Worcester chants but in character his settings aren't that much different. Trio Mediaeval delivers a well-considered and penetrating performance which convincingly brings into being the liturgical practice in Worcester.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

Relevant links:

Frauenschola Exsulta Sion Freiburg
Ordo Virtutum
ensemble officium
Trio Mediaeval

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