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"Graduel d'Aliénor de Bretagne - Noël à Fontevraud"

Vox Clamantis
Dir: Jaan-Eik Tulve

rec: Nov 22 - 28, 2021, Fontevraud, Abbaye royale
Mirare - MIR612 (© 2023) (65'20")
Liner-notes: E/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

anon: Messe del'aurore (Lux fulgebit); Messe de minuit; Messe du Jour

Mari-Liis Urb, Anete Peäske, Miina Pärn, Susanna Paabumets, Kadri Hunt, Sander Pehk, Mikk Dede, Sakarias Jaan Leppik, Taniel Kirikal, Aare Külama, Jaan-Eik Tulve

The task of performing medieval sacred music - the largest part of which is plainchant - is not easy. Apart from questions regarding interpretation, all the music is preserved in manuscript. Often manuscripts are damaged, or their quality makes them hard to read. The manuscript from which the chant on the disc under review is taken, is very different. The Latin text is perfectly legible, and - something of a rarity - it offers an optimal synchronisation of melody and text.

The 'Gradual of Eleanor of Brittany', as it is called, dates from the 13th century. The name is derived from the coat of arms of Eleanor of Dreux-Brittany, Abbess of Fontevraud from 1304 to 1342. The Royal Abbey of Our Lady of Fontevraud was a monastery founded in 1101. It is not clear what the origin of the manuscript may have been. Several suggestions have been made. "The manuscript may have been commissioned for Fontevraud Abbey by Henry III Plantagenet, King of England, in gratitude for the transfer of the tomb of his mother, Isabella of Angoulême, who died at Fontevraud and is now buried in the choir of the abbey. It is thought to have been executed between 1250 and 1260 in the Paris workshop of Nicolas Lombard. Or it may have been presented to Eleanor’s parents, John II, Duke of Brittany, and Beatrice of England." (booklet) Whether these chants were sung by the nuns of the monastery is anything but sure, and therefore the name it has been given, is "something of an oversimplification", Daniel Saulnier writes in his liner-notes.

The Gradual comprises chants for the masses of the entire liturgical year. This includes both the chants of the Ordinary (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei) and proper chants (Introit, Gradual, Alleluia, Offertory, Communion). The feature of the latter is that their text varies according to the time of the ecclesiastical year. They date from the Carolingian period; later the Sequence was added, which was sung after the Alleluia. In the manuscript a large number of chants are devoted to the Virgin Mary, which attests to the importance her veneration. The Ordinary chants were usually the same, independent of the time of the year, but it had become common practice to insert new texts, so-called tropes, which were also connected to the feast that was celebrated. The Gradual of Elenor of Brittany has a few specific features, which can be considered real innovations. One is the addition of counterpoint to the chant: "the same text is set to another melody that advances at the same pace as the basic melody". Another is that sometimes a lesson is extended by tropes. "Since the Latin of the liturgical readings was no longer accessible to the congregation, it was even doubled for certain feasts (Stephen, Epiphany, John the Baptist, Assumption) by a paraphrase sung in Old French."

The present disc includes two masses for Christmastide. The first is the one to be celebrated at dawn, the second is for Christmas Day. The latter opens with Lux fulgebit, which is actually the introit to the Messe de minuit. Its text is mingled with that of Psalm 21 (22). Both masses comprise only the Propers, with the exception of the Messe du Jour, which includes two of the Ordinary chants: Kyrie and Gloria.

This is probably the first recording of these two masses. I don't know whether other parts of this Gradual have been recorded on disc. Anyway, this is an important recording, and it is quite interesting and musically rewarding to become acquainted with such age-old liturgical chants and practices. Vox Clamantis is a specialist in such repertoire, and its singing here is excellent.

That said, there are a few issues. First, the women and men sing alternately and together, and this is almost certainly not in line with the practice in the 13th century. Originally, Fontevraud was a monastery of men and women, but under pressure of the Church authorities, the community was soon segregated according to gender, after which the monks lived in separate priories, under the rule of the nuns. It is questionable whether they celebrated Mass together. From that angle it would have been preferable to split the repertoire between women and men. But then, the ensemble does not aim at a strict historical approach - the second issue. Jaan-Eik Tulve writes: "We have endeavoured to put together a programme that is not only of musicological value, but that can be heard like the 2021 Christmas celebrations at Fontevraud Abbey. With this in mind, we have added sounds from the world of today to the authentic musical material, while remaining in the same milieu: everything was recorded on the territory of the abbey. These eight hundred years of musical development have been a constant play with sound, and amid the din of the modern world, perhaps the only way to preserve our balance is to have a similar musical understanding of everyday sounds. This is why, along with the music of Eleanor's time, our CD contains the bells and birds of today, and even the sound of footsteps in the abbey courtyard." In my view, the resulting soundscape is a bit of artificial nonsense. I could do without it. In the first track, it takes quite some time before the music starts. The sound of the bells between the two masses is a nice addition, but is far too long (3'41"). Lastly, I wondered about the pronunciation, which seems more or less Italian. Today it is common practice in French liturgical music to use a French pronunciation. However, I do not exclude the possibility that this was a later development. I don't know, and I leave it there.

These issues should not withhold anyone who is interested in medieval liturgical music to add this disc to his collection. It is a nice and compelling alternative to many recordings of music for Christmastide that are released every year. This is a disc that stands out because of its unusual repertoire.

Johan van Veen (© 2023)

Relevant links:

Vox Clamantis

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