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HERMANNUS CONTRACTUS (1013 - 1054): "The Miracle of the Century"

Ensemble Ordo Virtutum
Dir: Stefan Johannes Morent

rec: Oct 20 - 25, 2012, Reichenau, St. Peter und Paul
Raumklang - RK 3205 (© 2013) (78'40")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover & track-list

Historia Sanctae Afrae; Historia Sancti Magni Confessoris; Historia Sancti Wolfgangi Episcopi Ratisbonensis

Jörg Deutschewitz, Raitis Grigalis, Hubert Mayer, Jörg Rieger, Mathias Spoery, Alexander Yudenkov, chant; Stefan Johannes Morent, chant, symphonia, portative; Susanne Ansorg, fiddle

The island Reichenau is situated in the Bodensee in southern Germany. Today it consists of three villages, all of which have a medieval abbey. In the Middle Ages it was dominated by a monastery which was founded in the 8th century and which - together with St. Gallen - was a centre of science and art, and was particularly famous for its library. Unfortunately the manuscripts containing the musical heritage of the monastery were dispersed. Only fairly recently it has been possible to reconstruct some of its musical culture, and Stefan Johannes Morent has presented the results through three recordings with his ensemble Ordo Virtutum. The first was "Insula felix - Medieval music from Reichenau, the island monastery", which was followed by a disc devoted to Notker Balbulus, "Sequences, tropes & Gregorian chants from St Gall Abbey".

Obviously plainchant was an important part of the repertoire sung in the monastery. But several of the monks also composed music themselves, although it is not always possible to establish exactly the authorship of a chant. Some attributions seem based on myths woven around some of the most famous inhabitants of the monastery. One of them is Hermannus Contractus, or Herman the Cripple, whose name refers to his severe physical disability. He was born in 1013 and entered Reichenau Abbey at the age of seven. The knowledge of his abilities in science and music is mainly based on the biography of his pupil Berthold. It cannot be excluded that he may have exaggerated once in a while and made his teacher appear more brilliant than he may really have been. Herman himself was educated in music, among other subjects, by the abbot, Bern of Reichenau. Some of the latter's works appear on the disc "Insula felix" which also includes pieces by Hermannus Contractus.

Berthold refers to Herman composing three offices, for the saints Afra, Wolfgang and Magnus. Saint Afra was a martyr who died in 304 and was especially venerated in Augsburg. The best-known account of her life dates from the 8th century. Wolfgang was a former pupil of the convent school of Reichenau and later Bishop of Regensburg. He was canonized in 1052 by Pope Leo IX. St Magnus was a missionary in southern Germany and is venerated as the founder of St. Mang's Abbey in Füssen.

Herman's compositions are based on traditional plainchant, but have a wider compass. "In addition, his compositions are determined to an extreme extent by the framework notes - fundamental-fifth-octave - along which the melodies develop. This corresponds in turn to his music theory, which especially emphasizes the fundamental consonances of the fourth (3:4), fifth (2:3), and octave (1:2), and thus reflects the image of divine-heavenly order on earth that Herman, as a brilliant mathematician and astronomer, attempted to investigate" (Morent).

On this disc we hear fragments from three offices. The chants focus on moments from the life and the sufferings of the three respective saints. Sensibly they are embedded here in their liturgical context. The inclusion of plainchant also allows to compare these with the compositions by Herman. All pieces are monophonic, mostly sung by a solo voice, with the versus sung by the choir. Sometimes a solo voice is supported by fiddle, symphonia and portative organ; some pieces are performed instrumentally.

The performances are outstanding, like in the previous recordings. The text is always clearly audible; Latin is pronounced in the German manner. The liner-notes could have been more detailed. This is a highly interesting release, and lovers of medieval and/or liturgical music should add it to their collection.

Johan van Veen (© 2014)

Relevant links:

Ordo Virtutum

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