musica Dei donum

Concert reviews

"The treasure house of the Notre Dame"
Discantus/Brigitte Lesne
concert: Nov 18, 2022, Utrecht, Pieterskerk

Pierre ABÉLARD (1079-1142): Da Marie tympanum; Epithalamica; O quanta qualia; anon: Alleluia Angelus domini; Custodi nos Domine; Ecce mundi gaudium; Hec dies leticie/Hec dies; Hodie Christus natus est; Kyrie Qui passurus advenisti; Plus bele/Quant revient/L'autrier/Flos filius; Propter veritatem; Rex Salomon fecit templum; Sanctificavit Dominus tabernaculum; Urbs beata Ierusalem; Veri floris sub figura; Virgo viget/Castrum pudicicie/Flos filius; Vite lucina Maria; LEONINUS (fl c1150-c1201): Benedicamus Domino; PEROTINUS (fl c1200): Beata viscera; Vide prophetie; PHILIPPE LE CHANCELIER (c1160/70-1236): Cum sit omnis caro; Petrus VENERABILIS (c1092/94-1156): Ave stella matutina; Orbis totus unda lotus

Cécile Banquey, Christel Boiron, Maud Haering, Lucie Jolivet, Brigitte Lesne, Caroline Magalhaes, Catherine Sergent, chant, handbells

Polyphony is one of the main compositional styles in Western music history. The impressive repertoire of the renaissance - in particular by representatives of the Franco-Flemish school - is frequently performed and recorded. The earliest specimens of polyphony, from the Middle Ages and the early renaissance, are far lesser known. It is this repertoire which is the core-business of the ensemble Discantus which gave a series of concerts in the Netherlands last week. With seven women's voices it concentrated on repertoire written around Notre Dame in Paris, whose importance resulted in the use of the term 'Notre Dame school'.

The programme followed the development from monodic chants to the technically advanced polyphony by the likes of Leoninus and Perotinus. Given the time of the year, several pieces for Christmastide were included, but the programme covered a wider variety of subjects from the ecclesiastical year. It started with a piece about Jerusalem, Urbs beata Jerusalem, not about the Jerusalem of the Old Testament, but the new Jerusalem whose coming is announced in Revelation, the last book of the Bible. In the Old Testament this city was the place of the temple, which replaced the tabernacle. These two were the subjects of the next two pieces, Sanctificavit Dominus tabernaculum and Rex Salomon fecit templum.

Then we heard the first Christmas piece, Hodie Christus natus est. It was followed by a piece about Mary, which in the programme was attributed to Peter Venerabilis. However, as far as I know he did not write any music, and it is probably the text that is from his pen. It attests to the growing importance of the veneration of Mary, and the next piece connected her to the birth of Jesus: Ecce mundi gaudium. This piece has an antiphonal structure, and each of the three stanzas ends with the refrain "Hail, royal virgin, full of God's grace", sung by the third group of singers. The alternation of (groups of) voices, which has often an exciting effect, fits the veneration of Mary perfectly, as the next piece showed: Vite lucina Maria: "Mary, light of life".

We are still at the time that no complete masses were written, only separate mass sections, such as the Kyrie Qui passurus advenisti. It is an example of tropes: new texts that are inserted and connected to a particular time of the ecclesiastical year. It was followed by another liturgical piece, an Alleluia, with verses from the biblical account of Jesus's resurrection. In this part of the programme we also heard some pieces by Pierre Abélard, a colourful figure who came into conflict with Bernard of Clairvaux. His Epithalamica is an interesting mixture of secular and sacred elements, which attests to the fact that in the Middle Ages there was no watershed between the two. This section ended with Benedicamus Domino by Leoninus, and here we heard that typical feature of the Notre Dame School: the upper voice sings long melismas on each syllable over an unchanged tenor - a highly intriguing technique, which has a mesmerizing effect.

The 'invention' of polyphony also opened the possibility to write pieces with different texts sung simultaneously. Two examples were included; Plus bele/Quant revient/L'autrier joer/Flos filius is another example of a mixture of the sacred and the secular. This section ended with two pieces by the other symbol of the Notre Dame School: Perotinus. After a piece by Philippe Le Chancelier, a French theologian and poet, the concert ended in solemn fashion with the anonymous Custodi nos Domine: "Save us, Lord, under the shadow of thy wings".

The repertoire performed by Discantus is quite fascinating, and not often performed. One needs the right venue, and the medieval Pieterskerk was the perfect space for this kind of music. In several items the singers moved in procession through the church. I could not figure out the reasons. They also make extensive use of handbells, apparently modern and in different pitches. They were used between pieces, probably to indicate the pitch - as an alternative to modern electronic devices - but also during pieces. There is pictorial evidence about their use in ancient times but it is not known exactly where and when they were used. It seems to me that Discantus does exaggerate a little in the use of handbells.

That did in no way compromise my admiration for what was presented. It was easy to notice that this repertoire is part of Discantus's core business. The seven singers with quite different timbres - which was clearly noticeable in solo episodes - were able to perform perfectly in ensemble. The excitement of this early polyphony came off impressively, and one could imagine how the audiences at the time were astonished by what they heard. It has been a long time since Discantus was in the Netherlands for concerts. I hope we don't have to wait that long again before they return.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

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