musica Dei donum
anon: La Passion de Clermont
Brice Duisit, voice, fiddle
concert: March 24, 2010, Zeist (Neth), Evangelische Broederkerk
Whereas these weeks ten thousands of people here in the Netherlands drink in Bach's St Matthew Passion - like every year - I went to a different kind of Passion. The French specialist in medieval music, Brice Duisit, sang and played the Passion de Clermont, a poem of 516 verses, dating from around 1100. It is named after the library of Ferrand-Clermont, where the manuscript is preserved.
The poem is remarkable in various ways. It is not - as one would perhaps expect - written in Latin, the language of the elite, but in a Roman language, in a dialect which is related to the langue d'oc. It is also about more than just the sufferings and death of Jesus. It begins with the entry of Jesus in Jerusalem and ends with Pentecost. The part of the poem which deals with the time after the resurrection was omitted during the concert, though.
There is more. The poem contains various moral reflections, something one expects rather in a Passion oratorio of the 18th century. There was a specific reason for this, as Brice Duisit wrote in the programme notes of his CD recording of this Passion (*). In the early 11th century the political situation in Europe was chaotic, the empire of Charlemagne had fallen apart. "Local lords and princes, swollen with pride as a result of their victories over the [Norman] invaders, assumed the titles of Count and King. In the name of a Public Authority they had inherited, they dispensed justice and governed over territories where the royal power had little or no influence. (...) [They] enjoyed huge incomes from ecclesiastical institutions at the head of which they succeeded in having themselves nominated as abbots. So, there they were, following the royal example, managing to their own advantage both the temporal and the spiritual.
As a result of all this, God, Christ and his Saints were ill served in the extreme. Lust, Simony, Violence and Greed were clearly identified as ills to be iradicated. Reform was essential and it came from Cluny in the middle of the tenth century. (...) Christ's Passion thereafter became the symbol of a Church which had risen again and the millennium announced the arrival at a new world, purged of its former vices."
The Passion de Clermont "lies at the heart of the century's preoccupations and bears within it all the ideology of the story."
Lastly, it is noticeable that the Passion de Clermont remains very faithful to the Gospels. There are no fancy stories as are often distorting the story of Jesus' birth.
The poem is clearly meant to be sung, or at least be recited as the manuscript contains neumes. There is basically just one melody which is to be repeated, but one didn't get the idea of continuous repetition because of the ornamentation and the inflections of tempo and dynamics in Brice Duisit's recitation. He accompanied himself at the fiddle. The melodies he played are probably based on improvisations, but as he has recorded this piece on disc I assume he has written down the melodies he used.
One would expect a long piece - the performance lasted about an hour - in an inaccessible language to be difficult to listen to at a concert. But thanks to Brice Duisit's communicative way of performing that was not the case. The ornamentation kept the performance interesting, and so was the emphasizing of elements in the text through intonation and the raising of the voice. This resulted in a most captivating concert which proved that music written about a thousand years ago is still able impress, even an audience of the 21st century.
(*) The disc is called 'La Passion de Clermont' and has been released on Alpha (520).
Johan van Veen (© 2010)