Music Of The Late Middle Ages
Chants From The Codex 314 From The Library Of Engelberg Monastery
Recorded 3-6 January 1986 at Ottmarsheim Church, Alsace.
Schola Cantorum Basiliensis
Direction: Dominique Vellard And Wulf Arlt
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The records for 1365 in the annals of the Benedictine Monastery at Engelberg speak of the Black Death as the greatest upheaval of the mid-fourteenth century. It had certainly left a deep mark on the remote Swiss valley at the foot of the Titlis. Nevertheless, the particular interest in poetry and music, manifest at an early stage in manuscripts from this twelfth-century monastery, was maintained. Thus, in the years around 1372 no less than four monks of the small community resident in the monastery at the time were working together on such a collection. Work on this collection was later resumed in the period around 1400 by the Abbot Walter Mirer; it is now preserved in Codex 314 of the Engelberg Monastery Library.
This collection by the Engelberg monks offers a unique insight into the nature and diversity of the music of the German-speaking world at that time. It includes some German texts, and through its variety of Latin song shows how the Mass was expanded with monophonic and polyphonic music on festive occasions.
At first sight, many aspects of this repertoire appear somewhat conservative, particularly in comparison with the modern art then practised in fourteenth-century France and Italy. Older practices did in fact survive in the monasteries of the Austrian and South-German realms. These include a simple type of polyphony which did not require notation and is found in written form only in such late medieval sources as this codex. At the same time, however, new techniques were adopted, and new and old elements were combined in a distinctive way. The result is that a wealth of art-forms and music, as exemplified for the first time in the Engelberg songs, has survived.
The themes of the texts relate to the important feast-days of the church year, including the dedication day and the feastday of St. Benedict, the founder of the order. Most frequently, however, they turn to the subject of Mary, the Virgin Mother of God. One of the principal characteristics of the music lies in the constantly varied manner in which the words and message of the text come to the fore: whether by wideranging, melismatic settings in the style of the late medieval Alleluia melodies as in the strophic song; by the combination of monophonic and polyphonic sections, as in the two-part pieces; or by the simultaneous performance of two texts as in the highly skilful art-form of the motet.
A vivid example of the orientation towards text presentation is provided by the first motet. With regard to the musical form it shows the features of a strophic song with a varied upper part. In the lower part, the exhortation O Johannes, doce nos (O Johannes, teach us) is repeated five times in regularly constructed sections, both in the music and in the text. The substantially longer text of the upper part, Inter natos mulierum, elaborates on this statement and incorporates it into a liturgical context by the use of the liturgical closing formula 'for ever and ever, Amen'. Admittedly, it is much freer and is not systematically structured in strophic form. Just as the text in the upper voice takes that of the lower voice as its point of departure, so too does the simple and memorable melody of the lower part establish the musical framework for the freer declamation of the upper part according to the construction of the text. The piece is structured in such a way that both texts can, to a considerable degree, be followed simultaneously.
In other songs the text is rendered by recourse to an old liturgico-musical principle: that of a 'troped' interpolation involving different musical procedures. Thus, the messages of the two antiphons of the High Middle Ages, Media vita and Alma redemptoris mater, are assimilated within settings where choral sections alternate with solo strophes: in Media vita with an impressive lament Ach homo perpende, and in Alma redemptoris mater with a song concerning the miracle of the Immaculate Conception. A further form of expansion is found in the 'farced' reading for dedication day. Here, one soloist performs the basic text, while a second introduces and interrupts it intermittently with short sections. The rapid exchange and the contrasting musical setting - from the reciting style in the text of the reading to the more complex structure of the interpolated material - underline the dramatic character of the expansion. An analogous effect is achieved in a second reading where a single text is enacted through the medium of music: here (after an introduction) the sections are performed by three singers, the first commencing in a low register, the second voice entering at a still higher register, after which all three voices finally come together.
Other forms of alternation between soloists and choir are found in the two Alleluias. It is clear from the linguistic style of the solo sung 'verses' in the rhymed-strophes that these compositions date from the late Middle Ages. The same is true of the Alleluia sequence for St. Benedict. Here, a traditional art-form is used, in which two similarly constructed sections of text are set to the same melody, and both text and music are cast in strophic form. Finally, there is an echo of the dance-song and the repetitive form of the secular rondeau in a short rondellus for Pentecost, where the soloist and choir perform different texts to the two melodic sections of the refrain (the new texts of the solo part are represented in small letters, thus: ABaAabaAB).
A number of these pieces are found in manuscripts dating from one to two hundred years earlier, most frequently in French sources (as, for instance, the 'farced' reading, a repertoire which was adopted in the German-speaking areas. Others, such as the motets, the interpolation Marie virginis fecundat viscera in the Marian antiphon, and the short rondellus obviously originate in the South-German/Alemannic area. Some of the pieces within this repertoire are transmitted via Engelberg alone. The songs in the collection are unmistakedly stamped with the characteristic sound of the music of the late Middle Ages, and particularly of this region. This is especially true of the monophonic O Maria, rubens rosa mater, designated as a 'conductus' and thus to be used in connection with liturgical readings, and of Unicomis captivatur, a further song of this genre, in which certain palaeographic features of the notation of the second voice reflect its origins in a notationless polyphonic practice. The pictorial language used in this latter text derives from an old tradition, in which the manifestations of nature are to be understood in the context of Christian symbolism and are to be interpreted in the light of the Christian theology of the salvation of mankind.
A distinctive feature of this collection is the occurrence of German texts, for which the Engelberg codes represents one of the earliest sources. Vroet uch alle geloubigu lute mit schalle, which was written down c.1372, is preserved only in this source. It is a free adaption of Letabundus exultet fidelis chorus, an especially successful eleventh-century French sequence. The other two German texts reflect Walter Mirer's particular interest in sacred German song. From 1377 on he worked as a parish priest in Kustnacht am Rigi, on behalf of the monastery. Here, at a remarkably early date, he was already familiar with German translations of Latin songs, attributed to his contemporary, the 'Monk of Salzburg4. Among these are a German version of the hymn Pangue lingua gloriosa: Lobt alle zungen. Shortly after his election as Abbot of Engelberg (1398-1420) Mirer notated one of the most beautiful of the new songs dedicated to the Blessed Virgin. Hertz und sinne muege dich. That old and new are so convincingly integrated in this repertoire is largely due to the traditional domain of the ecclesiastical modes in the setting of the texts. The selection concludes with the song Congaudeat turba fidelium whose monophonic melody dates back to c.1100. As was the case in France at that time, so too in Engelberg; it concluded one of the Daily Offices, but in the latter it does so in a two-part formulation, and in the characteristic style of the music of the Germanic world in the late Middle Ages.
translation: Mary O'Neill