Niederaltaicher Scholaren - Choir
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A Selection Of Everyday Liturgical Music
Introduction to the Liturgy
The 150 psalms of the Old Testament have always been the prayer and hymnbook of the Church. Not only for the Eucharist - the central ritual celebration of the New Testament - but also for the prayers of the day (the so-called "Divine Office"), the psalms provided the main body of texts for song and prayer.
The Canticles were especially significant passages from the Old and New Testaments. These were hymn-like statements with a special place in the liturgy, particularly within individual offices (such as the Magnificat in Vespers).
What follows, for the sake of clarity, is a brief description of the order and content of an office. All offices, in principle, are built upon a common foundation. The minor offices - Prime, Terce, Sext, None, and Compline - have three psalms; the major offices - Lauds and Vespers - have five. (The structure of Matins is different and need not be considered here.) In the liturgy, every psalm is framed by an antiphon that deals with the particular feast or normal daily lesson. The psalm is followed by additional singing, consisting of a hymn (a text, not from the scriptures, but a strophic song set poetically by an individual author) and the so-called canticle. In Vespers this is the famous Magnificat, the song of praise to the Holy Virgin Mary on the occasion of her visit to her cousin Elizabeth. In Compline, the final office each night, it is the Nunc dimittis, the ancient Simeon's song of praise in the temple. The third well-known New Testament canticle, Benedictus Dominus Deus Israel - Zacharias's song of praise at the miraculous birth of John the Baptist - has its place in the Lauds, or even perhaps in the Sacrament of Death (more precisely, the Sacrament of Burial).
This portion of singing is followed, normally, by a sequence of versicles and orations, invocations and prayers. The conclusion is then usually formed by a Marian Antiphon, four of which are used during the religious seasons: the Alma redemptoris mater, Ave Regina, Regina coeli, and Salve Regina.
The major portion of the Divine Office consists, then, of psalms. Quite early on, the psalms came to be sung in logically derived patterns, or psalm tones, which corresponded fully to the sense of the psalm verse. The eight church modes were developed in accordance with this principle, the essential elements of which later remained in the execution of the polyphonic psalm. A psalm tone always had the same structure:
The performance of the polyphonic psalm holds closely to that of monodic psalmody - which was, so to speak, the Alpha and Omega of liturgical singing. Of course, from the 15th to the 17th century (the period covered by the music on this CD) the individual elements of this form were frequently treated in quite different ways. On the one hand, there was the rigid adherence to the example set by the monodic psalm - contrasting, on the other hand, with the variegated character of the ending of the psalm tones, in which we sense an underlying element of improvisation in the practices of those times. Both of these forces combined to create the best kind of polyphonic performance style.
All of these psalm settings have been written in historically well-known vocal styles. The works from the 15th century are written exclusively in the so-called fauxbourdon, which term derived from a performance style in England (where it was called "faburdon") and then was given new meaning on the continent in Dufay's time. The original two-voiced work, with the psalm tone on the top as the main voice, was augmented by a middle line - the fauxbourdon line - creating a three-voiced work. The beginning and the end of a phrase, distinguished by the sounds of fifths and octaves, were connected through a chain of 6/3 sonorities. This way of singing grew out of English sight-singing, whereby one could improvise polyphony on a standard piece from the psalm book. One also spoke of this practice as "supra librum canere". This was the preferred technique for the practice of every form of liturgical psalm singing. The Magnificat, the hymns, and the Te Deum were performed in this manner as well. The strong declamatory style of this richly-texted genre of psalms and canticles was a prominent feature of all the forms of the daily liturgy, and it could easily be accomodated to previous models. A clear reliance on the psalm tones of Gregorian chant is easily traceable and instructive at the same time.
From this three-voiced practice, particularly that of the 15th century, grew later the falsobordone, a four-voiced performance of the psalms. This homophonic practice flourished in the 16th century - precisely during the greatest period of classic vocal polyphony - and it lived on through local traditions into the 18th century.
The psalm models come from the most famous manuscripts of the 15th century: the Apel Codex (Leipzig), the Montecassino Ms. 871, and the Emmeram Codex (Regensburg). These are the sources for the works in fauxbourdon, the "Musician" Vespers and the final antiphon "Da pacem Domine". The sources for the four-voiced falsobordone works are: Thomas Stolzer's setting of Psalm 94, "Venite exsultemus" (Wittenberg: Rhaw, 1540); Paolo Cima's setting of Psalm 121, "Laetatus sum" (Milan: 1610); Psalm 129, "De profundis", from a Scottish tract, The Art of Music (London: British Library Add. Ms. 4911); Psalm 50, "Miserere mei Deus", from an extensive setting by an anonymous master in the Kremsmunster Stift.
The settings of the Marian Vespers series are by Tiburtio Massaino (Salzburg: 1587) and Sebastian Ertel (Munich: 1615). The Canticles come from the well-known complete editions of the works of Carlo Gesualdo, Orlando di Lasso, and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina.
Because the psalm settings on this CD are subject to the current constraints of a purely musical presentation per se, we have had to forego the more correct liturgical practice of framing them with antiphons. Only with the first three pieces, then, have we purposefully preserved the principle. We begin with Psalm 94, "Venite exsultemus Domino", as in the liturgy itself, where it serves as an "Invitatorium Psalm" for Matins. Significantly, this psalm is used for morning worship as an invitation to praise, and at devotions at the start of the first hour of prayer.
Psalm 121"Laetatus sum", with an antiphon from the Marian office (such as the Marian Vespers), is a song of pilgrimage; it expresses the pilgrim's joy upon seeing once more the Holy City on one of the three requisite visits to the shrine.
In Psalm 129, "De profundis", we have one of the seven psalms of penance, which we have coupled with an antiphon from the Sacrament of Burial. This famous psalm is the song of a sufferer's passionate yearning for absolution from the misery of sin.
In Psalm 50, "Miserere mei Deus" (attributed to David), the deeply guiltridden singer entreats God to grant him forgiveness and grace. Our example is taken from a great Miserere setting - characterized in the source as an Alternatim (Alternation) - with the unique feature of an unsingable line taken by a violin in addition to the six-voiced choir. Ornate middle and final cadences decorate this sonorous work, which can also be performed apart from the larger context of a polyphonically concertante structure. Other falsobordone works with violin, originating from Munich, are known to exist.
This Psalm, which has been set more often than any other in the history of music, could not have been omitted from our present selection.
The "Musician Vespers"
Following these introductory psalms we hear a set of special pieces, the "Laudate" Psalms, so named because each begins with the word "Laudate". In the Apel Codex these five psalms are all notated in the 4th tone. We wished, however, to present a sampling of different tones from various manuscripts; therefore, we have gathered together examples from a variety of important 15th-century sources.
This series of five Laudate psalms would never occur together as such in the actual liturgy. (Three such psalms come together only once in the entire liturgy.) For this reason one speaks of "Musician" Vespers, because, presumably, this series was assembled by musicians of the 15 th century in order to highlight the purely musical elements of "praisesinging" that interested them in certain psalms. From the 15th century until the time of Francesco Cavalli (a Monteverdi pupil in Venice), we encounter such remarkable psalm series, which cannot be explained liturgically. Our present psalms are set, respectively, in the 7th, 8th, 4th, 4th, and 5th tones.
The three great New Testament canticles are all taken from St. Luke: Magnificat (The Canticle or Song of Praise of the Blessed Virgin, Luke I: 46-55); Benedictus (The Song of Zacharias, Luke I: 68-79); and Nunc dimittis (The Song of Simeon, Luke II: 29-32). Each of these canticles has a special place in the hourly prayers. For this reason they have enjoyed particular favor among composers in all periods, and have been set in unique ways. This has been true from Dufay to Arvo Part. In addition to these great art-music settings, numerous pieces were clearly meant for daily use, and these needed only to fulfill their liturgical purpose. (We often speak casually, in a pejorative sense, of "liturgical Gebrauchsmusik".) For this purpose the falsobordone principle serves admirably. The particularly sonorous components of fauxbourdon and falsobordone are often integrated into art-music. Examples range from Dufay's many motets for state occasions to the psalms in Monteverdi's Marian Vespers. Excellent examples of such works by Carlo Gesualdo, Orlando di Lasso, and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina are included here. The normal practices of psalm interpretation are shown here in works that, while retaining the falsobordone principle, also reveal a complexity and enhancement of sonority that elevates them to the status of artworks in their own right. In Gesualdo's Benedictus, the psalmodic principle is even fully maintained throughout. By means of cadences, Gesualdo shows the important breathing pauses, normally marked with an asterisk (*), which divide the psalm verses in half (for which reason one speaks of a "Parallelismus membrorum" [lit: "parallelism of parts"]). Thus he continues to draw upon the chant model as an important principle of formal organization. This practice lasted through the Viennese Classical Period as a principle in the composition of canticles and, especially, for settings of the Miserere. Inevitably, Miserere texts were set directly in falso-bordone style - a tradition that has survived and blossomed ever since Allegri set his legendary Miserere for the Sistine Chapel Choir. (Today, incidentally, Allegri's original version for 5 to 9 voices is less well known and understood than the ornamented transcription of a later time.)
This series is the normal one of the Marian office, and serves all of the Marian feasts. Here each of the psalms is for double chorus, some even with a continuo line - which is unusual in the purely vocal falsobordone style. Apparently the "liturgical Gebrauchsmusik" was a favorite object of experimentation and innovation. Perhaps, however, the larger number of voices - that is, the double chorus - had also something to do with a festive nature. Indeed, the falsobordone style allowed a quick kind of declamation, but the larger number of voices and the double-choir setting produced, intentionally, a certain grand air. Here the making of great art-music was not so clearly the object, as much as was the execution of the work in the service of the liturgy. Furthermore, every musical master in history felt compelled to add his own representative examples - even if today many of these are unknown.
Our selection of psalm settings ends with the prayer for peace, "Da pacem Domine" (Lord, give us peace), whose antiphon and doxology are in fauxbourdon style.
As a rule, the psalms are sung antiphonally, i. e. alternating between two halves of a choir. This alternation can occur between the left and right sections of the choir stalls, or even between two dissimilar groups - such as a small schola and an entire congregation. But as soon as the multi-voiced psalm models came into use, one generally sang the even-numbered verses with a group (figuraliter), but the odd-numbered ones - starting with the first one sung by the cantor - with a single voice (choraliter).
In our sources (for example from the Montecassino Ms.), the psalms are all notated as if through-composed. In spite of this fact we have used the alternatim principle in one of them. In the shortest one of all, Psalm 116, "Laudate Dominum omnes gentes", we have allowed a natural simplicity to remain intact. Normally, however, this would only be valid for the selected verses. All of these psalm types would have been memorized on the spot by the singers - just as surely as in the case of the psalm tones of Gregorian chant. Everyone knew his tone; it was easily at his disposal and could be produced immediately when required. This competence was part of the general knowledge and ability of the practicing chorister. But since in a cathedral or a cloister usually only a certain set of basic polyphonic types for the eight church modes was available, this technique was, so to speak, only another method that the singer had to master. It created no difficulty whatsoever. This also explains the variety of local traditions, in which the most musical sections of the psalm tones - namely the middle and final cadences - were, in varying degrees, ornately decorated.
Finally, we might consider one more important historical fact, which might also shed some light on the present recording. Today we can hear music from the past at any time and in almost all possible places. Whatever misconceptions arise thereby can quickly be gathered from a single glance at a concert program, or from the list of contents on a record. To a large extent, the feeling for the context of the religious seasons has been lost. Let us ask ourselves when and where people heard great music in past centuries: almost exclusively in church! Often even a single polyphonic work - a motet or a movement from a mass - could elevate the daily worship into a feast-day celebration. Usually one could hear the compositions of contemporary masters only in certain cloisters or cathedrals. Only in these places could one find choirs and other ensembles that were equal to the difficulties presented by such music. Even more specifically, we can ask ourselves where one might actually have heard the music of Dufay, Josquin, Lasso, or Palestrina? (This question applies to other masters and other centuries as well.) Only at the great cathedrals! This means that almost all of our "historical music", in spite of its present ubiquity, represented a kind of "musica reservata" - accessible, as it was, only to a small group of people. And as to their true understanding of it - one might be wiser not even to inquire.
Other concerns arise in connection with the polyphonic practices we have described here - psalm singing in fauxbourdon and falsobordone. In many manuscripts we often find, between other compositions, single examples or even whole sets of psalms notated as a mnemonic procedure. In local traditions, many of these examples were also passed down orally, and, like the Gregorian psalm tones, were perpetuated by the singers only through memorization. Thus, for example, the court chapels in Munich and Torgau, Vienna or Stuttgart, had their own particular psalm tones and models. The same is true of the cloisters - say, Kremsmunster, or St. Emmeram in Regensburg.
We can conclude, then, that the relatively simple practice of psalm singing was really the most widely cultivated music of the common people - to be heard both on ordinary and special occasions - much more than the great art-music we now think of as representative of past ages.
This point is grounds enough, it would seem, for us just once to perform and consciously assimilate this everyday liturgical music, with its various forms of the declamatory principle described above - from monodic chant to the double choir polyphony, from purely vocal music to accompanied choral works. It must not remain merely another facet of the jewel we now know as "old music"!
- Konrad Ruhland (translation: 1994 David Montgomery)