Recorded: June-July, 1990 - Holy Family Parish Church, Zugliget, Budapest
Soloists: Mezei Janos, Soos Andras, Keringer Laszlo, Dobszay Agnes, Fodor Ildiko, Eder Ivan, Horvath Tamas, Heja Benedek
Gregorian Chant According to the Aquitaine Tradition
Gregorian chant, which was imposed throughout Europe by Charlemagne, was at first transmitted by oral tradition. It was only towards the end of the 9th century that the first systems of musical notation became widely used. These primitive systems of notation had neither staves nor clefs, but merely accents and dots - the first "neumes" - to remind the choristers not only of the ascending or descending character of the melodic line, but especially of the agogic nuances of certain groups of notes. In the Danube regions this non-diastematic" notation persisted for a long time, in some places into the middle of the Middle Ages, while in other regions of Europe the four-line stave was adopted, with alphabetic symbols indicating the place of the semitone.
In the ancient kingdom of Aquitaine in southwestern France, the region of the langue d'oil and Provencal, musical notation developed in a different direction : each note was represented by a dot disposed in tiers around a central line traced with a stylus, as if on an imaginary stave. Thus, from the 11th century on the melodies could be read at sight. The finest example of this system of very precise notation is provided by the Gradual of the monastery of Saint Yrieix in the Limousin, from which the chants recorded here have been taken. In this large folio-size volume, which was placed on a lectern, the Gregorian melodies were noted in such a way that four or five singers could easily read from a distance the melodic lines of the chants noted in superposed dots, written with great precision on either side of a line drawn with a stylus.
The Gradual of Saint Yrieix contains an extremely rich repertory : the chants for the Proper of the Mass, i.e. the chants for the liturgical feasts for the whole year, as well as the chants for the Ordinary, repeated in the daily singing of the Mass, and, on the last pages of the book, the tropes and additions of the 10th and 11th centuries, intended to gloss or comment on the sung texts. The chants on this recording have been taken from those for two important Feasts of the liturgical year : the Feast of the birth of Saint John the Baptist at the summer solstice, and that of Christ at the winter solstice.
The Birth of Saint John the Baptist
In the Priory of Saint Yrieix near Limoges, the office of the Mass for 24 June began with a trope introducing the Introit which is imitated from that for Easter. The Introit, with a text taken from Isaiah, is written in the second tone (plagal D). The peculiarity of this melody, which begins with a magnificent outburst, is that it gradually becomes more interior by the progressive deepening of the finishing notes, from the A to the concluding tonic C in acu-tum. In the Saint Yrieix Gradual the Psalm verse of the Introit does not come from the Psalter, but, like the antiphon, from the Prophet Isaiah.
The Gradual, generally consisting of two verses of a Psalm, is also taken from Isaiah, and is particularly pertinent to the last of the prophets, the Prodromos (Precursor), as he is called in the Byzantine liturgy. The melody is composed in the mode of F. The words at the end, "...the Lord said unto me :" re-introduce the initial respond, according to usage. The verse of the Alleluia, Tu puer propheta, comes from the Canticle of Zachary, the father of John the Baptist, which the deacon later reads in Gospel. The melody has the same melodic cast as the Alleluia from the Feast of the Nativity, Dies sancticatus. This is by no means accidental but a musical link between the Feasts of the Nativity of the Precursor and of the Messiah. In fact, words in prose - sequences called prosules in France - on the Alleluia melody were often interpolated in the Middle Ages, particularly in Aquitaine.
Since at least the 5th century, both in the East and in the West, a melismatic piece was sung after the Gospel, to accompany the procession of the Offertory, the Offertory chant (offertorium or offerenda). The Offertory, Justus ut palma, chosen for John the Baptist, later became the Offertory of the confessors. This very beautiful composition in the mode of E inspired a prosule beginning on Florebit in the first melisma, as if to gloss the Biblical text.
During the communion of the faithful the choir performed an antiphon with psalmody. At Saint Yrieix this antiphon was preceded by an introductory trope which, in a way, indicated the context from which the piece was taken : "This one is truly the precursor of whom his father prophesied, exclaiming, And thou, child, etc." The introductory trope continues both textually and musically with an interpolated trope, which means that the incidental clauses of the liturgical piece are in a way commented upon by the trope. The Psalm that follows the Communion antiphon is not taken from a Psalm, according to custom, but from a verse of the Canticle of Zachary which had provided the text for the Communion antiphon. As in many other Feasts, we will notice the complete similarity of the Communion text and that of the Alleluia ; moreover, in this case the melody of the two pieces is composed in the same mode of D.
For the octave of a major Feast it was customary to repeat the same pieces that were used on the day itself, varying only the verse of the Alleluia. The Gradual of Saint Yrieix contains five alternative verses with this in view. Among them the verse, Ne timeas, was used only in Aquitaine.
The Nativity of Jesus Christ
Since the 4th century the birth of the Messiah was, even more than that of his Precursor, celebrated with unaccustomed splendour in the liturgies of the West. In Eastern liturgies the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus Christ, at first fixed on 6 January at the same time as his baptism by John the Baptist, was celebrated on 25 December from the 5th century, as in the Latin liturgies of the West. During the procession preceding the Christmas Mass in Aquitaine and in the Cluniac monasteries an antiphon taken from a sermon attributed to St. Augustine was sung, celebrating in admiring terms the humble life of the Christ child. This non-scriptural chant was probably composed in the churches of Gaul.
The introductory chant to the Mass is itself preceded by an introductory trope consisting of a dialogue between the angel of the Nativity and the shepherds. This dialogue-trope was obviously imitated from the Easter dialogue between the angel of the Resurrection and the holy women. Both of them are the origins of the medieval liturgical play, the Shepherds' Play and the Visitatio sepulchri. The Introit, Puer natus est, composed in the brilliant mode of G, is one of the masterpieces of Gregorian chant. On the final Amen a melisma of fifty notes develops, the famous jubilus, improvised by the singers in other regions, but here fixed once and for all.
The Gradual, taken from Psalm 95, sees in the birth of Christ the salvation of the world. We will notice that the first two syllables of the word salutare have been made up from the same melodic formula in order to give it greater emphasis. The Alleluia, Dies sanctificatus, does not use a Biblical text but one that is probably a translation of the Byzantine liturgy, characterized by the use of invitatory formulas, like "come ye Gentiles, and adore the Lord". This text was composed upon the same melodic formulas as the Alleluia for Saint John the Baptist, Tu puer. At one time this first verse was followed by a second, Ortus est, sung in the same mode as the first. In the Saint Yrieix Gradual a different copyist added a troped Benedicamus Domino in the margin, destined to conclude either the office of Terce which precedes the Mass, or of second Vespers. This type of trope, which was very widespread in the 12th century, was generally entrusted to the children.
After the Gospel chant, taken from the Prologue of Saint John and after the Credo, the Offertory, Tui sunt caeli was sung ; composed in the mode of E, it was very restrained in compass. At Saint Yrieix this beautiful piece was preceded by an introductory trope, Qui es sine principio. Until the 12th century the Offertory chant was followed by two or three highly ornate verses reserved for virtuosic singers ; the second verse only was, according to the custom of the period, followed by a prose set to a syllabic melody, Dextera Dei.
For the Feast of Christmas the Aquitainian manuscripts preserved an ancient piece from the Gallican liturgy, the antiphon of the breaking of the Host, or Confractorium, which is still sung in the Milanese rite of the Ambrosian Mass at the moment when the celebrant priest breaks the Host before communion. This Gallican antiphon was replaced in the 8th century under the pontificate of Pope Sergius by the Agnus Dei.
During the communion of the faithful the singers intone the trope that introduces the Communion antiphon the text of which is a repetition of that of the Gradual. Here again the melody emphasizes the word salutare, the act of divine redemption begun at Christmas. On 1 January, the octave of Christmas, the Alleluia verse, Multifarie, is sung, taken from the beginning of the Epistle of Saint Paul to the Hebrewes. This admirable melody in the mode of G, which was very widely used in Aquitaine and in Italy, does not have all the features of other Gregorian pieces in the same mode : among other characteristics, it contains a fall of a sixth, an extremely rare interval in the Gregorian repertory. Finally, it is troped, like most of the festive Alleluias of the Aquitaine repertory. The liturgical chants for Christmas and New Year's Day conclude with a versified chanson a refrain, which also comes from the Aquitainian repertory. This charming two-part cantio is an invitation to celebrate with joy the year that has just begun.
- Michel Huglo