Marcel Pérès offers program notes for Codex Calixtinus Concert


Ibi barbare gentes
omnium mundi climatum
catervatim occurrunt,
munera laudis Domino deferentes, Alleluia

Foreign nations hasten there
from all over the world,
bringing with them gifts of praise
to the Lord. Alleluia!
(First antiphon, Vespers of St James)

Since the ninth century the apostle St James has been the object of great faith and fervour in the Western Christian world. Even today people, more numerous each year and with a wide diversity of motivations, arrive from all over Europe to walk the Camino de Santiago, the Way of St James, leading to Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain. Yet the vocal music that once served as a support in the cult of St James is still little known, even to those involved with the pilgrimage, and it is therefore rarely performed today. Despite an otherwise extremely flourishing interest in the saint, the musical aspect of his cult is now relatively neglected. For that reason, in 1998, we embarked on a vast programme of research, publication and dissemination, aimed at creating a greater awareness of music of the twelfth century, when the position of St James of Compostela became fundamental in Western Christendom(1).

The origin and nature of the cult of St James are described in the Codex Calixtinus, a twelfth-century manuscript belonging to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. The Codex is in fact a compilation of five books. It takes its name from Pope Calixtus II (1119-1124), to whom was attributed, some thirty years after his death, the composition of the hagiographic part of the collection. This work was probably written at Vézelay towards the middle of the twelfth century and presented to Santiago de Compostela, which shared with the Burgundian monastery a strong community of spiritual thought. 21 April was fixed as the anniversary of the dedication of the two basilicas: the same date was chosen deliberately as a means of showing for all time how close the two monastic communities were in their early days, before the church of Santiago became a cathedral.

Book I of the Codex Calixtinus comprises a lectionary book of homilies for the office of matins, a breviary for the rest of the canonical hours and a missal for masses on the two great feast days dedicated to St James: 25 July, his main feast day, the Feast of the Passion of St. James, and 30 December, the Feast of the Translation. Book II contains twenty-two chapters describing various miracles that were performed through the power of St. James. Book III is very short and tells the story, in fanciful manner, of how James’s relics were translated from Jaffa to Compostela. Book IV gives an account of Charlemagne’s campaigns against the Moors in the Iberian peninsular, a text that was very popular in the Middle Ages and is now attributed to Turpin, archbishop of Rheims. Book V is the pilgrims’ guide, mentioning the various routes that may be taken, describing worship and discussing other matters to do with the church of Santiago de Compostela.

Book I contains most of the monodic musical sources, i.e. the antiphons and responses for the celebration of the liturgy on the feasts of St James: from the vigils of the previous day, and for the whole of the following week, to the octave on 1 August. Polyphony appears at the end of Book IV, where some of the responsories and a monodic alleluia from the first book are presented in versions for two voices.

The music of the Codex Calixtinus is a compilation of various works originating in important places along the pilgrimage route. It presents a striking picture of the musical styles that were then in use in those parts. The polyphonic pieces in the Codex Calixtinus are very close in style to the Aquitaine and Paris organum repertories, known to us mainly though thirteenth-century sources. This is what makes Congaudeant catholici so precious and so moving: it is the only vestige of Parisian polyphony dating from that time, and the only twelfth-century three-part work still in existence. The piece is attributed to Magister Albertus of Paris, no doubt the Albertus cantor who was active for some thirty years at St Stephen’s Cathedral (St Étienne, which preceded Notre Dame), and it is the only work by this composer that has come down to us. The liturgical part of the Codex Calixtinus offers contributions from persons of high rank: Pope Calixtus II himself, to whom most of the texts are attributed, but also the Patriarch of Jerusalem and the bishops of Benevento, Chartres and Soissons. All of them used their skill not only to compose music for the offices, but also to show the great importance to Christendom of the figure of St James, apostle of the West.

This concert presents a reconstruction of the first Vespers of 24 July, the first stage in the celebrations of the Feast of the Passion of St James. A lot has been written about Dum Pater familias. In the nineteenth century, when the Codex Calixtinus was rediscovered, there was talk of adopting it as the musical emblem of the cult of St James. However, its performance poses problems. It comes right at the end of the manuscript, added in haste in Aquitanian notation, while the rest of the manuscript is written with great care in Burgundian notation. The melody is non-diastematic. Each verse seems to express the same melody but with slight variants, which is unusual for a strophic song with refrain. We have chosen to consider the variations in each verse as an expression of details within the same melody. The melody must have been very well known, and as the scribe was pressed for time he did not bother to copy out exactly the same melody for each verse. With theses various considerations in mind, we have reconstructed the melody and its refrains. For there are in fact two refrains, which can be superposed, the one in Latin, ‘Primus ex apostolis’, and the other using words and expressions in various Germanic and Roman dialects, ‘Herru Sanctiagu, Got Sanctiagu … Deus aia nos’. Sung simultaneously, these two refrains give rise to polyphony. Dum pater familias could be a rallying hymn for pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela. It also has an instructive purpose, with each strophe dealing with one of the cases in the declension of Iacobus – a pleasant way of revising the basic workings of Latin!

The antiphons are written in the flamboyant style of the early decades of the twelfth century. Behind the structure of the musical discourse we can make out the compositional processes that were to be expressed in diametrically opposite ways in Cistercian chant and in the works of Hildegard von Bingen(2). Here the monody is developed with perfect mastery of the Latin prosody; the importance of the words – hence their meaning – is illustrated discreetly and effectively in the movement of the phrase. This music had good grounds to please the twelfth-century mind, which could see it as the final consummation of the religious discourse. A priori it was not necessary at that time to eradicate expressions inherited from the past; creativity meant expressing, developing and magnifying tradition.

Following a practice developed in Carolingian times, these five antiphons are each written in a different mode, the first in the first mode, the second in the second, and so on
until the fifth. This gives each antiphon its own particular atmosphere.

Then comes the responsory, sung in organum using the form that was usual in France in the twelfth century. The first words are sung by two voices. The values of the basic melody are extremely drawn out, with florid counterpoint unfolding above. After that the responsory continues in monody with the oratory delivery that was typical of a solemn office. Then the verse is sung in the same manner as the intonation. Time seems to be suspended so that the potentialities of each note of the initial melody and each word of the text may be explored and magnified by the countermelody.

The hymn Felix per omnes has two different melodies, one for the first verse and another for the second. For a long time these were believed to be alternating melodies. We discovered that may be superposed. Thus in the Codex Calixtinus we have two new polyphonic pieces – Felix per omnes and the Dum Pater refrain – whose existence has hitherto escaped its commentators.

The antiphon of the Magnificat is taken from the second vespers, which we chose in preference to that from the first simply because we wished to make it better known. Finally, the Benedicamus Domino and Deo gratias conclude these vespers, but the celebration continues with Congaudeant catholici, the earliest known three-part polyphonic piece, composed by Magister Albertus of Paris (see above). In this small marvel is concentrated all the joyful energy of celebration in song, as exemplified in the second strophe, ‘Clerus pulchis carminibus studeat’ (Let the cleric devote himself to fine songs and canticles).

This music is not easy to perform, even for specialists. One has to bear in mind information from various different fields: palaeography, prosody, vocal and ritual aesthetics, the material conditions of performance (positioning of the singers, within the church and in relation to each other) – and also have a clear vision of the different relationships that could be built up between the vocal gesture and what was written down. All of these are elements that, in the last analysis, can only be transmitted orally. Oral tradition died out almost completely among Catholics after the great reforms of the early twentieth century. A hundred years later, musicians seeking to revive this music still have difficulty in breaking free from the aesthetic canons established at that time, which brought about a radical change in the rhythmic and vocal approach to church singing. Where rhythm is concerned it was decreed (completely denying the evidence of history and tradition) that plainchant could not have a regular beat, the latter being a sign of materiality, which was incompatible with the spiritual nature of such music. Formulated over a century ago, this sophism is still rife among performers of Gregorian chant today. As for the voices, all the vocal gestures that are used to express the interpreter’s vitality – timbre, energy in the phonation, ornamentation (to bring out the dynamism of the phrase) – were deliberately dismissed from religious singing, suspected of expressing a non-spiritual materiality, conveying the singers’ possible pride. Even today most musicians who perform medieval music are still bound to those conceptions, without realising their origin.(3) Our work consisted in reviving the living traditions of religious singing with the aim of establishing the broken link between ‘musical archaeology’ (i.e. what we know from research) and the act of singing as it still exists, in Western Europe, in a few isolated places generally little known to the media. For singing is much more than just a combination of words and music. It is above all an act in which sound becomes an expression of memory – the memory of an age-old gesture that has been handed down for centuries.

— Marcel Pérès (translation by Mary Pardoe)

1) Publication of the offices of St James in original notation, part of the CIRMA’s Scriptorium programme. Two volumes: I, first and third Vespers and Lauds; II, the Masses;

2) cf. our recordings: Cistercian chant (12th century), HMC 901392; Hildegard von Bingen (12th century), Lauds of St Ursula, HMC 901626.

3) For a fuller discussion of these questions see Marcel Pérès and Jacques Cheyronnaud, Les voix du Plain-chant (Paris, Desclée de Brouwer; series ‘texte et voix’, 2001).

4) cf. Marcel Pérès and Xavier Lacavalerie, Le chant de la mémoire, Ensemble Organum 1982-2002 (Paris, Desclée de Brouwer; series ‘texte et voix’, 2002).

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Portland – 8pm, Friday, November 16th, St. Mary’s Cathedral
Seattle – 8pm, Saturday, November 17th, St. James Cathedral