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Le Chant des Templiers - Music from the Manuscript du Saint Sépulcre de Jerusalem XII siècle, Chantilly
Antiphon: Crucem sanctam [8.21];
Responsorium: Benedicat nos dues [6.12];
Responsorium: Honor virtus et potestas [5.47];
Antiphon: Te Deum patrem ingenitum/magnificat [14.01];
Antiphon: Media vita in morte sumus/Nunc dimittis [10.35];
Kyrie Eleison [7.25]
Antiphon: Da Pacem domine/Psalm Fiat pax in virtute tua [7.17]
Antiphon: Salve Regina [14.43]
Ensemble Organum/Marcel Peres
rec. Royal Abbey, Fontrevraud, December 2005


Ensemble Organum has been making CDs for over twenty years. Their raison-d’être has centred on music as ancient as Roman times right up to the 14th and 15th centuries. If there is one particular era with which one might associate them it would be the twelfth century. They are currently based at the superb Romanesque Abbey church at Moissac in South-West France where they can research this period with financial support from the French Government. This disc was recorded where the ensemble was based until 2001 at the Cistercian foundation of Fontrevraud Abbey built about 1100 in the beautiful Loire Valley.

So often have French ensembles recorded early music at this spot that I decided to go and see it for myself, driving down last May (2006). I arrived exhausted on a hot afternoon to walk into one of the most inspiring and magnificent if somewhat austere of Romanesque church interiors I have ever seen. No wonder it is such a sought after venue, indeed on my arrival a group of singers were setting up for a recording session to take place after dark. And what an acoustic! I sang a few plainsong fragments, the sound swimming around the vaulting and the vast now empty spaces. What a totally inspiring locale in which to attempt to get close to this repertoire.

The highlights for an English visitor lie right in the centre of the nave: the tombs of English Kings Henry I, Richard I and their wives and my dizzy mind starting to say “What music did they hear when Fontrevraud was at its height, as a double abbey for both nuns and monks?”

However this disc is all about the music that might be associated with the ‘Knights Templar’. I’ve always thought of them as a warring group whose main aim was to attack the ‘Infidel’ and ultimately to claim back Jerusalem for Christians. But this is not really the story and on reading Marcel Peres’ fascinating essays I realize how wrong I was. To emphasise the more peace-loving aspect of their lives and their concern for the liturgy and general religious order the disc ends - at least the penultimate track does - with the Antiphon ‘Da pacem domine in diebus nostros’- ‘Give Peace in our time, O Lord’.

In 1118 the Templars were founded to guard the holy places in Jerusalem. They were based in the ancient ‘Temple of Solomon’ so that was how they forged their name: ‘The Knights of the Order of the Temple of Solomon’. At first there were just nine knights and they were assiduous at keeping the Latin liturgy in the basilica of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The order expanded after 1130 and their influence spread from the Holy land back into Europe. They retained brothers who were especially attached to the daily services and the liturgy and those who took on more material tasks.

The music here comes from a manuscript dated c.1175: “a breviary, written down when Parisian musical circles were just beginning to formulate square notation” (Peres). It is clearly a French manuscript and includes some unique pieces. We know it belonged to a certain Anselm, a monk connected with the Knights Templar’s liturgy at the Holy Sepulchre; a very remarkable manuscript in many ways. Some vocal ornamentation is indicated as is some sense of the rhythm - all explained in Peres’ notes.

How is this reflected in the performances? If you have heard any of the Ensemble Organum’s thirty discs made over a period of 25 years you will know that they have their very distinct sound and method of performance. It was originally inspired by Corsican singers and more generally vocal sounds associated with the near east and/or the Greek Orthodox tradition. This means that the group incorporates singers who have especially cultivated the use of the extreme register, I mean down to D and C below the bass clef. These they sustain as a drone often for some considerable period of time. Other vocal techniques include use of parallel organum, very ornamental solo lines above the drones, and plainsong which is performed not as a free line but moving at a regular pulse with rhythmic patterning sometimes even with a sense of triple time.

The final track, a long Salve Regina is a good example of their approach. The melody is often sung at the end of the day whilst the choir stands around the Lady Altar and statue; it makes an appropriate ending to this well filled CD. The well-known chant - you will recognize it although it has a few changes from the usual - is heard sung in a rhythmical way. Later the verses are performed soloistically with some considerable ornamentation over deep drones which last the entire fourteen minutes or so of the track. The style of singing is open and full-throated. This is a troped text,  that is words are inserted as verses which are not normally part of the hymn, such as the lines ‘The Alpha and Omega sent from on high a glorious solace’. The whole effect is deeply moving, spiritual and quite remarkable. 

Mercifully all texts are clearly laid out in the booklet. 

Listening to this disc is a fascinating, fulfilling and rewarding experience although you do need to change your musical ears, as it were. You need to listen not as an audience member but to let the music come to you in a spirit of total acceptance and absorption. Allow it to take its time; you can’t rush anything. The final emotion is a spiritual one, so open up the mind and ears and let the full experience sweep you along.

Gary Higginson


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