Christo psallat, rondellus [2:04]
Deus in adiutorium, invitatory [1:06]
Surrexit Christus, antiphon - Dixit Dominus, Psalm 109 [3:27]
Hec est dies letitie, motet [0:59]
Hec dies, gradual [organum] [9:45]
Dat superis, motet [0:54]
Epulemur, alleluia - Exilium, motet [organum] [5:39]
Alleluia. Agnus redemit, sequence [1:54]
Et respicientes, antiphon - Magnificat [3:48]
Deus qui hodierna, oratio [1:02]
Deo confitemini, motet [0:48]
Christus resurgens, responsory - Dicant, organum [5:52]
Surrexit Dominus, verse - Presta quesumus, oratio [1:34]
Hec est dies, conductus [5:58]
Ego sum alpha et ?, antiphon [3:02]
Gavisi sunt, verse - Presta quesumus, oratio [1:31]
Resurgente Domino, conductus [3:59]
Sedit angelus, responsory - Crucifixum, organum [10:17]
Noli flere, verse - Presta quesumus, oratio [1:38]
Laudes referat, motet [0:43]
Benedicamus Domino, benediction [organum] [3:02]
Vetus purgans, rondellus [2:17]
Musically speaking the 13th century was an exciting time. Composers were experimenting with polyphony, and in particular visitors to the Notre Dame in Paris could hear music they had never heard before. This kind of music still has the power to send audiences into raptures. I experienced that myself many years ago, when music by Pérotin and Léonin was sung by the Hilliard Ensemble in the Holland Festival of Early Music. Those composers rank among the greatest masters of late-medieval sacred music, and are the main representatives of what has been called the 'Notre Dame school'. The present disc of the Ensemble Grégorien of present-day Notre Dame is devoted to repertoire written for or performed at this cathedral in the 13th century.
The programme brings a kind of reconstruction of Vespers and Procession as it could have taken place on Easter Sunday. Easter was still the most important feast in the ecclesiastical year, and not yet overshadowed by Christmas. The first part contains music for Vespers, beginning with the invitatory Deus in adiutorium, which is followed by one of the Vesper psalms, Dixit Dominus, preceded and followed by the antiphon Surrexit Christus. It is the only psalm and that means that this isn't a complete reconstruction. It just gives some idea of what the liturgy on this Sunday looked like. Next we hear a motet, a gradual, another motet, an alleluia, a sequence, the Magnificat, again preceded and followed by an antiphon, and the Vespers close with the oratio.
The second part is devoted to music for the procession. "What we have reconstructed here is the XIIIth century Parisian version of the procession, which made three stops. At each stop, an ornate response or antiphon was sung, followed by a verse and a prayer", Sylvain Dieudonné writes in the booklet. The procession ends with a motet and the benediction.
The liturgical ceremony as performed here consists of plainchant and polyphonic pieces, which are all anonymous. Polyphony appears in three forms. The first is the organum which is historically most closely associated with the Notre Dame school. It is based upon a plainchant melody; polyphonic and plainchant passages alternate. In the polyphonic episodes one voice sings the plainchant melody, called the tenor, over which one or two - sporadically even three - other voices sing highly ornamented parts. These are often so much elaborated that one syllable can easily take more than one minute. The organum Crucifixum, for instance, has only 13 words, but the performance lasts more than 9 minutes without any text repetition. It is an example of the virtuosity of the Notre Dame school which reflects the great skills of the singers who were at the cathedral's service. The second form is the conductus, a type of sacred but non-liturgical piece for one or more voices, which is not based on plainchant. In comparison to the organum it is less complicated, also due to its more regular rhythm. Even so, a piece like Hec es dies (track 14), with its many long melismas, is by no means easy. The third form is that of the motet, which was originally a trope in a liturgical chant and gradually developed into an independent piece.
The programme begins and ends with a rondellus, a vocal piece with refrain and episodes for solo and 'choir'. "They certainly accompanied many a circle-dance (or round) to the enjoyment of the clerics, and the vehemently-voiced disapproval of the church authorities", according to Dieudonné. In these two pieces the singers are supported by percussion.
This repertoire fascinated contemporaries and made the Notre Dame school famous. If performed well this music can be extremely exciting, in particular the organa with their obstinate rhythms and virtuosic ornamentation. And the music on this disc is performed well. The singing is miles away from the fluent British style of the Hilliard Ensemble, but probably closer to how music was sung at the time. The historical pronunciation of Latin contributes to these performances making the impression of being very 'authentic'. They also show that music before the baroque era certainly was not devoid of expression. The performances underline the exaltation which characterizes some of the music on this disc, and which reflects the importance of Easter in the Christian church of the 13th century.
The booklet contains liner-notes and translations of the lyrics in French and English. The glossary is most helpful to an understanding of the various forms which appear on the programme. In every respect this disc is a winner.
Johan van Veen