Student ensemble sings medieval German chants and Reformation chorales
Schola Musicorum, an early music ensemble at the University of Notre Dame, presented a concert of Gregorian chant and German chorales in the Reyes Family Organ Hall of DeBartolo Performing Arts Center on Tuesday, March 7. The concert, titled Abend-Musique (‘Evening Music’), was the group’s 58th concert since its founding and featured chants from Advent to Easter, all sung from transcribed copies of medieval German manuscripts.
Gregorian chant is an integral and ancient element of the Church’s liturgical expression. Though many of the melodies found in modern Roman Catholic chant books such as the Graduale Romanum can indeed be traced back to the Middle Ages and beyond, Gregorian chant has not always been as uniform as it is today. Much of this uniformity is the product of scholarly work by the Benedictine monks during the 19th century.
Before the collation and sorting of chant sources, Gregorian chant knew great regional variety. Though sharing the same fundamental melodies, copies of the same chant from England, France, and Germany would typically contain minor, yet characteristic melodic differences.
Dr. Alexander Blachly, Professor of Music, director of Schola Musicorum, and an expert on chant, explained this regional variety in an interview with the Rover: “What we find is that from country to country, there are some characteristic differences. And in the German-speaking countries, this difference is pronounced enough to be called a dialect of chant. The difference is fairly easily recognized once you’re aware of it.”
Remarking on how the German ‘dialect’ compares to the chant styles in other parts of Europe, Blachly said, “the Germans just held on to things that didn’t change. They were very resistant to change. And this makes me think that this German dialect is, in fact, very ancient.”
Blachly selected a series of chants in the German dialect and organized them around the Church calendar. One such chant, the Summi Triumphum is quite remarkable. Composed in the late 9th century by the monk Notker Balbulus, it is categorized as a sequence, a form invented by Notker himself. In the modern Roman Rite, the number of sequences has been greatly diminished; the Victimae Paschali Laudes of Easter and Veni, Sancte Spiritus of Pentecost—both of which are recited before the Alleluia and Gospel—may be familiar to readers. However, none of Notker’s sequences are retained in the Mass today.
Notker’s sequences feature imaginative poetry set to twisting, melismatic lines of chant. Summi Triumphum, a sequence for the Feast of the Ascension, tells the story of “Idithun,” a name from the Psalms interpreted by St. Augustine as “the one who leaps.” Notker takes the name as a type or prefigurement for Christ. The sequence says, “For Him the name Idithun is fitting … He made the leap from heaven into the virginal womb … He leapt into the terrible darkness of Phlegethon (i.e., Hell) … Finally, today He made his greatest leap, flying across the clouds and skies in winged path.”
In his interview with the Rover, Dr. Blachly read a translation of the full sequence, afterwards remarking, “Just fantastic poetry … his were the greatest [sequences].”
Interposed between the chants were seasonal chorales (i.e., hymns) in German written by authors such as Martin Luther. Much like modern Catholic hymns, these chorales provided devotional texts for congregational singing and came to be fundamental to the Lutheran liturgy. In addition, the texts provided a canvas for creative harmonization by the great composers of the German tradition such as J.S. Bach. The concert concluded with an organ postlude written by the German composer Dietrich Buxtehude and played by Joseph Balistreri, a graduate student in organ performance.
Luke Koenigsknecht, a senior majoring in computer engineering, regularly attends Schola Musicorum concerts. Though at first skeptical of the 9pm time slot during midterms, he recalled saying, “This is awesome!” after attending his first concert two years ago. Koenigsknecht also values the Schola Musicorum concerts for helping him learn about music. He told the Rover, “I don’t know much about music theory or history, but Professor Blachly always shares interesting facts and history about the chants they sing… You can oftentimes hear the development of music. They’ve previously done very old chants but also works from the 18th and 19th centuries.”
In addition to teaching and directing Schola Musicorum, Dr. Blachly directs the Notre Dame Chorale. Farther afield from South Bend, Dr. Blachly also serves as artistic director of Pomerium, a New York-based professional choral ensemble specializing in the performance of Renaissance polyphony once called “The standard by which early music vocal groups are measured” by the New York Times. Schola Musicorum will take the stage for another concert in the middle of the fall semester of 2023.
Paul Howard is a junior from Kinderhook, New York. As the director of the Schola Cantorum for the Children of Mary at Notre Dame, he loves Gregorian chant. As the grandson of a Lutheran pastor, he enjoys Lutheran chorales. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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