The early music vocal ensemble Euouae made their debut in the Old First Concerts series in August of 2010, preparing a “musical reproduction” of the celebration of a mass, drawing upon a fourteenth-century manuscript from Tournai, whose movements were probably by different composers. Last night they returned to Old First Church for their second Old First Concerts appearance, and again the program was structured around the celebration of the mass. This time, however, the movements of the Ordinary (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei) came from the integrated work of a single composer, Jacob Obrecht, who spent most of his time in Flanders in the early sixteenth century. The movements of the Proper (introit, gradual, alleluia, offertory, and communion) were sung in plainchant taken from three tenth-century manuscripts and recorded in the staffless neumes of St. Gall and Metz. Communion was followed by a conductus on the text “Beata viscera,” a hymn to the Virgin Mary, composed by Pérotin between the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. The entire service was then framed by two pieces by Obrecht’s contemporary Josquin des Prez, the Marian antiphon “Salve Regina” and the hymn “Gaude virgo mater Christi.”
The program thus provided a balance of chant, the early polyphony of Notre Dame, and the early Renaissance. For Pérotin, however, I should perhaps have said “very early polyphony,” since the conductus was performed as a hymn tune sung over a drone in fifths (performed on a small portative organ with hand-operated bellows) with each verse assigned to a different singer. This made for a marked contrast to the Renaissance polyphony that formed the heart of the program.
Most interesting, however, was the approach taken to performing plainchant. The neumes of the tenth-century sources were probably cheironomic. As my preview piece observed, this means that they served to encode hand gestures. Presumably the singers had a leader, who used these gestures to indicate not only the pace but also the direction of the melodic chant line. It is also likely that these chants originated without a leader; and the role of the leader emerged because group singing benefitted from “group memory.” In other words the leader’s gestures were primarily memory aids.
Director Steven Sven Olbash took this role of leader for the chant movements. While I do not know any of the sources he used, I put in a modest time learning about these neumes will working on my doctoral thesis. I know their basic lexical content, and I recognized many of the neumes as I watched Olbash’s leadership. The whole experience was like a time machine for me, although more to the past of my own studies than to the sanctuaries of the tenth century.
In writing up last year’s performance, I found that I had only one misgiving:
If I came away with any question, it concerned whether or not the singers were occasionally given to a level of expressiveness that was more suitable to the nineteenth century than the thirteenth. Still, that expressiveness certainly indicated a commitment to the performances of this music; and, while it may have been “historically” out of place, it was never disturbingly so.
Once again, I was aware of a bit more of that “nineteenth-century polish” than I am used to hearing in early music performances. Nevertheless, Olbash’s approach to leading the performance of chant is a fascinating attempt to put historical knowledge into practice; and from the audience side it made for the thoroughly absorbing listening experience.