Thursday, October 15, 2020

“Songs of Sacrifice” - A New Book on Mozarabic Chant

We are very grateful to Dr Aaron James for sharing with us this review of what looks to be a very interesting new book on Mozarabic (more properly, as you will read below, Old Hispanic) chant. Dr James is the Director of Music for the Toronto Oratory of St Philip Neri, and a Sessional Lecturer in Organ at the University of Toronto. He holds doctoral degrees in organ performance and historical musicology from the Eastman School of Music, and has published primarily on sacred polyphony of the mid-sixteenth century, with articles and reviews in Antiphon, Early Music, Journal of the Alamire Foundation, Sacred Music, and Oxford Bibliographies Online. The author of the book here reviewed, Dr Rebecca Maloy, is Professor of Musicology and the Director of the Center for Medieval and Early Modern Studies at the Univ. of Colorado.

There often seems to be a great gulf fixed between the worlds of liturgical chant performance and academic chant scholarship. Much current research in chant studies focuses on topics that have little apparent practical relevance to the present-day church musician: the paleographic differences between different neume scripts, the unique features of specific local chant traditions, and the quantitative analysis of whole groups of manuscripts using computerized databases. At a fundamental level, the concerns of chant performers and chant historians often seem to pull in opposite directions, with church musicians looking for ways to adapt past practices of chanting to present-day liturgies, and historians seeking to recover the particularity of the past by demonstrating precisely its strangeness and its difference from the present. Yet these impressions are often misleading. Rebecca Maloy’s Songs of Sacrifice: Chant, Identity, and Christian Formation in Early Medieval Iberia seems at first glance to be a highly specialized study of a single repertory of Old Hispanic chant, but it has many lessons to teach us about the language of chant, the role of liturgical singing, and the relationship between music and Scripture.
Maloy’s book is the result of many years of work on the Old Hispanic liturgy, much of it in collaboration with Emma Hornby of the University of Bristol. (The term “Old Hispanic” emphasizes the antiquity of the rite; it did not originate during the period of Moorish rule in Andalusian Spain, as the older term “Mozarabic” would suggest, but was already well established before the Moorish conquest in 711.) Like the Roman rite, the Old Hispanic liturgy has a large repertory of Mass and Office chants that survive in tenth- and eleventh-century manuscripts, but these chants can no longer be sung, since the notation used in the manuscripts does not specify exact pitch. Like the familiar St Gall and Laon manuscripts of Gregorian chant (whose neumes appear in the Graduale triplex), the Old Hispanic chant books only indicate the general shape of a melody: whether particular groups of notes go up or down. Unlike the chant of the Roman rite, however, this chant was never copied into a notation that specified the exact notes to be sung; just as the chant of the Roman rite was being copied into staff notation, the Old Hispanic rite was being abolished almost everywhere except for a few parishes in Toledo. The chant manuscripts thus remain as a tantalizing witness to a tradition of singing that will never be fully reconstructed.
A page from the León Antiphoner; León Cathedral Library, MS 8
Although we cannot sing the ancient melodies of the Old Hispanic chants, the chant books still have much to teach us. Computer software makes it easier than ever to search for similar groups of musical symbols in different chants, making it possible to identify “cadences” and common melodic gestures; Maloy identifies numerous types of standard melodic gestures, perhaps similar to the formulaic endings in Gregorian graduals and tracts. And because the music is matched to a Latin liturgical text, it’s possible to learn a great deal about how these chant texts were compiled from Scripture, and how the composers of Old Hispanic chant thought about music in relation to the words of the liturgy. Maloy’s study focuses on the sacrificium, the Old Hispanic equivalent of the offertory. Where Gregorian offertory texts are almost invariably drawn from the psalms, however, sacrificia texts are usually taken from other Old Testament books. For Maloy, this difference can be explained by the Old Hispanic emphasis on the typological relationship between Old and New Testament sacrifice, as set out by St Isidore of Seville:

“The Book of Ecclesiasticus is proof that the ancients customarily sang offertories, which are sung in honor of sacrifices, as the sacrificial victims were being offered. For so it says: “The priest stretched out his hand in libation and he poured the blood of the grape in offering, and at the foot of the altar he poured out a divine odor to the highest prince. Then the sons of Aaron exclaimed in trumpets of wrought metal, and they made a great sound to be heard in remembrance before God.” [Ecclus. 50, 16-18]. No differently even now, we rouse up songs in the sound of the trumpet, that is, in a proclamation of the voice, and likewise we manifestly jubilate in that true sacrifice by whose blood the world has been saved, declaiming praises to the Lord with heart and body.” (Isidore, De ecclesiasticis officiis, I.ix.)
St Isidore of Seville in the Aberdeen Bestiary; Aberdeen Univ. Library, MS 24
As Maloy shows, the precise passage from Ecclesiasticus cited by Isidore is the basis of two different sacrificia chants (Amplificare oblationem and Stans sacerdos). In fact, the quotidiano cycle of sacrificia (corresponding to the post-Epiphany and post-Pentecost period) consists entirely of Old Testament sacrificial types, one after another: Noah, Melchizedech, Isaac, Moses, Aaron, David, Gideon, and many unnamed sacerdotes. To heighten the typological connections between the sacrifices of the Old Testament and the sacrifice of the Mass, the creators of the Old Hispanic liturgy excerpted, paraphrased, and transformed the passages of Scripture they used (rather than simply quoting passages of Scripture verbatim, as in the typical Gregorian offertory). This process could result in some unusual typological combinations, as in the chant Omnis populus, which reinterpreted the eight-day festival of Hanukkah from 1 Maccabbees as an anticipation of the eight-day Octave of Easter:
Omnis populus adoraverunt Dominum, et benedixerunt ei qui prosperum fecit eis et obtulerunt oblationem et sacrificium laudis cum laetitia diebus octo, ornantes faciem templi coronis aureis, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia. Sanctificaverunt sacerdotes atria domus Domini, et intulerunt in templo eius candelabrum aureum, altare incensorum vasa sancta et panes, et obtulerunt sacrificium laudis super altare holocaustorum in citharis et canticis. ~ All the people adored the Lord, and they blessed him who made them prosper, and they offered an oblation and a sacrifice of praise with joy for eight days, adorning the front of the temple with gold crowns, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia. The priests sanctified the courts of the Lord’s house and they brought into his temple a gold candlestick and to the altar of incense sacred vessels and loaves, and they offered a sacrifice of praise over the altar of burnt offerings with citharas and canticles.
This chant text paraphrases a lengthy passage of Scripture (1 Macc. 4:55-57 and 48-51), leaving much out but also adding several crucial phrases that do not appear in the Old Testament original, notably the liturgically significant words sacrificium laudis (sacrifice of praise) and vasa sancta (sacred vessels), referring to the vessels holding the Eucharistic elements. The Old Hispanic authors’ deep familiarity with Scripture and with its typological interpretation allowed them a degree of freedom in Biblical paraphrase that is now surprising, but their adaptations always followed a coherent tradition of allegorical reading.
This recording of the “Mozarabic” Beatus vir is not based on the eleventh-century manuscripts but on the fifteenth-century books edited by Cisneros; the performance style reconstructed by Marcel Perès emphasizes the possible influence of Arabic chant style as well as links to Byzantine practice.
Even more fascinating than Maloy’s analyses of the Old Hispanic texts are her analyses of the music, which quietly demolish the commonly held scholarly assumption that “chant melodies neither express emotion nor respond to textual meaning” (p. 161). It is certainly true that chant melodies generally do not engage in “word painting,” lack obvious dramatic emotional expression, and are often highly conventionalized in their melodic form. Over the past two decades, however, Maloy and Emma Hornby have developed sophisticated ways of analyzing the musical rhetoric of chant, showing how the phrasing of the music can bring out the meaning of the text by accentuating important words and creating melodic points of arrival that correspond to the syntax of the text. In this way, chant could “[mold] the listeners’ understanding of the text, often drawing attention to images that were central to its typological meaning or liturgical role” (p. 162).
This approach to reading chant melodies “rhetorically,” already presented in Hornby and Maloy’s earlier books on Gregorian offertories and tracts, is especially well suited to the Old Hispanic repertory for two reasons. First, the Old Hispanic liturgical texts already demonstrate highly sophisticated transformations and paraphrases of Scripture: they edit and reorder their source material to fit the typological schema of the liturgy, leaving absolutely no doubt about which words in their text ought to be emphasized. Second, the Old Hispanic manuscripts do not specify exact pitch, so that the analyst cannot be distracted by “listening to the tune.” This encourages a kind of reading that is highly attuned to the most basic elements of text setting: which words are decorated with the greatest number of notes.
Maloy’s examples illustrate a number of different rhetorical techniques for bringing out the meaning of the text. Sometimes the chant composers simply choose the most important words and decorate them with extra notes: in the Advent chant Ecce ostendit, the crucial phrases that describe how the Lord will save his people (salvabo populum meum) are extended with long melismas that draw attention not only to individual words but to the entire phrases that contain them. In other cases, long chains of notes on a single syllable can create a sense of suspended time, momentarily setting aside textual meaning in favour of the wordless “jubilation” described by St Augustine. Thus, a long melisma can also serve to emphasize the word that comes afterwards, as in Easter Sunday’s Alleluia angelus, where “a 124-note cadential melisma divides ‘videte’ from ‘ubi positus erat Dominus,’ [‘see… where the Lord had lain’], exhorting listeners to ruminate on (‘see’) the empty tomb” (p. 169).
Maloy’s analyses require a patient reader willing to spend time examining her tables and illustrations, but the book yields great rewards – not just the knowledge it provides into a musical practice of the past, but the insight it yields into the role of a church musician. Present-day liturgical polemics often begin from the assumption that church music is valuable primarily for the “noise it makes”: the ability of music to move listeners to a preferred emotional state (reverence and contrition on the one hand, or uplift and exuberant joy on the other). One should not underrate the significance of such emotional experiences of the liturgy, but Maloy’s book reminds us of an even more fundamental role for church musicians as exegetes, who proclaim texts from Scripture in a way that is shaped by the Church’s tradition of Biblical interpretation. Christopher Page reminded us a decade ago that the terms “lector” and “cantor” are largely synonymous in the early centuries of the Church: the act of liturgical singing naturally implies a Biblical text, just as the act of reading Scripture implies a public declamation in song rather than spoken or silent reading. Songs of Sacrifice provides a detailed case study of how music and Biblical exegesis came together in one important liturgical tradition; it is highly recommended to all with an interest in liturgical chant.

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