Saturday, April 06, 2024

Blessed Notker the Stammerer

Today is the last day on which the sequence Victimae Paschali Laudes is sung at Mass this year, and also the feast day of its long-reputed author, Blessed Notker, known as “Balbulus – the Stammerer” in Latin, who died on this day at the age of about 72, in the year 912.

He was born to a wealthy family around the year 840, near the abbey of Saint Gall in Switzerland, where he was educated from early childhood. This was one of the greatest centers of learning and culture in Europe, and to this day, houses an important collection of manuscripts which includes some of the oldest witnesses to the tradition of Gregorian chant. Notker became a great scholar and musician, while also serving the abbey as librarian and guest master, and was offered the abbacy of several other houses, but refused all such preferments. He is generally believed to be the author of a collection of anecdotes known as the Gesta Caroli Magni, one of the earliest sources of information on the life of Charlemagne, a poetic biography of his abbey’s founder, and a martyrology, inter alia.

A portrait of Notker in a manuscript of the 10th century; public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.
But his most important achievement is the Liber Hymnorum, a collection of sequences, for the sake of which he was long believed to be the inventor of the genre, and the author of some of its most famous examples, including the Victimae Paschali. It is now known from Notker’s own testimony that this invention was actually based on an antiphonary brought to San Gallen by a monk of the abbey of Jumièges in France (about 12 miles west of Rouen), after the latter was destroyed by Viking raids around the time of Notker’s birth. Nevertheless, it is true that Notker and two of his fellow monks at San Gallen, a local named Ratpert and a Frank named Tuotilo, studied music together under an Irishman in the monastery, Marcellus, and together, they did much to develop a new musical school at the abbey, moving beyond the mere copying of the Roman tradition. Much of what we now call “Gregorian” chant is in fact the result of this and other Transalpine developments. It is also true that he composed around forty of his own sequences, and was responsible for popularizing the genre in German-speaking lands.

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