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Chant, yes, but not penny-plain

30 November 2010

Jane Harris-Matthews enjoys sumptuous medieval music


PLAINCHANT has reached new heights once more with a best-selling album from the nuns of the Abbaye de Notre-Dame de l’Annonciation near Avignon. Last week, Anglo-Norman chant floated upward into Robert the Mason’s Norman tower in St Albans Abbey, perhaps for the first time since it was sung there in the 12th century.

The occasion was a lecture recital in the Norman quire and crossing, by Mat­thew Ward, of St John’s Col­lege, Cambridge, and the Schola Can­torum of Fisher House. Ward is re­searching the post-Gregorian chants found in a sacramentary, proces­sional, and two mass books, which were produced in the re­nowned St Albans scriptorium be­tween 1145 and 1170. His aim was to demon­strate just how far from plain the St Albans chant is.

The Schola sang a reconstructed Mass for the Invention of St Alban, while images of the relevant pages of neumes from the mass books were projected on to a screen for the audience of more than 200 to follow.

On 2 August 1129, the body of St Alban was translated in the presence of five abbots and of the Bishop of Lincoln. Ward described how seven copes decorated with gold and pearls, five chasubles, three albs, a tunicle, a gold chalice and paten, a reredos of gold, silver and gems, a silver-gilt censer, and a great hang­ing, on the gold ground of which was woven the Invention of St Alban, were all made for the occasion.

The chants were equally sump­tuous and beautifully sung by the Schola. The Gloria, Sanctus, and Agnus were all troped, so that new verses were inserted between the original texts and the melodies were highly embellished. The choir alter­nated between men’s and women’s voices so that the tropes became crystal-clear. Some of these tropes are found only in the St Albans manuscripts, and may have been composed there, but other parts of the liturgy re-use earlier melodies from across Europe, including a sequence that narrates the martyr­dom of St Alban, and a supplication for peace for the English people at a time of conflict.

After 800 years, it was a special occasion to hear echoes of the voices of medieval monks and boys rise again into the original stones and spaces of the Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban.

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