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20 Mar 2007
Das Gänsebuch (The Geesebook): German Medieval Chant
In their attempt to recreate a combination of musical styles typical of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Nürnberg, Schola Hungarica and its directors László Dobszay & Janka Szendrei have chosen selections from the Gänsebuch, described as the “only complete extant source for the pre-Reformation liturgy of the mass in Nürnberg.” [CD liner-notes, p. 3]
manuscript, preserved in the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York, derives its name from an
internal illustration here reproduced on the cover of the CD-booklet. In the featured scene a
group of geese singing in choir is assembled before a music-lectern upon which rests an open
score. To this presumably liturgical musical piece a wolf points with his baton as he directs the
geese in chant. Standing behind this choral group a fox is positioned in astute observation of the
performance. The Gänsebuch’s commission has been traced to the church of St. Lorenz,
although the masses included in the gradual were associated with parish churches of both St.
Lorenz and St. Sebald in late medieval Nürnberg. Feast days in honor of specific saints or
blessed figures who were of special importance to the city were incorporated in this extensive
compilation, which also represents the larger context of the medieval Roman liturgy. As such,
the Gänsebuch represents both local and more wide-ranging cultural traditions and has further
been recognized as a significant document for theological, hagiographic, and musicological
studies. For the present recording a selection of masses from the Gänsebuch has been chosen,
some of which celebrate blessed figures whose official association with churches in Nürnberg
was recognized only in the century or so before the commission of the book. These choral
selections are performed in the style of traditional chant, indeed hearkening back to an earlier
period. In order to underscore the late medieval intent of the performance, the masses are here
interspersed with shorter hymns and liturgical selections by fifteenth- and sixteenth-century
composers and here performed by the organist Matthias Ank. As a concluding band a brief
performance features the famous bells of the Church of St. Lorenz.
The intricate mass for St. Sebaldus, included here in its world-premiere performance, makes
evident the importance of this blessed figure in fifteenth-century Nürnberg especially after his
official canonization in 1424. Most versions of the vita of Sebaldus locate his youth in Denmark
where he was betrothed to a French princess. An early decision to renounce this potential union
and to undertake a pilgrimage to Rome marks the beginning of a series of miracles associated
with Sebaldus both during and after his life. A selection of these is narrated in the present mass
especially in the Sequentia after the introduction of Sebaldus in the “Alleluia.” As the liturgical
order is here presented, an intricate alternation of male and female choral parts is used as a
structural device in the six parts from Introit to Communion. The actual narration of the “Vita
Sebaldii” proceeds in the fourth division of the mass, or Sequentia, as a relatively unadorned
declamation. In opposition to the regular rhythmic patterns in this narrative part of the mass,
those symbolic associations connecting the blessedness of Sebaldus and the divinity are
performed with much greater decorative emphasis. Before the citation of Sebaldus’s name in the
Alleluia, the Gradual of the mass features the phrase “Lex Dei … in corde ipsius” (“the law of
God resides in his heart”). The phrase is performed by male chorus with an extended, and here
skillfully performed, melisma on the words describing the heart of Sebaldus. Likewise in the
Offertorium a female chorus recites the symbolic phrase “in capite eius coronam de lapide
pretioso”(“upon his head a crown of precious stones”) with significant decoration in contrast to
the actual vita. The performance by Schola Hungarica emphasizes the inner, spiritual beauty of
Sebaldus as an exemplary figure. Corporeal symbols are thus performed here as a magnification
of internal sanctity. In consequence, the events of his life and death are given credence, such as
the narration of his post-mortem transportation by oxen to a chosen spot in Nürnberg. According
to legend and the text of the present mass, the animals refuse to move further until the designated
area is declared as hallowed ground. The Church of St. Sebaldus was allegedly erected later in
this very location.
In the mass from the Gänsebuch dedicated to St. Martha aspects of her vita are integrated
throughout all the individual segments. Already in the Introit and the Gradual Martha is named
and her legendary encounter with a serpent is noted. By contrast, the actual narrative of the
deeds of Sebaldus in his corresponding dedicatory mass begins only in the Alleluia and the
Sequentia. The bipartite nature of legends surrounding the figure of Martha, and the attempts to
integrate both traditions into the service here presented, could explain the more expansive
treatment of the saint in her titular mass. As mentioned in the Gospel of John, Martha is
identified as the sister of Lazarus and Mary. In their home in Bethany Martha serves the supper
during which the feet of Christ are anointed by Mary. The behavior of Martha here would
explain domestic associations with the saint, just as she had gone out to welcome Christ when
His arrival in Bethany was made known earlier in John’s Gospel. Her attributes in this report
include both a ladle, or similar kitchen tool, and a set of keys, in either case indicating
associations with the home. An alternate legend associated with Martha locates her together with
Lazarus and Mary in a boat which lands at Marseilles. Since this journey occurs after the death
of Christ, it is generally associated with Martha’s contribution to spreading the new belief. After
leaving the boat, Martha frees the people of Aix from the repeated attacks of a dragon and
converts them simultaneously to Christianity. She was allegedly able to defeat the beast by
holding forth a cross or by sprinkling it with consecrated water. Both symbols are reckoned as
attributes of Martha in this version of her legend, in addition to her depiction with a dragon in a
tamed or defeated pose. Such associations of Martha with physical and spiritual strength are
featured in the Introit of the Gänsebuch mass: here a chain or girdle, with which Martha bound
the dragon, is related to her personal commitment to the sign of the cross. The succeeding parts
of the mass alternate between both versions of Martha’s legendary nature, signifying either
domesticity or spiritual power. After reference to the dragon’s fury in the Introit, both divisions
of the mass which follow immediately, the Gradual and the Alleluia, highlight Martha’s skills at
hospitality. In the performance by Schola Hungarica these are assigned for the Gradual to a male
and for the Alleluia to a female choral group. In the first of these two parts Martha’s solitary
duty is emphasized by the choral decoration extended on the word “solam” in the phrase “soror
mea reliquit me solam ministrare” (“my sister leaves me alone to serve”). The Alleluia features
similar melismatic decoration of the names Martha and Mariae Filio, Son of Mary. Here
Martha’s hospitality to welcome Christ in her home is a precursor to the future joy that she will
sense when welcomed by Christ in heaven. The female chorus in this performance expresses the
ideal mutual exchange of domestic welcome as a symmetrical effect in both worlds.
Other pieces chosen from the Gänsebuch for this rich sampling by Schola Hungarica give a
picture of late medieval religious culture in central and southern Germany. As an example, the
Mass for the Holy Lance and the Nails, originating at the court of Emperor Charles IV in the
fourteenth century, survives as one of the most significant religious feast days in fifteenth-century
Nürnberg. Its premiere recording here leaves open the welcome prospect for future attention to
the specific mass, its liturgical and cultural importance, and its potential relation to other
religious celebrations in the late Middle Ages.