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08 Feb 2009
Liber Evangeliorum: Verse and Music From the Age of Charlemagne
The emergence of a standardized western liturgy with a uniform chant repertory, while to a significant degree realized, neither completely silenced regional liturgies nor extinguished the additions to liturgical practice that comprise much medieval creativity.
Evangeliorum by the ninth-century monk of Wessenburg Abbey, Otfrid, is a
rich example of the creative spirit seeking an outlet. Otfrid’s work
provides in vernacular Old High German a poetic text of Gospel narratives,
“harmonized” from the different Gospel accounts. Significantly,
this text survives in a source that gives St. Gall neumes with some of the
verses, confirming that, at least at one time, the text was sung, and in a
liturgical context. And it is the challenge of this possibility that the
splendid Ensemble Officium embraces.
Ensemble Officium’s recording reconstructs possible musical versions
of some of Otfrid’s verses and interweaves them with Gregorian
responsories and hymns for Advent and Christmas, and in so doing creates
something of the idea of an embellished Vigils liturgy as might have been
experienced in the St. Gall orbit. The liturgical reconstruction is
“loose” — the chants are drawn from diverse days, for
instance — but the interplay of vernacular lessons (Otfrid’s
texts) and canonical liturgical material is engaging and resembles the
dynamic of lection and lyrical response at the core of the night office.
The recreations of Otfrid’s verses favor variety. In some instances
the texts are spoken, in others they are sung to recitational chant. In still
others, the verses are spoken to the improvised accompaniment of fiddles,
occasionally (and richly) in counterpoint with polyphonic choral lines. The
renditions of the liturgical chants are also interestingly conceived, often
with instrumental drones and counterpoints, as well as polyphonic vocal
The ensemble is a mixed personnel with both men and women singers. And
while the execution is uniformly impressive, the sound of the women is
particularly stunning, with pure, bright, highly focused tone. Some of the
chants are lengthy — the invitatory “Praeoccupemus”
approaches ten minutes, for instance — but the tone and approach are
entrancing and hypnotic, with little temptation to check the clock.
Liber Evangelorium is imaginatively conceived and engagingly
rendered. Given the amount of interpretation and reconstruction
required—the musical notation is imprecise, the performance practice
flexible, the liturgical context uncertain — there are ample
opportunities for missteps. The historical record offers little room for
certainties here, but the aesthetic results of the program and its
performance are most assuredly gratifying.
One drawback to the CD, however, is the relative lack of translations. All
of the texts have a modern German translation printed; Otfrid’s texts
have thumbnail sketches in English and French, as well; the liturgical texts
are translated in German without the summaries. Given the care that has been
taken in creating the liturgical dynamic, broader access to the text would
seem a fitting improvement.