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Music to Charlemagne’s Ears


The early musici gathered Wednesday in Jordan Hall for Sequentia’s “Frankish Phantoms: Echoes from Carolingian Palaces (8th – 10th centuries),” reconstructed music from the nascent days of the Holy Roman Empire. Three singers and a couple of instrumentalists transported the captivated audience to an earlier time and sound world we will remember for years to come.

This concert is part of “The Lost Songs Project.” As Sequentia’s director Benjamin Bagby wrote in the program, “All of these [songs] appear to us today in shadowy and fragmentary forms, like phantoms from 1200 years ago, requiring deep study, reconstruction, and imagination—so that these Lost Songs may sing again as they once sang for Charlemagne and his court.” A lot of the music comes from manuscripts housed in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, transcribed and reconstructed. As with so much musical archaeology, we must take a leap of faith: we can never attain absolute accuracy, but at the same time we must remember this is a time when reproducibility was not a fetishized concept. There is creative license here, informed especially by Bagby’s years of study and performance. This background, and the expressive strength of the performers, carried this program and elevated sparse music into an unforgettable event.

The evening was structured around four thematic groupings of music. First, “The Carolingian Renaissance: Charlemagne and the Poets” presented a series of songs demonstrating the learning and refinement of this court. In “Songs of War and Exile” we heard about the harsh realities of lives in that period of strife. “Two Women Facing Death” (the least successful pairing) presented the benighted end of a saintly woman and the demise of a pagan queen. The program concluded with “The Carolingian Successors: Three Emperors Named Otto,” reminding us of Charlemagne’s short reign and its almost immediate rise to mythic, gilded memory. I deeply regret that the festival yearbook (already a substantial tome) only gave the English translations of the texts sung; I know I am not the only person in attendance with some fluency in these languages (mostly Latin, both classical and post-classical) and I would have liked to have the original texts at hand. The translations given are, in the main, good (I had issues with the Horace ode, but that is hardly surprising), and having them projected as supertitles was a nice touch, but I cannot comprehend why the original language texts were not printed.

For this outing, three members of Sequentia’s ensemble took the stage. Bagby, its director, sang and performed on a six-string Germanic harp (by Rainer Thurau, Wiesbaden, 1997). He was joined by Norbert Rodenkirchen on wooden flutes (by Neidhart Bousset, Berlin, 1998, and by Beha & Gibbons, Boston, 1995) and on cithara (by Olivier Feraud, Nice, 2010—made especially for this program). The third was Wolodymyr Smishkewych, singer. This was music from a simpler time: not the idyllic simplicity the West craves today, but a time when interactions were more direct, less mediated, and music likewise comes across as directly sincere with a simpler harmonic structure and fewer voices than it would acquire in later centuries. This is not to say there was no subterfuge, either in life or in music; rhetorical sophistication harkening back to the classical past abounds.

The concert opened with a contrasting pair of songs. Surge meo domno dulces fac, an ecloga by Angilbertus (the Carolingian court poet) is a happy and flattering panegyric, wherein the poet portrays his king as David and himself as Homer, while A solis ortu (planctus Karoli) is a mournful lament on Charlemagne’s death, casting the whole world in mourning. That theme carried over into the instrumental interlude as Rodenkirchen on flute performed Virgo plorans, after a sequentia by Notker of St. Gall. Next two works by the English poet Alcuin (or Alcuinus in Latin), Summi regis archangele Michahel for harp, cithara, and two voices, and O mea cella for flute and voice; the first ends with a sphragis, or seal wherein the poet embeds his name in the text, while the second is a bittersweet farewell song to a monastic cell. Clangam filii is a poignant and meditative sequentia with allegorical overtones and it rounded out the first grouping. We turned then to songs of strife: Aurora cum primo mane (by Angelbertus on the battle of Fontenoy), Ut quid iubes, pusiole? (the lament of an exile far from home), and Ik gihorta dat seggen (the surviving fragment of the epic Hildebrandslied). Hildebrand’s Song is especially moving, as it recounts a father and son meeting on a battlefield and fighting one another (and gains added poignancy as it recasts a famous scene from book VI of the Homeric Iliad). Bagby on harp and voice held us enthralled with this number. The set ended with an instrumental piece, Ardua spes mundi, based on a chant by Ratpert of St. Gall and performed by Rodenkirchen on flute; mournful and introspective music, the text is sometimes translated as High Hope of the World or even Towering Hope, but can also be rendered Difficult is the hope of the world and that sense certainly fits the context in which it was placed here. (I found an informative discussion of it here, complete with pictures of the St. Gall codex preserving the chant [here]. For the third act, we heard Buona pulcella fut Eulalia, a happy hagiography of the Christian martyr Eulalia, and it was paired with an anonymous Aquitaine setting of Horace’s ode I.37, Nunc est bibendum, on the death of Cleopatra (although really on the celebration of peace returning to Rome after a generation of civil strife). Bagby gave a dramatic solo reading/singing of this work; fascinating music, but I do feel it was a stretch to pair it with Eulalia. Rounding out the evening we heard Magnus Caesar Otto, a praise-song to the emperors Otto which turns history into myth. The evening ended as it began with a panegyric.

Sequentia (file photo)
Sequentia (file photo)

The music abounds in word-painting. Clear from the beginning is the complementarity, as instrumental and vocal voices are separate, distinct, yet joined. With both Bagby and Smishkewych singing, there are unisons, octaves, and fifths—all perfectly tuned. This is Psalmic hymnody, monkish music moving outside the abbey and into the court. Hardly surprising given Charlemagne’s interest and role in codifying liturgy. At the same time music takes on the role of witness—to the horrors of war, and the realities of a soldier’s life. The songs by Alcuinus raise questions about performance and audience in original context. It would be great to hear more from Bagby about the process of reconstruction and how this works; perhaps this is a workshop topic for the future.

This was a fascinating opportunity to hear lost songs of the Frankish court resonate again.

Cashman Kerr Prince, trained in Classics and Comparative Literature, is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College. He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra.

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