Historia Sancti Olavi Ad primas Vesperas [14:52] Ad Matutinas [27:38] In secundo Nocturno [17:47] In tertio Nocturno [23:02] Ad Laudes [16:06] Ad secundas Vesperas [05:28]
Consortium Vocale Oslo/Alexander M. Schweitzer; Graces & Voices/Adrija Čepaité, Antanina Kalechtys
rec. June/August 2015, Ris Church, Oslo, Norway DDD
Texts and translations available from Lawo Classics website LAWO CLASSICS LWC1106 [60:20 + 44:40]
Many countries, regions and towns across the world have a patron saint. Some of them are still cherished, even if large parts of the population have little or no connection with the Christian faith. The set of two discs reviewed here is devoted to St Olaf, the patron saint of Norway.
"On 29 July 1030 at Stiklestad near Nidaros, the modern city of Trondheim in central Norway, the Norwegian King Olaf Haraldsson lost a battle against local supporters of the Danish King Canute the Great (d. 1035) and was killed in action. But if Olaf did not earn military glory on earth that day, his name was destined to be adorned with far more durable fame: sainthood." Thus open the liner-notes in the booklet, which gives much historical information about this king who is probably hardly known outside Norway, or rather outside Scandinavia, because his cult was celebrated from Iceland to the Baltic Sea. It only ended with the introduction of the Reformation, which also resulted in a number of manuscripts with music linked to this celebration being destroyed.
The heart of the office in his honour is a so-called historia. This is in fact a kind of biography in music, but it can't be treated like a scientifically correct description of his life. It is rather a hagiography, and he is seen from a later perspective, after he had converted to the Christian faith. The fact that at the time of the battle referred to above he was still a pagan is generously overlooked. It is only briefly mentioned in the antiphon Rex autem ille licet gentiles (CD 1, track 9): "The king, even though he was a gentile, was of a good nature". Initially existing texts were used, mostly connected to an unspecified martyr. It was in the 12th century that a new cycle of chants and lessons for the office on St Olaf's Day came into being. This marks the birth of the Historia Olavi. The texts are anonymous and largely based on older prose texts, known as Passio Olavi (a description of life and martyrdom of St Olaf, dating from the 12th century) and Miraculi Olavi, a collection of his miracles which may go back to the 11th century.
Turning to the music, the largest part comprises so-called contrafacta, meaning pre-existing music whose original texts are substituted by new lyrics. Musically speaking the Historia Olavi is based on earlier comparable offices, like those in honour of St Augustine or St Vincentius. This was a very common practice at the time. In the liner-notes it is suggested that in this case it had a special meaning. "Re-texting existent melodies from the historiae of famous saints opened for example the possibility to connect St Olaf with these figures, to show him in the splendour of their prestige."
This music is part of a large repertoire of music which is generally known as plainchant. Although there are similarities to what is called 'Gregorian chant', the chants in the Historia Sancti Olavi are different in several aspects. Usually the range of the melodies is wider and Gregorian melodic formulae are almost completely absent. It is also noticeable that the tonality is more modern. One responsory, Egregius martyr (CD 2, track 7), is notable for its long melismas, which make it stand out from the other chants.
I have already mentioned the fact that many manuscripts with early Christian chants were destroyed during the Reformation. As a result, the full Historia is available in only two sources. Both are antiphonaries written for the Archbishop of Uppsala in Sweden at the end of the Middle Ages. However, despite the distance in time and place they are considered not fundamentally different from the originals. Two chants bear the traces of a later time. They illustrate that this kind of liturgical repertoire was part of a living tradition and that "the St Olaf melodies were not retained in a petrified version but adjusted to the stylistic tastes of the ecclesiastical communities that performed them through the centuries."
It is clear that this kind of music cannot be reproduced today in the same way it was performed in the time it came into existence. The celebration of St Olaf's feast included many elements and lasted for two days. Today's performers are specialists in the repertoire but they perform it in the form of a concert, not as part of day to day liturgical celebrations. In this recording two ensembles take part: one with women's voices (Graces & Voices) and one with only male singers (Consortium Vocale Oslo). The former is certainly not in line with the performance practice in the Middle Ages, and the chants were definitely not performed by men and women in alternation as in this recording. Unfortunately, moreover, the Historia Sancti Olavi is not performed complete. Most of the Psalms are abridged; the long lessons which would have been part of the office have been replaced by shorter ones and some other items are completely omitted. This was due to time limits, as the liner-notes say. However, if we take into consideration that today a disc of 80 minutes playing time is no problem at all, two discs which take one hour and 45 minutes in total is a little less than impressive.
That is all the more regrettable as the recording of a liturgical work like this is very important. I had never heard of it and obviously this is the first (almost) complete recording. Offices like this are known from other parts of Europe, but one of the fruits of the revival of interest in early music is the growing awareness of the differences within the repertoire across Europe. This music from one of the relative outer ends of the continent bears witness to that. The importance of a production like this cannot be overstated. The performances are outstanding: the legato singing of men and women is perfect and completely natural. The solo contributions of members of the Consortium Vocale Oslo are very good. The text is always clearly audible. The production also deserves an A: the booklet includes much historical, musical and liturgical information in a clearly intelligible English translation. The printed booklet omits the words, but a booklet with texts and English translations can be downloaded from the Lawo site. The last page of the words is missing; instead the previous page is included twice. But as the last page includes only the second half of the text of the Magnificat this is not a serious problem.
If you are interested in liturgical music, and especially in plainchant, this is a production not to be missed.