Past glories: another review

Following the last two blog posts (Beyond the menace and Wellsprings) in which we have been looking over our shoulders to the past year or two, let us peer even further back into the dim distant dusty annals of early years of music and the psalms.

While at the piano I might readily slip into a modern swinging or jazzy rhythm seldom heard in hushed holy places, nevertheless the history and the sounds of early music hold a special place in my musical heart. Way back in primary school days, a friend played an old Record Society 12-inch vinyl of the Victoria requiem Officium defunctorum and I was irrevocably hitched..

I readily admit that these blog posts and pages in aggregate include early manuscripts and ancient music more than necessary for the 21st century, in a day and age when hard copy of anything, let alone pen and ink, is so passé. Sure, we are supposed to be building a new world and forging onward, ever upward into the future. However, these old manuscripts reach back almost as far as we can see into the history of the psalms and their music.

Some of the canticles associated with Christmas: on the left, the text ofThe Magnificat; at right, music for an antiphon in three sections beginning Lucem tua[m] — perhaps referring to Psalm 43 “Send out your light and your truth”; and then the text of the Nunc Dimitis. Note the trap for sleepy singers: the first antiphon has an F clef, the second changes to C and the third back to F. The Howard Psalter, early 14th century, British Library, Arundel MS83.

First, the music of centuries ago remains beautiful and worth singing. Renaissance and other early music remains a constant and beloved element of the vocal repertoire. Many early scores were associated with fine calligraphy, illustrated manuscripts, historiated capitals and those mysterious neumes and square notation. (Square notation on a four-line staff is still used in a few traditionalist religious communities, including an Anglican church in central Sydney.)

And secondly, these early musical settings open a window into both the long history of people relishing and enriching the magic of the psalms, and also some insights into their creative interpretation in the language of music.

Laudate Dominum‘; detail from a motet by Lassus

So it is time to look again at this old piece shown below, and ask if you can identify the song. It cannot be described as a canticle like the Magnificat or Song of Mary, but it definitely has strong historical links to the Christmas season.

The tune is true to the title, although being embellished by much melismatic decoration around the main notes of the melody, you won’t see the tune there unless you know it and therefore know what to look for. So, Latin scholars, it’s up to you.

For Christmas Day psalms (96 to 98) see the 2020 post here>>

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