England’s favourite carols are Finnish: Piae Cantiones origins

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Piae Cantiones – music of half a millenium before 1582 – performed by Helsinki’s Utopia Chamber Choir at the Saksalainen Kirkko on Saturday 3rd December, 2016.

 

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Piae Cantiones (Spiritual Songs), the first Finnish music ever to be printed, was published in Greifswald in 1582 under the direction of Theodoricus Petri Rutha, a Finnish student matriculated at nearby Rostock University. The songs and texts were edited by Jaakko Suomalainen, also known as Finno, Headmaster of the Cathedral School at Turku, who also published the first Finnish hymnal. But although many of the texts are on religious themes, the Piae Cantiones songs are not hymns, they represent a varied repertoire sung as extra-curricular entertainment for the Turku students. The styles range from the lively dance-rhythms and catchy refrains of Gaudete, and the cool renaissance counterpoint of Jesu dulcis memoria to the austere restraint of chant-like melody in Angelus emittitur, the first song in the book.

 

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In 1616, Hemminki Maskulainen published a Finnish translation of the song-texts in Stockholm, but without music.

 

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A second musical edition, published in 1625 by two scholars from Viipuri, former Rostock University students, was edited by Daniel Friderici, cantor at the church of St Mary’s, Rostock. A celebratory facsimile of the 1582 print was published in Helsinki in 1967. The songs heard this evening were transcribed from the original 16th-century notation by Mats Lillhannus, with additional work by Valter Maasalo and Andrew Lawrence-King. Many modern editions transpose the songs freely, for the convenience of church choirs, but we have chosen to perform each song according to the original clefs. Some songs are notated for high voices in treble or soprano clefs; others are written in tenor or baritone clef. Psallat scholarum concio in hoc convivio begins in bass clef, on what is in theory the lowest note of the medieval hexachord system, low G or Gamut, from where it descends! We can perhaps imagine a gang of older students (scholarum concio) singing and playing instruments (psallere means to sing psalms, or to play a psalm-inspired instrument, such as a psaltery, or King David’s harp) at a Christmas party (convivio).

 

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A selection from Piae Cantiones was published in England in the winter of 1853-1854 as Carols for Christmas and Eastertide with English texts, and in 1910 England’s Plainsong & Medieval Music Society published an edition of the whole book with the original Latin texts. These carols became highly popular, and many were republished in 1961 as Carols for Choirs, leading to countless performances on the model of the famous service of Nine Lessons of Carols from King’s College, Cambridge. Across the entire English-speaking world, singers and Christmas revellers would be amazed to discover that many of their favourite ‘traditional’ carols, including the melody of Good King Wenceslas, come from 16th-century Finland! Nevertheless, the Piae Cantiones are not limited to Christmas carols, but also include texts for Passiontide, Pentecost, and Trinity Sunday; meditations on the Eucharist and prayers; songs ‘of the fragile and miserable human condition’, of scholastic life and of harmonious society; epic verse and spring-time lyrics.

The story of how melodies and texts from Piae Cantiones inspired composers from Praetorius in 17th-century Germany to Willcocks and Rutter in 20th-century England could itself make a fascinating subject for a concert, but that is not our purpose this evening. One might present the whole collection according to the historical performance practice of 1582, but this too is not our intention. Most of the songs Finno edited had been passed down through aural traditions for many centuries, before appearing in print in the late 16th-century. Divinum mysterium (a mediation on the Eucharist) dates back to the 10th century, much of the collection is from the 14th-century. The book could well be compared to an archaeological site, with layers of material from various centuries, and considerable mixing between the layers. So our performance approach varies too, according to the origin of the music: medieval, renaissance, even some early baroque settings from the 1625 print.

 

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Turku Cathedral

Some Piae Cantiones songs are of Finnish or other Nordic origin. Cedit hiems, a celebration of the end of winter, is found in many Finnish sources. Other texts and melodies come from all parts of Europe, particularly Bohemia. There is ample evidence that Turku was a significant academic centre, with connections not only in renaissance Rostock, but also in medieval Paris with its great university and the circle of composers associated with the cathedral of Notre Dame. This same international network of scholars and musicians facilitated experiments with new styles of polyphony, with liturgical drama and student plays, and with the high-status musical instruments of the Middle Ages: harp, psaltery and organ.

Many of the Cantiones began as medieval Tropes. As a mnemonic for melismatic chant, with a single syllable sustained over several long phrases in the music, monks would invent extended texts. Thus Kyrie… e… e… eleison (Lord have mercy) becomes Kyrie fons bonitatis Pater ingenite, a qua bona cuncta procedunt: eleison. (Lord, fount of goodness, Father uncreated, from whom all good things proceed: have mercy). Such tropes then became established texts, for which new music would be written. And then the additional music would be troped again, creating extended textual and musical Sequences. Divinum mysterium first developed as a trope of the Sanctus, sung at the most sacred moment of the Eucharist, during the Prayer of Consecration. Congaudeat is a trope of the final versicle and response at Mass: Benedicamus Domino / Deo gratias (Let us bless the Lord / Thanks be to God). Similarly, Puer Natus ends with Benedicamus Domino, alleluia. Laudetur Sancta Trinitas. Deo dicamus gratias, alleluia. (Let us bless the Lord, alleluia! Let us praise the Holy Trinity. Let us say, thanks be to God, alleluia!)

In the 9th-century monastery of St Gall, Notker and Tuotilo added such tropes to Alleluias and Kyries and created a Book of Sequences. In England, Salisbury Cathedral preserved an ancient ritual tradition that included many extended tropes. Laus Virginis Nati and the other Sequences in Piae Cantiones represent the high-point of Finnish medieval artistry, but are rarely performed today. Music and text present varied rhythms, harmonies and melodies, each phrase being repeated to a parallel text. The energy builds up in a succession of peaks, marked by the urgent rhythms of very short lines of poetry, sometimes just a single syllable: Audi nos / dos / honoris et flos/ inter florum (Hear us,/ Gift / of honour & Flower/ of flowers). ‘Rose of roses, Flower of flowers’ are medieval titles for the Virgin Mary, but in those early days of the Reformation, Jaakko Finno rewrote many medieval texts to praise Jesus instead.

Although the 1582 book presents most of the music as a single melody line, medieval singers would have improvised organum – instrumental style – with drone basses, parallel fifths, varied melodies and standard cadence-formulae. In the 15th-century, a sonorous texture of rich harmonies in thirds and sixths was imported into France from the ancient styles of the Celtic fringes of the British Isles. This contenance angloise (English manner) offered improvising students an entirely new way to harmonise such popular melodies as In Dulci Jubilo.

The two- and three-part settings in Piae Cantiones are in polyphonic styles much older than the few, 16th-century four-part songs. Zachaeus is a roundelay, in which two equal voices swap melodies from phrase to phrase. The accompanying voice of Puer Natus became an independent melody, which later triumphed in popularity over what was originally the principal voice. These medieval examples served as a model for the Turku students’ improvised polyphony, and for ours. Elsewhere in the collection, there are the processional and dance rhythms of medieval conductus poetry, with verses in strong, regular accentual metres (ideal for improvised polyphony). Songs like this were ‘cut and pasted’ into the New Year music-drama of the circa 1200 Ludus Danielis (Play of Daniel), an all-night party inserted into the cathedral service of Mattins as a liturgical ‘opera’. In Piae Cantiones, multiple re-tellings of the Christmas story hint at miniature dramatisations, with students playing the familiar roles of Angel, Shepherds & Magi (not to mention the Ox and Ass).

In the final Historical Song Ramus virens, Jaako records a fragment of Finnish national Epic, with a stirring refrain calling on the People of Finland to celebrate their conversion to Christianity. The story begins with a metaphor of Noah’s Ark finding dry land after the great Flood: an Englishman, Bishop Henry lands in Finland on his way to Uppsala. Henry and the saintly King Eric of Sweden subdue the pagan demons, but Henry is martyred. ‘So, rejoice, people of Finland!’ Other accounts of Henry’s story, in the secular metre of pre-Christian Kalevala poetry, name Henry’s murderer as Lalli, who ends up ‘skiing in Hell’. He is the first Finn to be known by name.

 

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Obviously, the story of Noah’s Flood resonates strongly in a country of lakes and swamps, but the poetic imagery also recalls the creation scene in the Kalevala, in which Ilmatar creates dry land from endless water, as well as the biblical creation story in the Book of Genesis. And the frontispiece of Piae Cantiones shows a harpist, perhaps Theodoricus Petri himself, kneeling by the rivers of Rostock, with an angel-choir, presumably improvising heavenly harmonies. We are reminded of Psalm 137 ‘By the rivers of Babylon’ and of the Christmas angel, suddenly joined by a multitude of the heavenly host to sing the Gloria, in the Gospel of St Luke. Petri’s guardianship of the aural tradition of scholastic songs is proclaimed in a verse from Psalm 89: cantabo in generatione & generationem (I will sing from one generation to another). This echoes the opening and closing cantos of the Kalevala, which are both sung ‘nuorisossa nousevassa / kansassa kasuavassa’ (amongst the young people growing up, for the folk of the future).

 

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As Finns celebrate Christmas in renaissance Rostock and modern Helsinki; as ancient legends unite the Hanseatic ‘East Sea’ with Britain, far out in the western Atlantic; as timeless melodies intrigue modern scholars and offer medieval students (and Utopia’s singers) opportunities for daring improvisation; the simple joy and authentic tradition of music and words in Piae Cantiones still appeals, like Christmas itself, across the generations, and to the child in each of us.

 

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