Thursday 27 May 2021

Exploring the Jistebnice kancionál: Barbora Kabátková chats about the Tiburtina Ensemble's exploration of this Czech manuscript

The Jistebnice Kancionál in Prague National Museum
The Jistebnice Kancionál in Prague National Museum

The Jistebnice kancionál is not well-known. It is a Czech hand-written hymnbook from around 1430 and the earliest witness to a concentrated effort to translate the liturgy of the Western Church into the vernacular. The Tiburtina Ensemble, artistic director Barbora Kabátková, has recently been exploring the music in the
Jistebnice kancionál and talks about their discovery of the music and its challenges. But first, what exactly is the manuscript.

The Jistebnice kancionál is the largest surviving compendium and the most important source of Hussite liturgy and singing in the Czech lands. It contains Czech translations of Latin liturgy, religious hymns, songs to be sung at vespers and also Czech folk Christmas carols. 

The manuscript was discovered by a student in 1827 in the attic of the presbytery in the South Bohemian village of Jistebnice. Today, it is best known for containing the Hussite choral anthem Ye Who Are Warriors of God. (Best known from its inclusion in Smetana's symphonic poems Tábor and Blaník, parts of the cycle Ma Vlast.) Yet the most notable aspect of the hand-written hymnbook is that it features songs in Czech for mass and prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours. It would seem that the bold project's aim was to make liturgy accessible to the wide religious community in their own language. The creators evidently above all strove to translate Latin hymns into Czech, but they also wrote tunes of their own. Of a particularly high value is the record of the Easter liturgy that, owing to its detailed instructions, affords us a view of the Hussite form of worship.  

The Hussites were followers of the Czech reformed, Jan Hus (1372-1415), and an important Proto-Protestant movement - another such were followers of John Wycliffe (1320s–1384). After Hus was burned at the stake by the church and the Holy Roman Emperor, there was an explosion in Bohemia and within five years an independent Czech church had been established following Hus' teachings. There were two main points of difference from the Roman church, its insistence that at communion people receive both bread and wine (in the Roman church's Tridentine liturgy the people only receive bread) and its use of the language of the people, the Czech language, in worship. It is this latter point which links us to the manuscript and its important documentation of the development of the Hussite liturgy.

Of course, a musical manuscript does not live until its music is performed. And whilst there are a number of unanswered questions and mysteries about the manuscript, a new recording on Supraphon introduces us to the music. The Tiburtina Ensemble, artistic director Barbora Kabátková, has recently released Jistebnický kancionál - Sound of the Bohemian Pre-Reformation on Supraphon. Barbora Kabátková was recently interviewed about the disc and introduced the music and its challenges.


Have you been to the South Bohemian village of Jistebnice?

I have passed through Jistebnice several times. Had I not known the Jistebnice kancionál and the story of its discovery, I probably would not even remember the village. But I’m not saying that it isn’t a nice place to live!

The Jistebnice kancionál contains Easter liturgy music – what is it that makes the hymnal so interesting?

As a whole, the Jistebnice kancionál is immensely precious. The bulk of the choral music intended for the most important feasts of the liturgical year it contains is intended for Lent and Easter. The most engrossing pieces for the Paschal Triduum include “pseudo-lamentations”, inspired by Jeremiah’s Lamentations. One of them, an emotional account of the Passion of Christ, is featured on our album.

Is Old Czech difficult to understand and work with?

Yes, it is, primarily because – just like with all archaic languages – you cannot consult the pronunciation with an authentic, native speaker. Learning the texts wasn’t that bad, as it is quite similar to contemporary Czech, although sometimes this similarity was quite misleading. What’s more, we were not at all sure about some words whose spelling differed in individual pieces within the manuscript.

Do you think that music can work as a time machine, with the Jistebnice kancionál and your recording affording us the opportunity to peep into the 15th century?

I will gladly leave it upon the listener to judge. It all depends on everyone’s zest and imagination!

What do you deem to be the greatest revelation of the Jistebnice kancionál?

I didn’t anticipate finding quite so much beautiful music there. During my musicology studies, I only had a superficial knowledge of the source, and nothing motivated me to examine it more closely. Only the research carried out by Hana Wörner–Vlhová opened my eyes and spurred me to explore the manuscript thoroughly. I personally consider its greatest value to be the contents, in terms of music and text alike. The hymnbook provides us with an intimate insight into the people living in the late 14th and early 15th centuries.

Will you be presenting the Jistebnice kancionál repertoire in concert once the coronavirus
situation so allows?

Our plans go right the way through to 2023, yet the question remains of which of them will actually come to fruition. But I am an optimist, so I really hope that we’ll give the premiere of the Jistebnice kancionál repertoire at a concert that should be taking place in June within the Concentus Moraviae festival in Velké Meziříčí. In the summer, we are scheduled to perform a variety of programmes in the Czech Republic, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. Next year, I hope, we will make our North America debut, which was shifted from this January.

Further information about the album from the Supraphon website, and my thanks to them for sharing the article.

The blog is free, but I'd be delighted if you were to show your appreciation by buying me a coffee.

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