Tuesday 21 February 2023

A Byzantine Emperor at King Henry's Court: Christmas 1400, London

A Byzantine Emperor at King Henry's Court: Christmas 1400, London; Cappella Romana, Alexander Lingas; Cappella Records

A Byzantine Emperor at King Henry's Court: Christmas 1400, London
; Cappella Romana, Alexander Lingas; Cappella Records
Reviewed 21 February 2022

Using the relatively little known occasion when the Byzantine Emperor celebrated Christmas at the English court in Eltham, the American ensemble specialising in Byzantine and Orthodox chant explores the twin worlds of contemporary music for the Byzantine and the Sarum rites. 

The Byzantine Emperor, Manuel II Palaiologos (1350–1425), ruled a shrunken state heavily pressed by the Ottoman Turks, led from 1389 to 1402 by Bayezid I (better known as Bajazet, whose defeat by the Turco-Mongol conqueror Timur (Tamerlane) was covered in Handel's opera Tamerlano. Manuel was forced to turn to the West for support, appealing to Charles VI of France, Richard II of England and the Pope for aid. In 1399 Manuel and his substantial retinue travelled West, travelling through Italy to France where he lived for two years. For Christmas 1400, Manuel was hosted by King Henry IV of England at Eltham Palace, where the two monarchs celebrated Christmas together. Returning to Paris in February 1401, Manuel would eventually leave for Byzantium in November 1402, by which time Tamerlane had already defeated Bayezid.

We know that the Christmas 1400 celebrations at Eltham Palace were extensive and magnificent. (The present Great Hall at Eltham, however post-dates the events, having been built in the 1470s.) We also know that Manuel was devout and attended mass daily, having brought his own entourage of priests. The Eastern Orthodox Church and the Western Roman Catholic Church were in schism at the time, so it is highly unlikely that the two monarchs attended a joint mass. Instead, each would have had his own grand festal celebration and whilst no musical records of the meeting survive, it is possible to reconstruct what was likely performed. 

The disc from Cappella Romana under Alexander Lingas, A Byzantine Emperor at King Henry's Court: Christmas 1400, London on the choir's own, Cappella Records, features music from the Services to Christmas Eve and the services on Christmas Day.

Founded by Alexander Lingas in 1991, Cappella Romana is an American professional vocal ensemble, based in Portland, Oregon, best known for its performances of Byzantine chant, Greek and Russian Orthodox choral works. Here, on their 30th disc, they are mixing medieval Byzantine chant with music from the Sarum liturgy. 

Outside the limits of scholarship, there is perhaps one crucial difference to the sound world on this disc and the music heard in 1400 in that Cappella Romana uses women and men, with eleven singers in the group, with the women standing in for the boys in the English choir, whilst the Byzantine items are sung only by both the men and the women.

We know something about the Byzantine ritual from this period. An anonymous treatise, dating from 1419, describes court ritual, the most elaborate of which was the Prókypsis, during which the emperor was presented in full regalia on a stage with special lighting while the imperial wind band alternated with singers leading the assembled people in polychrónia (acclamations wishing long life to the imperial family). The wind music, alas, has not survived! What is interesting also, is that much of the music is ascribed to a particular person, whereas in the West that sense of a person, a composer behind a piece had not yet settled. 

Over in Eltham, accounts for the king's household chapel record 33 people but this may not be an accurate reflection of the number of singers and other lists made during the early years of Henry IV’s reign typically list eighteen adult clerks, around another five junior clerks, and nine or ten boys. They would be singing according to the Sarum Rite, though this had many local variations.

Both liturgies placed strong reliance on a basic corps of chant. In the Byzantine rite, elaboration took the form of expanding horizontally, recomposing often extending and generally making them more virtuosic through the widening of vocal ranges and the insertion of melismas. English singers of the period, on the other hand, were accustomed to embellishing with music in multiple voice parts. Polyphony was probably heard most frequently when chant was performed with the addition of complementary parts that singers spontaneously created according to conventions learned primarily by ear. However, thanks to the Reformation, what little English polyphony from this period that was written down only survives in a small number of manuscripts, generally in a poor state and not a single complete manuscript exists. 

We begin on Christmas Eve with the Sarum Responsory at Vespers for the Vigil of the Nativity of the Lord, followed by the Byzantine acclamations sung at the Prókypsis of the Emperor (and one wonders how elaborate the Byzantines were able to make that celebration in 1400). Then comes the Kalophonic Polychrónion by Xenos Korones (late 13th to mid 14th century), an optional coda to the main Prókypsis.

Music for Christmas Day proceeds in a similar fashion, interweaving Byzantine and Sarum. We begin with a Western motet, Ovet mundus letabundus, an anonymous four-voice setting of a non-liturgical text, preserved in two manuscript fragments. Then comes Byzantine tropes on Psalm 50 from Christmas Matins, a Sarum Responsory from the Second Nocturn of Matins, the Byzantine First Kanon of Christmas Matins by Kosmas of Jerusalem (8th c.) and the Kalophonic Megalynarion by St. John Koukouzeles.

A processional sequence features the Prosa from the Sarum Processionale, Te laudant alme Rex and the Entrance antiphon Hodie Christus Natus Est, then the Prologue of the Kontakion for the Nativity of Christ by St. Romanos the Melodist (6th c.). A mass proper sequence features the Sarum Kyrie (troped of course, so far longer than modern usage might expect) and Gloria, and the Byzantine Communion Verse for Christmas by Agathon Korones. We end in the Sarum Rite with a Magnificat and its antiphons, with the Magnificat taken from an incomplete 15th century manuscript.

The music is performed with an intriguing mix of scholarship and freedom. Whilst scholarship can reconstruct the surviving manuscripts, we know that both traditions had elements of freedom and improvisation and that is what makes this group special, their ability to bring this out. What is fascinating about the disc is the way the interleaving of music from two different rites highlights both the differences and the commonalities of the performances. 

Alexander Lingas' article in the booklet is long and detailed, both full of historical background along with musical and liturgical information. He has a clear balancing of the sources and the need to inform listeners as to what they are actually hearing. 

This isn't a liturgical reconstruction, that would take a whole host of discs as both traditions involved long liturgical events, but instead gives us a chance to hear both traditions side by side. The ensemble are a modern choir, making a largely modern sound. There is no element here of attempting to reconstruct the vocal sound world of the period, but the singers are clearly steeped in the stylistic world of this music and it shows in their freedom, flexibility and that sense of an ensemble performing this regularly. The Sarum chant is sung with a beautiful sense of line and fluidity, with the polyphony having a fine directness to the sound. The Byzantine has a wonderful vibrancy to it and a sense of real vividness, and they also manage to give the rhythmically repetitive elements of the chant a lovely sense of the dance, a feature that I have noticed before in this music.

Manuel's visit clearly had a strong iconographic element to it too. Not only does he figure with King Henry IV in the St Alban's Chronicle (see disc cover, above), but he crops up (as two different Magi) in the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry.

A Byzantine Emperor at King Henry's Court: Christmas 1400, London
From the Services of Christmas Eve

  • Sarum Responsory at Vespers for the Vigil of the Nativity of the Lord: Iudea et Hierusalem
  • Acclamations Sung at the Prókypsis of the Emperor
  • Kalophonic Polychrónion by Xenos Korones 

From the Services of Christmas Day

  • Motet: Ovet mundus letabundus
  • Pentekostaria (Tropes of Psalm 50) for Christmas Matins 
  • Sarum Responsory from the Second Nocturn of Matins: O magnum mysterium
  • From the First Kanon of Christmas Matins by Kosmas of Jerusalem (8th c.): Ode 9 with Megalynaria
  • Kalophonic Megalynarion by St. John Koukouzeles and Katavasia of Ode 9 and Trinity College, Cambridge
  • Prosa from the Sarum Processionale: Te laudant alme Rex
  • Entrance Antiphon: Hodie Christus natus est
  • Prologue of the Kontakion for the Nativity of Christ by St. Romanos the Melodist (6th c.)
  • Kyrie for Principal Double Feasts: Deus Creator omnium
  • Gloria in excelsis
  • Communion Verse for Christmas by Agathon Korones 

At Second Vespers on Christmas Evening

  • Antiphon before the Magnificat: Hodie Christus natus est
  • Magnificat
  • Antiphon after the Magnificat: Hodie Christus natus est

Cappella Romana
Alexander Lingas (director)
Recorded at The Madeleine Parish, Portland, Oregon, 18–22 September 2022


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