Jistebnický Kancionál – Sound of the Bohemian Pre-Reformation
Tiburtina Ensemble/Barbora Kabátková
rec. 2020, Church of St James, Zbraslav Castle, Prague, Czech Republic
Texts and translations included
Supraphon SU4291-2 
Plainchant – also known as ‘Gregorian chant’ – is the foundation of liturgical music in large parts of Europe. During the 19th and 20th centuries the repertoire and the way it was performed, was harmonized. One of the fruits of historical performance practice has been the awareness that in earlier times, countries or even parts of them had their own repertoire. Texts were sometimes different, and universal texts were sometimes sung on different melodies. The disc to be reviewed here offers specimens of a Bohemian tradition from the Middle Ages, which is even more different, as the chants are not sung in Latin, but in the vernacular, the Old Czech.
In the 1870s a student discovered a manuscript of sacred chants from the time of the Hussites. It has become known as the Jistebnický Kancionál. At first, scholars focused on the chants that reflected the ideals of the Hussite movement. In later times, the interest extended to those chants that were part of the traditional repertoire, but then in translations into the vernacular. There are many questions about this source that have not been answered yet. One of them is who was/were responsible for the creation of the manuscript and who translated Latin into Czech. It seems very likely that the origin has to be found in 15th-century intellectual circles connected to Prague University and the Na Slovanech monastery. Whatever is the case, the whole collection can be considered unique, as Hana Vlhová-Wörner points out in her liner-notes. “The project of ‘Czech plainchant’ comprehensible to the wide religious community can thus be indisputably branded as a truly revolutionary step in the history of European church music. Yet it was far more than an autotelic creation of a new set of the chant repertoire, with the project’s aim being a fundamental reconsideration of
laypersons’ participation in liturgy, their education in the parts of the Christian faith and acquaintance with the principal concepts of the Hussite theologians.”
In this respect one may compare this repertoire with Martin Luther’s translations and versifications of traditional chants and with the laude which were written in the late 16th and early 17th centuries in Italy, which were used as tools to disseminate the faith among the ‘common’ people: those who did not understand Latin, the language of the church. This also explains the variety within the repertoire in the Jistebnický Kancionál.
The programme opens with a Czech version of the Credo; it is a paraphrase in four sections. The remaining programme is divided into four sections. The first is about the Last Supper and Jesus’s Passion. Kristovoť Jest Ustavenie includes texts from the New Testament about the institution of the sacrament. It is followed by a remarkable piece: the narrative of Jesus’s Passion has the form of the Lamentations of Jeremiah. It opens with the words “Hear words of sorrow”. Each section opens with a Hebrew letter, just like the settings of the Lamentations sung during Holy Week. It is an elaborate setting, with a wider range than most other chants. That goes in particular for the letters, which reminded me of the chants by Hildegard of Bingen. According to a note in the manuscript, this piece should be sung at the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday. This section ends with a responsory for Good Friday, Zatmilo Se Jest, which is an example of “meticulous translation work”. The same is the case with the offertorio Brány Nebeské Otevřel Hospodin.
In other cases the translator(s) took much more freedom. Hana Vlhová-Wörner mentions that in particular the free poetic texts that were inserted in the chants, the so-called tropes, caused him or them quite some trouble. “As the Czech translations of refined Latin verses often resulted in corruption of rhymes and syllabic dimensions, the original form became virtually indistinguishable. A case in point is the sequence Všemohúcí král mocí svítězilú (This Day the King Omnipotent, 9), a translation of the Latin sequence Rex omnipotens die, dating from towards the end of the first millennium. The endeavour to make the text comprehensible prevailed over respect for the traditional form. The creator of the Czech version ultimately abandoned the original division of rhymes and generated a new scheme, by partially depriving the first three stanzas of identical isophonic endings and interconnecting them into a single long musical phrase.”
The common practice of extending the fixed texts with tropes, opened the gates for the creation of entirely new texts, which expressed the ideas of the Hussites. An example is Hospodine, Pro Tvé Svaté Vzkřiešenie, which includes a passage about Jesus’s descent into hell from the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus. For Hussite theologians, the reception of body and blood of Christ was of great importance, and this explains why many new chants were intended for the feast of Corpus Christi.
Apart from translations of common chants, the translator(s) also took some originally Latin chants that were written in Prague in the 14th century, such as the offertorio Kněžie Obět Boží with the trope Budiž Pozdraveno, Tělo Kristovo. An original Czech chant is the prosa Abychme hodně pamatovali for Corpus Christi. Another piece of Hussite origin is Patřmež K Bohu Tak Múdrému, which is a sequence of quotations from Church Fathers.
Those who are not familiar with this repertoire, may not recognize much of what is performed here. There are a few exceptions, though. One of them is the Easter chant Radujme Se Všickni Nynie, whose origin is a carol from the 13th or 14th century with the title Surrexit Christus hodie. It was paraphrased by Martin Luther as Erstanden ist der heilig Christ. A second one is Buoh Všemohúcí, which is best known as the German Easter hymn Christ ist erstanden.
Although this is liturgical music, Hana Vlhová-Wörner points out that it is impossible to say whether these chants were sung at regular religious ceremonies. She does not dwell on this subject, but it seems possible that they were rather performed at special occasions. In her personal note in the booklet, Barbora Kabátkova states how she fell in love with this collection of chants, and how she has come to understand “that the true essence of the Jistebnice Kancionál does not rest in the few Hussite movement revolutionary songs that have been most frequently mentioned in specialist literature, but in its revealing the frailty of the early 15th-century people, longing for reformation of the Church, as well as the perfect comprehension of the Bible. Since one of the means for them was to understand the sung liturgical texts, the unknown author/authors decided to translate and adapt the lyrics of selected plainchant into Old Czech. Another path taken by the manuscript’s creators was to praise
Christ’s benefaction in newly composed songs. Frailty and vulnerability thus became the driving force, and conviction and tenacity the tool for attaining the objective.”
It is hard to see a better ensemble to take care of these chants than the Tiburtina Ensemble which has made a name for itself with the exploration of little-known repertoire from the Middle Ages and Renaissance, especially from sources in Central Europe. The importance of such projects can hardly be overstated, and the fact that the singers are native speakers and are close to the sources are important devices for the exploration of this repertoire.
If one has an ear for old liturgical practices, this is a most fascinating disc. It is unlikely you have ever heard this music before. The singing of the Tiburtina Ensemble (and not to forget, its members in solo episodes) is superb. The acoustic is exactly what this music needs. The booklet includes informative liner-notes, and the lyrics in Old Czech and English translations. I can’t think of better reasons to give this release a special recommendation.
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Cantio: Věřmež V Boha Jednoho
Cantio: Kristovoť Jest Ustavenie
Lamentacio: Aleph. Poslúchajte Slova Smutná
Responsorium: Zatmilo Se Jest
Cantio: Radujme Se Všickni Nynie
Tropus: Hospodine, Pro Tvé Svaté Vzkřiešenie
Offertorium: Brány Nebeské Otevřel Hospodin
Cantio: Vstalť Jest Kristus Z Mrtvých
Sequence: Všemohúcí Král Mocí
Cantio: Patřmež K Bohu Tak Múdrému
Introitus: Nakrmil Jest Je Z Tučnosti
Alleluia: Tělo Mé Pravý Jest Pokrm
Prosa: Abychme hodně pamatovali
Prosa: Kněžie Obět Boží. Tropus Budiž Pozdraveno, Tělo Kristovo
Offertorium: Kněžie Obět Boží. Tropus Budiž Pozdraveno, Tělo Kristovo
Communio: Kolikrát Kolivěk
Cantio: Padnúc Na Svá Kolena
Introitus: Daj Pokoj, Hospodine
Cantio: Chvalmež Boha Vždy Dobrého
Tropus: Děkujeme Hospodinu
Cantio: Buoh Všemohúcí
Cantio: Jezu Kriste, Štědrý Kněže