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Gregorian chanting under the stars

THE SUMMER season traditionally sees several musical events move from indoor venues into the open air. Although this mostly applies to rock and folklore festivals, several classical music festival have also ventured outdoors or into new spaces. These include the Zvolen Castle Plays, which include operatic performances, and the Bratislava Organ Festival, which is hosted in the precincts of Bratislava Castle. On the weekend of July 20-22, the courtyard of Bratislava’s Clarissen Church was due to welcome the second biennial Gregorian Meditations festival.

THE SUMMER season traditionally sees several musical events move from indoor venues into the open air. Although this mostly applies to rock and folklore festivals, several classical music festival have also ventured outdoors or into new spaces. These include the Zvolen Castle Plays, which include operatic performances, and the Bratislava Organ Festival, which is hosted in the precincts of Bratislava Castle. On the weekend of July 20-22, the courtyard of Bratislava’s Clarissen Church was due to welcome the second biennial Gregorian Meditations festival.

As it happened, bad weather ultimately drove all the ensembles and audiences into the nearby baroque courtyard of the University Library, which has a glass roof.

“We first organised a literary event in the courtyard of the Clarissen Church – originally used as a garden where the nuns of the Order of St Clare used to work, meditate and prey,” Marcel Šustek of the Multi-Functional Cultural Centre of the University Library told The Slovak Spectator. “Later, I thought that it would be great to bring spiritual music to this space. But due to the demanding management and also financial resources, we organise it as a biennial event.” Asked how the performing ensembles were selected, Šustek said that finance was critical: “I know a splendid Russian Gregorian choir of 60 members, but it would be impossible to fly them in. I have been limited to a smaller region and bodies with fewer members, who don’t need to use an aeroplane to come to Bratislava.”

On the first evening, Schola Gregoriana Pragensis sang works by Polish composer Peter Wilhelmi de Grudenz. “Strictly spoken, this is not Gregorian chant, but rather medieval, or early-Renaissance, polyphony,” Hasan el-Dunia, who stood-in for the ensemble’s normal leader David Eben, told The Slovak Spectator. “Gregorian chants rarely have authors, as in the spiritual music of the Middle Ages names were not important.” The Prague choir is quite well known and has already released several albums. The recently reconstructed University Library courtyard saw a full house, with some prospective audience members still queuing at the door as the concert began.

On Saturday, the five-member Vox Gotica ensemble from Austria offered an exhaustive overview of Gregorian chant, from its roots (old-Roman chorale) to its results and outcomes (late-medieval and early-Renaissance polyphony by known authors, e.g. Hildegard von Bingen, Guillaume Dufay). The evening included a detailed explanation of the substance and history of Gregorian chant. Vox Gotica, based in a church in downtown Vienna, released its first album last year, and typically performs at religious events or specialised festivals. “This is the first time we have sung outside a church,” Daniel Schmidt, leader and conductor of the ensemble said. “When we started rehearsing, we felt we could not hear each other, but later on, we adapted to the ambience. In the concert we actually liked it, and appreciated the lighting.”

Sunday brought a concert by local group Schola Gregoriana Bratislavensis. “We decided to sing for the local audience works from the Bratislava Antiphonary – a missal which comes from the Bratislava Chapter Library,” Milan Kolena, the head of the ensemble, said. “We chose the Holy Trinity chants, Dominica I post Pentecosten Sanctissimae Trinitatis, and Gregorian chants from the Graduale Triplex.” A recording of the Bratislava Antiphonary was in fact the original reason for the formation of the singing group, and it remains their only recording so far. “The Antiphonary’s recording was part of a pilot UNESCO project of World Heritage in Slovakia: the scores were published together with the musical recordings on a CD-ROM by the Slovak National Library in Martin and the University Library in Bratislava.”

The festival’s performers found their way to this ancient form of singing by a variety of routes. “I graduated in religious studies and philosophy,” el-Dunia said, “but to be honest, Gregorian chant had fascinated me – together with hard rock – since my teenage years. We rehearse quite often, but the basis lies in individual learning of scores and training at home,” he added.

By contrast, Schmidt of Vox Gotica said his ensemble’s origins lie in the church. “We started singing in the Heilige Maria am Gestade Church – we have our roots there,” he said. “We used to sing during masses, but now we only sing in concerts there. We also sing in festivals or at spiritual events, and soon we will record album in the Heiligen Kreuz with local monks.” Other members of Vox Gotica said that the group rehearses only irregularly, mostly due to its members’ busy schedules, but meets more frequently before planned events.

“We met Mr Kolena in another choir, Apollo, and he asked us to record the Bratislava Antiphonary,” one of the members of Schola Gregoriana Bratislavensis said. Kolena graduated in choir conducting and sacral music from the Academy of Performing Arts, and also studied Gregorian chant in Vienna. “We sing regularly, also during services and events at the Jesuit Church in Bratislava,” leader of the choir said.

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