“People are looking for a meaning to their existence. They are seeking the essential. Medieval music is simple and pure – and it is also challenging.”
These words were spoken by Benjamin Bagby, leader of the Cologne-based Sequentia medieval ensemble, at a seminar arranged by the Modus Centre for Medieval Music in Oslo last autumn. He continued: “Modernism has lost its modernity. Modern music has lost much of its energy and early music has in many ways taken its place. The audiences who now attend early music concerts are the same people who used to go to concerts of modern music.”
On the basis of written sources, in-depth studies of Gregorian singing traditions, the work of foreign colleagues in this area and detailed knowledge of the living Norwegian ballad tradition, which is passed on orally, an increasing number of “new” repertoires with their roots in the Norwegian Middle Ages are being presented to restless, modern audiences. On CDs and at concerts, Norwegian performers are bringing medieval music, both sacred and profane, back to life, while instrumentalists are using reconstructed copies of instruments that were used in Norway in the Middle Ages.
An increasing number of young musicians are keen to learn more about this kind of music and many established performers have spent much of their lives studying the medieval repertoire of Norway and Europe. However, they often worked alone and had little professional contact with like-minded colleagues until the Modus Centre for Medieval Music was established in 1998.
The Modus Centre
Since its establishment, the Modus Centre, located in the heart of medieval Oslo, has been helping to link Norwegians interested in early music more closely with their European counterparts. Here, performers and researchers meet for courses and seminars or to exchange experience, the curiosity of younger musicians is further aroused, and happy amateurs and enthusiasts receive their first introduction to Gregorian chants. The centre has been co-producer of two CDs and its artistic and administrative director, Gro Siri O. Johansen (page 18), regularly gives courses on Gregorian singing. The centre also arranges concerts by the Modus Ensemble and others. A festival linked to the centre is arranged each summer in the old city of Oslo. Since its inception, driven by enthusiasm and tiny budgets, the Modus Centre has offered seminars and courses featuring Europe’s leading authorities in this area.
One such capacity is Benjamin Bagby, singer, harpist and founder of the Sequentia Ensemble, which has recorded a series of prize-winning CDs. It is regarded as one of the leading ensembles in Europe in the field of vocal and instrumental medieval music. Another such capacity is fiddler Elizabeth Gaver. A member of the Sequentia Ensemble, she is now living in Oslo. Her approach to creating instrumental music based on Hildegard von Bingen’s repertoire is extremely exciting. This is not a living tradition and she has hardly any written instrumental music on which to base her work. On the other hand, we know that instruments were used in this once popular but now forgotten tradition.
At a seminar arranged by the Modus Centre, Elizabeth Gaver explained how she acquires what she calls a “Hildegard vocabulary”. She picks motifs and typical patterns from Hildegard von Bingen’s repertoire, within the same mode. On this basis, she takes important phrases from a particular piece and creates an instrumental Hildegard piece. She does not regard this as composing or arranging, but as approaching the way in which she believes musicians worked at the time.
Due to the growing curiosity of audiences and performers, medieval music is becoming increasingly popular in Norway. The exciting, unusual thing about what is happening here is the link between strong oral traditions and studies of ancient sources. We have a rich source material of Norwegian ballads that still survive in the oral tradition and a unique way of performing them, with frequent use of ornaments and a tonality based on the old church music and natural harmonics. We also have sources from the Gregorian repertoire associated with the cultivation of the Viking King-Saint Olav. Thus, Norwegian performers of Gregorian chants have their own “national” repertoire, although it is rooted in the continental Gregorian tradition.