|Program Notes on:
A Star in the East
Medieval Hungarian Christmas Music
Between 500 and 800 a.d., the Magyar people were created in the Ural
mountains of eastern Europe, when the nomadic Finno-Ugrians mixed their
blood with Eastern Turks. Known in Roman times as the territory of Pannonia,
Hungary’s first extensive contact with Western Europe began in the eleventh
century, with the accession of the Christian King Stephen I (997?1038).
From that time, Hungarian clerical scholars were sent to study in France,
and dynastic marriages in the Hungarian ruling families created connections
with the royal houses of every European nation, including Byzantium.
In the sixteenth century, a series of devastating political events almost
brought Hungary’s artistic life to an end, and destroyed most of what evidence
there was of its medieval musical culture. The imperialist Habsburgs incited
civil unrest, and in 1541 the Turks conquered the city of Buda, remaining
to dominate southern Hungary for the next 150 years. Iconoclasts, the Turks
destroyed artworks in all forms, including liturgical manuscripts. Fortunately
some of these manuscripts were copied or carried away from Hungary with
fleeing monks, nuns and clerics, to border areas that are now parts of
neighboring countries. The Hungarian sources that were saved undoubtedly
represent only a small portion of the original number, but the remarkable
consistency among them tells us that major efforts had been made to arrive
at liturgical and musical uniformity.
From the eleventh century onward there is evidence of plainchant instruction
in Hungarian monastic, collegiate and cathedral schools. Chant sources
from the early Christian years were based on French, German and Italian
models, but the imported repertory was soon enhanced in two ways—by adding
ornamental flourishes in a native style to existing works, and by composing
entirely new works, usually for special Hungarian feasts or liturgical
practices. Elements of foreign notations were blended together, and a specifically
Hungarian chant notation eventually emerged. Hungarian plainchant style
is characterized by wide intervallic leaps, pentatonic tendencies and extended
cadences. These traits are shared to some degree by chant dialects from
many German and Bohemian areas, but the Hungarian repertoire has a flavor
all its own.
The sources for the chant on this program date from the twelfth through
sixteenth centuries and follow the liturgical rite of Esztergom (Strigonium)
in the north, the seat of the archbishop of all Hungary. The opening antiphon
spes nostra, rarely found outside Hungary, is sung in procession at
the opening of first Christmas Vespers on Christmas Eve. The plainchant
Mass propers (the alleluia Veni domine, the introit Dum medium silentium,
the gradual Speciosus forma, the offertory Letentur celi, the communion
Exulta filia Syon) are taken from the three Christmas Masses (at cockcrow,
at dawn, and High Mass), and the Mass for the Sunday within the Octave
(eight days) of Christmas. Az idvözitöt régenten is a
contrafact of the Latin Advent hymn Verbum supernum prodiens. The Office
antiphon O mundi domina, for Christmas Eve, uses the same tune as the other
great “O” antiphons of Advent, but with a text found only in Hungary. Gaude
et letare is the closing antiphon for first Vespers of Christmas, ending
with the exclamations “holy, holy, holy,” later echoed in the Isten, téged,
a medieval Hungarian version of the Te Deum which is still sung today in
parts of Hungary. It was probably not until the fifteenth century that
Hungarian texts began occasionally to replace Latin in sacred chants and
songs. After the Protestant reformation, Lutheran liturgical books were
written entirely in Hungarian, including adaptations of earlier chants
and new metrical songs, like the Advent hymn Mi Atyánk Atya Isten.
Sources for medieval polyphony in Hungary are very meagre. A few polyphonic
pieces are found in chant manuscripts. The rest are isolated and scattered
fragments, the pieces themselves often incomplete.Some were surely composed
in Hungary, but concordances with non-Hungarian manuscripts make it clear
that many were brought in from other countries. In any case, the polyphonic
works written in and brought to Hungary don’t seem to share the mannerisms
found so frequently in native plainchant. Polyphonic singing is rarely
mentioned in Hungary until the later Middle Ages fourteenth and fifteenth
centuries), and then only cryptically and sporadically. A very large proportion
of the surviving polyphonic works are for the Christmas season, and considering
the rare and special nature of polyphony in medieval Hungary, this could
only have meant that Christmas was especially reverenced there.
The polyphonic works found in Hungary are of two basic types. The first
kind is an archaic organum or discant style found in many parts of middle
and eastern Europe. Although such works were written in the fifteenth or
sixteenth century, the simplicity of the note-against-note style and the
predominance of perfect intervals make them sound much older. The fifteenth-century
alleluia Fuit virgo, for the feast of the Virgin Mary’s Presentation in
the Temple (November 21), is written in this archaic style, as is the sixteenth-century
troped sanctus Omnes unanimiter. The readings for the Christmas Office
(lectio) and Mass (evangelium, or gospel) are recitation tones filled out
with archaic organum. The lectio Salvator noster has been reconstructed
by us using a Hungarian fragment and another setting of the same text from
a contemporary Austrian manuscript. The evangelium Liber generationis is
the gospel—the geneology of Jesus—with alternating chant and three-voice
The second type of medieval Hungarian polyphony dates from the late
fourteenth to the early sixteenth century and uses more contemporary structural
techniques and harmonies. The songs Novum decus oritur and Novus annus
adiit are accompanied melodies. The polytextual motet Exordium quadruplate
/ Nate dei / Concrepet infanti / Verbum caro is written in a harmonic and
contrapuntal style that seems to be in a class by itself.
From the few sources that have survived, we know that polyphonic works
were brought to Hungary from elsewhere in Europe — from England, France,
Germany and Italy, as well as from Hungary’s immediate neighbors — and
that Hungarian composers were emulating these styles in their own compositions.
But because of the lack of source material, the true importance of polyphonic
music in medieval Hungary may never be known. Early chroniclers tell us
that the first Hungarians sang hymns to the earth and cried out to their
pagan gods. The advent of Christianity may have changed their pantheon
and the object of their prayers, but the role of sacred song continued
and grew in importance. The rescued remains testify to this, and to music’s
place at the heart and soul of Hungary’s spiritual life.
-- Susan Hellauer
The following excerpts from Parasztbiblia: Magyar Népi Biblikus
Történetek (The Peasant Bible: Bible Stories of the Hungarian
People), edited by Annamária Lammel and Ilona Nagy (Budapest:
Gondolat Könyvkiadó, 1985), are reproduced here with the permission
of the publisher.
Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem
While awaiting the birth of Jesus, the angels lined up on the Path of
Angels. It has two branches, one leads to Nazareth, the other to Bethlehem.
Jesus was born of Mary. His birth was awaited for four thousand years,
for a prophet had said that the Messiah would be born who would redeem
the earth. The people were waiting to see who it would be. Just when Jesus
was to be born, the angel appeared to Mary and Joseph, telling them to
leave Nazareth and go to Bethlehem, for that was where the redeemer of
the earth would be born. Then they went, saying goodbye to their mothers
and fathers. Joachim, Mary’s father, gave them a donkey and a cow, and
they went on these to Bethlehem.
No one would take them in
Then Mary and Joseph walked night and day, and when they arrived in
Bethlehem, they went from house to house, but no one would take them
in—can you believe it?—and they mocked them, and said to Joseph, “How could
you come when the Virgin Mary is so great with child, she might deliver
any hour?” The birth was to happen at just that time, and in the whole
city, they couldn’t find a place where someone would take them in. But
on the outskirts of town, there was an old, abandoned stable. That was
where travelers usually went to get in from the rain. They had to go there
to stay, no one would take them in.
It was truly cold in the stable. There was no window or door, and donkeys
were kept there. You know, they needed a fire in there. There was Mary,
who didn’t even have a bed to lie in. But they swept everything out nicely,
and then they made the manger. And when it was midnight, Jesus was born.
Such a brightness came upon them
Not long after that the angels appeared before the shepherds. They were
singing, “Glory, rise, and go to the birth of Jesus. He is there in a manger.”
“Do you hear that?” one shepherd says — because they were frightened when
they heard the words of the angels. “Do you hear what the angel is saying?
Let us rise and go to see him.” Such a brightness came upon them that they
went, they all went. It was as though they followed a star. All at once,
as they were walking, the star stopped over the stable. The shepherds
were amazed. How was it possible that the son of God could be born in such
a place? They went in to see him, and they found everything to be as the
angel had told them. Then they kneeled down before him and adored him.
All three kings saw the star
Then the wise men of the Orient came: Caspar, Balthazar and Melchior.
They saw the star. All three kings saw it, even though they were from different
countries. They saw that star, and they said to themselves, “There must
be a birth. I must go search it out.” Each one set off, and as they went
on their way, all three met. They came together from three countries, but
the star still went before them, and they were following the star. They
traveled until the star stopped where Jesus was born. So came the three
holy kings, bringing presents. One brought gold; another, frankincense;
and the third, myrrh. The Virgin Mary divided up the gold among the poor.
They were so poor, but still she gave away the gold, she had no need for
it. The shepherds had brought gifts too. Some brought cheese, some a lamb;
each brought what he could. And they say that when Jesus was born In the
moon, you can see the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus in her arms. When
Jesus was born, they say that he looked as big as a four- to six-month-old
baby. He was such a beautiful child that they were amazed, how could he
be newly born, and so big?
Many people went to see him. They looked him all over: “Well, does he
walk yet?” Jesus didn’t walk. And that’s why little infants don’t have
to walk. That’s why they need one or two years before they know how to
walk. And they say that when Jesus was born, if Mary had married a lord
or gentleman, then they would have laid the child in a cradle made of gold,
and he wouldn’t have been born so poor. But still, Mary and Joseph had
to go to a stable at the edge of town, and the child had to be born among
all the chickens. It was at midnight that the Virgin Mary had to bear Jesus,
and just at that time, a field of grapes blossomed and ripened so beautifully.
This is what the Virgin Mary gave to the little Jesus: the grapes.
Translation: Carol Rounds