Glorious Laudes & Praises: Medieval Women’s Choir’s Laude Novella

Medieval Women’s Choir
Laude Novella (An Italian Advent)
December 10, 2006
St. James Cathedral, Seattle, Washington

By Patricia Herlevi

A week before Medieval Women’s Choir’s Laude Novella concert, I listened to a radio interview with Director Margriet Tindemans that aired on Mostly Medieval, KBCS. I nearly fell out of my seat when I heard that the choir would be performing a new setting for St. Francis (Francesco) of Assisi’s infamous Umbrian dialect poem, Canticle of the Creatures, composed by Peter Seibert. And I had been familiar with the early Franciscans and laudes for some time.

The concert program included a collection of gorgeous laudes, both Medieval and contemporary. The Medieval work included laudes credited to Florence laudario (14th century), Aosta manuscript (14th century), Cortona laudario (14th century), Johannes Ciconia (1370-1412) and St. Francis of Assisi’s poem Canticle of the Creatures. Along with Seibert, Andrew Smith who composes for the Scandinavian ensemble Trio Medieval, supplied the modern compositions. Medieval string player Margriet Tindemans composed additional music for Dulcis Iesu memoria. The concert included both exquisite vocal and instrumental work.In the Mostly Medieval radio interview, Tindemans had elaborated on the history
of laudes, how the Franciscans popularized the laudes and that the laudes were
sung by lay people at small gatherings. Some laudes were composed and performed
by professional singers, but laudes were spiritual chants sung outside of a
church setting. So it was ironic that this collection of laudes was performed at
St. James Cathedral and yet, the concert felt intimate.

The first set began with the choir singing monophonic laudes or plainsong
chants. This was followed by a processional of the choir leaving the space and
the instrumentalist performing O beatum incendium on harp, vielle, recorder and
percussion. A duet performed by sopranos Ann Glusker and Marian Seibert sent
shivers through the cathedral’s rafters, this was followed by another
instrumental piece which featured mesmerizing solo work by recorder player Vicki
Boeckman and than the laude Regina gloriosa sung by Glusker, Seibert and
Tindemans handling the alto part.

The set ended with the much anticipated Il Canto delle creature. Although the
choral composition could be called astoundingly beautiful and even a sweet
homage to St. Francis of Assisi, I do not feel that the composition captured the
spiritual essence of the saint who after his conversion despised academics;
valued simplicity and humility. I believe that St. Francis with musical
assistance from one of his musically gifted friars, did compose music for the
poem. I have read accounts of Canticle of the Creatures being sung during the
saint’s final hours.

It might be a stretch of the contemporary imagination to smell the stench of
death, to see the saint with his bleeding wounds caused by a stigmata and the
brothers clad in rags and in their bare feet raising their voices in praise of
God’s many creatures. I doubt all the voices were tuneful and I suggest that the
friars were choking back tears as they watched “Father Francesco,” fading away.

St. Francis is considered one of the most popular religious figures in
Christianity next to the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ. Many artists have
attempted to capture the saint’s essence in their work, including paintings,
(where he is often erroneously depicted as blonde with fair skin), movies,
(Franco Zeffirelli did capture Francesco’s spiritual essence and teachings in
Brother Sun, Sister Moon), literature (both fiction and non-fiction), and
musical productions.

French composer Olivier Messiaen composed an opera, St. Francis of Assisi,
however the dissonant opera left me cold. Since I am devoted to St. Francis of
Assisi, I tormented myself by listening to the wretched opera (recorded on 5
discs), which I compare to nails on a chalkboard.

Only those who spend time contemplating the saint’s life and his beliefs
successfully capture the saint in their art. Peter Seibert’s setting of Canticle
of the Creatures certainly possessed a lyrical quality and offered the vocalists
a challenging piece to render in a venue known for its gorgeous acoustics. As I
mentioned earlier, I did enjoy the piece, but my heart did not connect the music
to the saint.

In fact, if you wish to hear Franciscan plainsong chants composed by an academic
who is spiritually connected to Francesco, take a listen to Corsican composer
Jean-Paul Poletti’s work. Poletti resides close to a Franciscan community in the
town of Sartene on the Corsican island and his work suggests that he is immersed
in Franciscan philosophies and teachings. And if you want to capture the raw
essence of Franciscan plainsong chants, go see Franciscan friars or nuns chant
in their environment, if that is even possible.

But I digress…

After the intermission, Marian Seibert performed another stunning solo, Da ciel
venne messo novello with her voice sailing and soaring throughout the cathedral.
I have seen Marian perform several times in Early Music settings. The elegant
blonde resembles an aristocrat of medieval times so it is an enjoyable
experience to witness her solo work. The composition Regina caeli, by Andrew
Smith (originally composed for Trio Medieval), featured roughly half of the
choir’s singers. This set featured some stunning instrumental work, solos and
polyphony on Gloria in excelsis by Johannes Ciconia. The title track of the
concert program, Laude Novella appeared three times throughout the concert,
including a jubilant instrumental version near the end.

The choir ended the concert with a laude familiar to my ears, Gloria in cielo
which also ends the movie, Brother Sun, Sister Moon. I imagine that the early
Franciscans were familiar with this laude and of course, images from Brother
Sun, Sister Moon where Francesco and the humble brothers dressed in rags
received blessings from Pope Innocent III, flickered in my mind during the
duration of the short laude. In the end, Medieval Women’s Choir brought the
spirit of saints into the cathedral. And hopefully, concert attendees walked
away with a more heartfelt and humble approach to the holiday season.

As you can see, I am not an academic and my knowledge of medieval spiritual
chants is limited. However, I am seeking to know St. Francesco through his
words, music and teachings he left behind after his short stay on earth. The
unabridged version of Canticle of the Creatures could enhance any spiritual
person’s path, no matter what religion or spirituality they practice. Similar to
the legendary Sufi mystic poet Rumi, Francesco’s writings also lead us straight
to a divine experience. And certainly artists, writers, musical composers and
movie makers still garner their inspiration from the medieval Italian saint.