Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Two lost arts: singing from oversized books, and using lecterns

Add this to the list of medieval practices that ought to be restored: the art of chanting from oversized books. Today I revisit a pet subject of mine: medieval plainchant.

My schola's current practice is for everyone to have a copy of the Liber Usualis, a compendium of chants about the size of a brick, which conveniently has all the chants for the 1962 Mass and Office for the entire year. It's a wonderful little invention, but it's relatively new in the grand scope of sacred music history. The first edition of the Liber was published by the Abbey of Solesmes in 1896. Before then, chanters had the wearisome task of sorting through several books at once. Granted, it was still a better lot than that of the monks in the Church's much younger days, who had to simply memorize everything they had to sing. The further back in time you look, the harder it would have been for choirs to provide music books for every singer due to cost and technology. I believe the Middle Ages found a happy solution in between: to end the trouble of brute memorization, the monasteries first developed a system of notation (which would eventually grow into our modern sheet music)... and to save the trouble and expense of copying so many books for each individual monk, they would create a single, large book that could be read by the entire choir. 

A 16th-century Spanish antiphonal.

I was browsing through the website of Ensemble Organum, one of my favorite early music performance groups, and found this page for a project called Lectern International. They purport to have a network of locations where singers can chant from original medieval manuscripts grouped around a lectern. The page reads:
"An international network of locations where it is possible to sing from original documents (manuscripts or printed material of the era) grouped together around a lectern.

The venture consists of reliving medieval music by initiating singers to the practise of the lectern chant. Thus one of the essential aspects of the recreation of music prior to the XIX century is their context of execution. The size of the books, their position on the lectern, the spatial and acoustic conditions of the execution are fundamental elements which are lost when one sings using small-format modern transcriptions.

For close to eight centuries, the lectern was fundamental in the transmission of musical know-how for both voice and instrument. Yet the musical and pedagogical value of this object, its role in the conceptualisation and creation process of the music is widely ignored nowadays.

Singing polyphony or monody around a lectern radically transforms the musical interpretation, but singing from an medieval manuscript has an even greater significance. The tempi become slower, the listening of the other singers is totally modified, the memorisation processes are different as well.

Places where it is possible to do this are rare. More often than not the manuscripts are preserved in libraries where their use for their original purpose is met with disapproval. Lectern International federates places where this sort of practise is encouraged."

I emailed them over a week ago to ask about it but never got a response. I imagine there aren't any churches in the United States which have giant chant books in the first place, but I did have the pleasure of seeing one right here in Texas a few weeks ago. When I visited the Bowld Music Library in Fort Worth to look at their copy of Pugin's Earnest Appeal for the Revival of the Ancient Plain Song, they actually had a giant antiphonal from the 15th century or so behind a glass case. It's just a pity that these books will likely remain solely behind glass cases around the world for the rest of time, rather than be used for their original purpose.

In any case, Ensemble Organum's premise is that the style of plainchant will sound different when everyone is singing from one book. I can't say I've done it before, but I can imagine it: all the chanters, including the director, are facing the same direction. The director is presumably at the front, waving his hands right before the book so that all the chanters see the notes and his direction at the same time. More than any other method, it forces the choir to chant as a unit. This leaves one question, though: how does it work if the choir is divided in half facing each other in the traditional stalls? Are there two books and two lecterns?

This image from a 16th century Book of Hours has one choir lectern for each stall, plus an eagle lectern on the Gospel side.

This brings me to the second topic I wanted to write on: the proper use of reading desks, lecterns, ambos, and pulpits. The vast majority of churches in which I've attended the traditional Latin Mass are arranged in what we might call a "Tridentine style" that has, for some reason, completely eschewed the use of reading desks and platforms. They have a single speaking platform on the Gospel side of the sanctuary: a wooden box which more closely resembles a politician's podium in a press conference, rather than one of the glorious pulpits of the medieval age. This platform is used for everything, from sermons to mundane announcements: though rarely, if ever, for actually proclaiming Scripture or any other sort of liturgical usage. The contemporary trad practice at solemn Mass (on the few times it's to be had in the first place) is for the subdeacon to hold up the book with his own hands when singing the Epistle, and to hold the book as the deacon sings the Gospel.

The craftsmanship of the medieval masters in fashioning reading desks, lecterns, and pulpits should be a testament to our lack of imagination. This first example is of a lectern from the 15th century, repainted in the 1930's. It's housed in the church of Saint Edmund, a pre-Reformation church in Suffolk. Notice the popular double-desk style, which I suppose could have allowed for a cantor on either side (the Sarum Use's rubrics propose two cantors for the Graduals and Alleluias of Mass).

15th-century lectern at Saint Edmund, Southwold

The same repainting is featured on a pulpit in the same church:

In my book, a pulpit can't be properly called by that name unless you have to climb a set of stairs to speak from it.

A great many lecterns of the later Middle Ages, especially the ones used for reading the Gospels, were fashioned in the shape of eagles. The eagle was said to be the bird that flew the highest, and therefore the closest to heaven. The eagle was also supposed to have been able to gaze directly into the bright light of the sun without harm. The faithful Christian, likewise, could stare at the sight of the deacon proclaiming the Gospel from this eagle-shaped lectern without flinching.

16th century brass lectern at the church of Saint Mary, Redenhall.

The most splendid eagle lectern of all is this one fashioned by Aert van Tricht, also in the 16th century. It was bought by Pugin's wealthiest patron, John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, for Augustus Pugin's Cathedral of Saint Chad, Birmingham: the first Catholic cathedral built in England since the Reformation. The eagle holds a dragon under its talon.

It's decorated with figures of Christ, the three Magi, Saint Barbara, and the Old Testament prophets, among others.

 I believe it was Pugin and his brassmaker, John Hardman, who replaced the missing Saint Barbara figure.

Sadly, the lectern currently resides in a museum. I don't know how it got there, but I wouldn't be surprised if it was sold by the Vatican II vandals. At least it has the honor of being housed at the Met in New York City. 

Pugin, of course, proved that these lecterns could be made for in the modern age and be used in the modern liturgy (which, in his day, was the Tridentine Mass). Here's a drawing he made in his book, Designs for Iron and Brass in the Style of the 16th and 17th Centuries

I believe this page shows the same lectern in physical form, though the images are very small.

Another lectern by Pugin, in the eagle style.

An eagle lectern at Pugin's church of Saint Giles, Cheadle, on the Gospel side. I don't know if Pugin actually made it or not.

This is a very elaborate lectern by Pugin's son-in-law and pupil, John Hardman Powell, currently at the church of Saint Paul, Brighton.

The base depicts the angels of the Apocalypse.

Now we come to the pulpits, from which sermons are preached. The medievals favored high pulpits because they signified the scaling of a mountain to proclaim the Gospel truths from the highest heights. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, Pope Innocent III's treatise on the Mass quoted Isaias in reference to the deacon's scaling of the ambo to read the Gospel: "Get thee up upon a high mountain, thou that bringest good tidings to Sion: lift up thy voice with strength".

England is fortunate to have many surviving examples of pulpits. They endured the Reformation, probably because the Protestant commissioners, for once, didn't find them objectionable. Ironically, the Counter-Reformation on the continent gradually saw these pulpits dismantled or de-emphasized in what I see as a misguided effort to direct all visual focus toward the altar.

A 15th-century pulpit (heavily restored by Victorians) at the church of the Holy Trinity, Long Sutton.

A massive stone pulpit, with eagle lectern within, at the Duomo in Pisa.

Perhaps the finest pulpit of all. This one is at Canterbury Cathedral. Though it currently rests in the chief church of Anglicanism, one of the carvings depict Pope Gregory the Great sending Saint Augustine of Canterbury in a mission to establish the church in England.

A fine modern example is the pulpit in the Washington National Cathedral, which was carved less than a century ago. It was given by the Archbishop of Canterbury to the new cathedral in D.C. as a gift, and was remarkably fashioned out of stone from Canterbury Cathedral itself.

The central relief depicts a medieval Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, urging King John to sign Magna Carta. Not a subject I would've chosen for a pulpit, but there it is.

Finally, here are some photos of yet another kind of platform that was in use in the Middle Ages: the jube. The jube was the name given to rood lofts in France. While it's unclear whether the Scriptures were read from the top of the English rood lofts (the staircases may have been only to allow acolytes to light the candles at the top), the French jubes were certainly used for readings: probably at the right for Lessons and Epistles, and the left for Gospels.

The jube of the church of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont.
The name "jube" comes from the Mass. Before the deacon sings the Gospel, he approaches the celebrant and asks for his blessing with the words jube, domne, benedicere ("pray, sir, a blessing").

The one pictured above is the last surviving jube in France. It was built in the mid-1500's, in what was perhaps the very last Gothic work of art in that country before the total onslaught of the Classical and Baroque. The church of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont, by the way, has a colorful history. In the French Revolution, it was temporarily closed and re-dedicated as "the Temple of Filial Piety". We have Napoleon Bonaparte to thank for its restoration as a church, due to the Concordat of 1801. Saint-Étienne was also the site of an assassination. In 1857, the Archbishop of Paris, Marie-Dominique-Auguste Sibour (who also witnessed the marriage of Napoleon's nephew, Napoleon III), was murdered by an excommunicated priest who, in the act, cried out "Down with the goddesses!". The priest, Jean-Louis Verger, killed the Archbishop for promulgating the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in Paris, which had been declared by the Pope just a few years before. I believe that would make Archbishop Sibour the only person ever to have been martyred specifically over a dogma declared ex cathedra by the Pope.


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  2. Well, I have seen church's were everyone sings off of a giant TVs?

  3. Wonderful post, as are many of the things you post on this marvelous site!
    It might interest you to know that the Russian Orthodox Old Believers (or 'Ritualists', which is a more appropriate term) use a large book for singing (their chant is monophonic) and the leader points to the appropriate word with a stick so everyone can follow. And only men can join the choir!
    There are around 10,000 Old Believers living in Oregon, just south of Portland.

    Rdr. James Morgan
    Olympia, WA

  4. The use of lecterns and reading from the Ambo is yet another aspect of the liturgy in need of restoration. When lecterns were in widespread use, what was their orientation in the sanctuary? That is was the epistle sung on a lectern facing the altar as is done today when the Subdeacon simply holds it himself? Likewise was the gospel proclaimed to the liturgical North, as is the norm today? In the pictures of the Eagle lecterns, they appear to be facing the congregation but who knows if that was their original orientation.

  5. Just for reference, the ceremonies for the Epistle and Gospel of a Tridentine High Mass sung from lecterns/pulpits are given in chapter XI pages 108-109 of Fr. Fortescue's "Ceremonies of the Roman Rite Described", which is availble online at