“Swithun- A Medieval Miracle Play”: Dialogos Ensemble: Katarina Livljanić (director and vocalist) with Christel Boiron, Clara Coutouly, and Caroline Gesret (vocalists), Telus Studio Theatre, Chan Centre, November 13, 2015.

 All photos by Jan Gates.

All photos by Jan Gates.

Dialogos Ensemble’s Swithun- A Medieval Miracle Play is the highly pedigreed, artfully constructed creation of Sorbonne instructor and vocalist Katarina Livljanić. Pieced together from medieval manuscripts, it outlines the circumstances of the sainthood of Swithun of Winchester and how he inspired musical works of timeless beauty.  Using as one of her urtexts, the Winchester Troper, a document currently acknowledged to be the oldest written example of music for two voices in Europe, Livljanić leads her vocal ensemble through a continuous rendering of 23 individual chants in Latin and Old English, presented with modern English surtitles. The Church music of early medieval Europe centered on plainsong, the reciting of a liturgical text set according to a formula determined by the time of year and the text to be sung.  Gradually, a second voice was added in performance (termed organum), and this innovation paved the way for true polyphony, and much later, the harmonic writing of the Classical period. The music of Swithun- A Medieval Miracle Play is perfectly idiomatic of medieval music, being plainsong in one or two voices, with another one or two voices added in elaboration of, and in conversation with, the chant.

No standard notation exists for this largely improvised vicissitude, which creates a challenging situation for any musician who might be interested in recreating what these chants would have sounded like.  Nonetheless it is not an insurmountable task for skilled historians and musicologists like Susan Rankin, who is responsible for transcribing the Winchester Troper, and Michael Lapidge, who edited the other two texts used as the basis for this concert, the Narratio metrica de sancto Swithuno (Wulfstan of Winchester) and The life of saint Swithun (Aelfric of Winchester).   

It is important to understand the context for this re-creation.  Medieval Christianity is characterized by a great reliance on ‘magic’, and this is why miracles, so foreign to us now, represented the cutting edge of thought at the time of life of St. Swithun.  According to the theological best practice of 11th century Europe, objects and persons that had been in contact with each other would continue to have effect on each other, even removed from close proximity, where the strength of this effect was proportionate to the person’s or object’s ‘holiness’, or personal relation to God.  This is the mechanism by which the remains of St. Swithun transmitted their healing powers, and the observance of these powers is what prompted the chronologers of Winchester to keep such detailed evidence on the continuing longevity of St. Swithun’s holiness.  This miracle play, which Dialogos Ensemble has so painstakingly put together, aims to musically capture the cult and spell of Swithun and the healing powers he was were reported to have.

Though not an easy task, the singing succeeded almost perfectly in matching the spirit of the text; the voices were in excellent and moving harmony, often creating a strikingly clean and transparent texture, and the chant was free of any genre crossing in regards to performance practice.  Furthermore, the vocal contribution faithfully affirmed the reputation that plainsong enjoys for inducing ‘calm’.  Lines such as, “Et licet extremus hominum atque abiectio plebes sim- quia sernonis me nulla fulcit” (and although I am the very last of men and reject of humanity – for no expertise in writing sustains me) were designed to fall especially sweetly on the medieval aristocratic ear and, at least indirectly, induce good moral instruction for the people of Winchester.  While the genre consistently requires clear voices of pure timbre and deep sincerity, this is not always easy to sustain. I did sometimes sense a momentary hesitation in phrasing that kept me from becoming fully one with the music, but certainly not very often.

Overall, the Dialogos Ensmble provided a unique adventure in medieval ‘re-creation’, based on inspired scholarship, and one that added up to a very moving spiritual experience.

© Kate Mackin 2015