Music for saints holds a special place in the repertoire of chant. In the first centuries of Christianity a cult of saints developed, and long before the invention of musical notation a considerable repertoire of music for saints had already been established. However, the bulk of that kind of music had yet to come, since in quite a lot of cases the composition of a mass or an office-cycle dedicated to the memory of a certain saint was delayed by some hundreds of years.
Throughout the liturgical year many saints are honoured in different ways. Some of them are simply commemorated, others have full cycles of chants dedicated to certain facts in (or after) their saintly life – this of course changing according to traditions at specific dioceses. Chants composed for these occasions usually have a close textual connection to one or more of the vitas describing the saint’s life, virtues, death etc. Zimmern (2007) has shown how these vitas give an insight into their political, social and cultural context, how they highlight the importance of the cult of saints at all levels of society and how they demonstrate the value and versatility of hagiography as a means of storytelling.
As an example of this we can turn to the seventh-century ‘Belgian’ saint Lambertus (c.630-c.700). It was only two hundred years after the death of Lambertus (a bishop of Maastricht, murdered in dubious circumstances) that Etienne, bishop of Liège, composed an office for Lambertus. The texts for this cycle were based on a Vita that Etienne probably wrote himself (Auda 1923), in its turn based on an older, anonymous Vita. In a project called ‘Gesta Sancti Lamberti’, I have been revisiting the hagiologyst chant repertoire in general via the story of Lambertus – as a kind of case study. This was a logical step to take, for four reasons.
(1) Psallentes had already worked extensively with Etienne’s compositions on a previous occasion, namely in the Memorabilia project, which had as its subject the office of the Holy Trinity. (2) The repertoire for saints contains particularly vigorous or descriptive pieces that are sometimes hard to come by in the music written for the more ‘regular’ feasts of the Christian church. (3) The existence of a Vita, probably written by the same author as the subsequent composition, leads to a concert/cd programme where both (the office and the Vita) are united or reunited in an evocative way – by means of a kind of lectio continua. (4) The use of selected fragments of the original Vita has led me into an experimental zone, where I have been able to act as a kind of handyman – consider Lévi-Strauss’s ‘bricoleur’ – aiming at a new arrangement of (non-)traditional rules of recitation in plainchant, ultimately materializing into a project that challenges the creative potential of plainchant performance practice.