The Voice of the Confraternities
Alongside the official churches and the religious orders, the Christian world has long featured lay associations with a spiritual and charitable purpose known as ‘confraternities'. In these associations, devotional exercises and rites accompanied by singing play an important role. After exploring the ‘official' religious music of the Renaissance, I found my research leading me into the much less well-known domain of the music of these confraternities. I became aware of the astonishing kinship of organisation and rituals between Muslim orders and Christian confraternities. My meeting with the Iranian singer Taghi Akhbari confirmed these intuitions. The programme of the present disc is the outcome of that exchange, which was also a memorable experience in human terms for all of us.
In order to gain a better idea of what the confraternities were really like, one has to imagine them as similar to associations. Like the famous scuole of Venice, they often had a meeting room where the brothers assembled. They provided themselves with statutes which organised their collective life: processions, help for the sick, accompaniment of burials, assistance to those sentenced to imprisonment, mutual aid between brothers, collective prayers, and so forth. The many devotional exercises, with a strong ritual content, were accompanied by music. But what music?
In sixteenth-century churches, the daily liturgy was sung in plainchant by the choir. On important occasions, in parishes which had the necessary resources, one could also hear the polyphonic music performed by professionals, a repertory characterised by its complexity and its learned nature. Everything was sung in Latin, the official language of the Church.
In the confraternities, it was of course impossible to sing this complex music. It was necessary to create a simple devotional repertory written in Italian, the lauda, which could be sung by everyone. Characterised by the simplicity of their melodic line and their harmonisations, these laude were generally sung in three of four parts. But less experienced performers could quite as well sing only the top line, where all the melodic appeal was concentrated. Moreover, the verse-refrain form allowed an entire assembly to join in the refrain.
Most of the music on our recording comes from collections published in 1563. This is not by chance. The year 1563 saw the end of the deliberations of the Council of Trent, and music was not forgotten in the prescriptions of the conciliar fathers. They asserted their desire to simplify counterpoint in order to make the text intelligible once more and purge sacred music of its secular elements. Clearly the Church intended to use music as a tool to launch the reconquest of those members of the flock who had been led astray by the Reformation. It therefore encouraged the publication of laude, a form wholly congruent with the projects of the Counter-Reformation. In the year the council ended, Fra Serafino Razzi's Libro primo delle laudi spitituali appeared in Florence; Il primo libro delle laudi composte per consolatione et a requisitione di molte personne spirituali e devote, by Filippo Neri's friend Animuccia, in Rome; and Il primo libro di musica spirituale a utilita de persone christiane in Venice.
Alongside this development, to satisfy the private devotions of more delicate and refined persons, 1563 also witnessed the appearance of a form of greater sophistication and complexity: the sacred madrigal. We have given two examples of this (tracks 3 and 11). This genre of music, unlike the laude, could only be sung by those who could read music and clearly came from a more elevated social milieu than those of the confraternities. These are in fact madrigals composed with all the skills of art music, but to religious words. Another notable difference from the laude is that they are not anonymous.
The repertory has aroused little interest from musicians and scholars. Compared to the sublime masses, motets, and Lamentations of the greatest Renaissance masters, the laude, in their simplicity may seem somewhat rudimentary and repetitive. Yet one need only take the trouble actually to sing them, taking account of the context in which they were performed, for these pieces to reveal their power and beauty. They express group devotion. Their haunting, repetitive character brought the crowd that sang them to a state of ecstasy approaching trance. This is music that should not be judged on paper but on its emotional effect in performance, as we realised when we premiered our first programme of these pieces for the Printemps des Arts de Monte-Carlo in 2007. The popular fervour, the vocal style which one can imagine was fairly crude, the primacy accorded to the text, and even the bodily participation encouraged by the often lively rhythms of the laude are at the opposite extreme from what was practised in the churches of the period, where the Ars Perfecta of the Franco-Flemish composers, founded on numerological relationships, laid much greater emphasis on the Apollonian aspect of man than the Dionysiac.
The laude introduce us to a little-known side of western religious music, one that is more rooted in the body, in short more physical. This is what Erasmus referred to as musica corporalis (corporal music), condemning the gesticulations and the din of the drums which unleashed scenes of frenzy, turning religious songs into orgiastic celebrations. There was distrust on the Church's part of this music used as a means of attaining ecstasy, even trance. The confraternities were at once encouraged and kept under close surveillance. Popular fervour must not turn too pagan. And these laude which bore the indications a ballo, for dancing, certainly justified Erasmus' remarks.
In the Muslim world, or course, no musical form exists that can be compared to the masses and motets of Christendom. By contrast, there is music of the Muslim religious orders which is closely akin to the Christian laude.
The Muslim orders, the tariqahs, are almost better-known than the Christian confraternities thanks to the term ‘Sufism', a catch-all word which can be used to designate any religious order in the Muslim world. What attracted my attention was the similar functioning of Muslim orders and Christian confraternities. Organised around a master, in a place set aside for the purpose, both offer a programme of spiritual life, a mystical way. Here too their rites and especially their music have an important role to play. By repeating simple melodic formulas and invocations to the point of intoxication, the participants must attain an ecstatic state culminating in their extinction in God.
For this recording, we did not wish to concentrate on the rite of one order in particular, but rather to demonstrate what is most characteristic and universal in the rites of these Muslim orders. So Taghi and Nader initially looked for repeated invocations which could be sung by an assemble of believers. Then both the singers and the instrumentalists of Doulce Mémoire practised these invocations standing in a circle in the refectory at Fontevraud's abbey, aiming to adopt the appropriate mental and physical attitude. We very soon forgot we were recording a CD, and came under the spell of what musicians of the sixteenth century called ‘l'efficace', that is to say the effect produced by rhythm and headily captivating melodies.
The first piece, Djanam (track 1), is in afshari mode. It is an invocation to divine inspiration, chanted by the chorus while Taghi improvises on the poetry of Jalal al-Din Rumi, the eminent thirteenth-century poet, one of the greatest mystics of all time, whose oeuvre is considered by Muslims as second only to the Koran. This method of improvising on specific modes, or avaz as they are known in Persian, allows one to choose texts and sing them in a free style. It is also related to our approach to the laude, since in certain cases, such as Piangi ingrate core, we fitted words found in Razzi's Primo libro to the music of a lauda which had only one verse.
The third piece (track 8) is in bayat-e tork mode: the invocation ya (thee) hu (one), which is one of the names of God, comes from an order still present on modern Iran, Towards the end of the piece, the ornaments typical of Persian classical song, the tahrir, irresistibly convey the effervescent emotion that enflames us: the moment when the soul attains the state of grace, the hal.
These pieces form part of the way advocated by the masters. For example, Jalal al-Din Rumi wrote: "Several paths lead to God; I have chosen that of dance and music." The sacred concert finds its justification as a means of achieving illuminative knowledge. The Muslim orders and Christian confraternities invented the same type of music to awaken the souls of their brothers. This universally is for us a sign of hope.
Denis Raisin Dadre, 2009