Processional Chants of Syon Abbey
The Songs of Angels: Performing Community in Late Medieval England is a project that has taken some time to complete. I spent July of 2011 in London and Cambridge, working with Bridgettine processionals–small music books once used in processions on festival days–from Syon Abbey. In October, I edited the unique chants I’d found; in November, a group of women from Philadelphia’s choral community gathered together to sing the chants in front of a live audience; in March of 2012 we recorded the chants you hear below. On July 19, 2015, these recordings were a part of the celebration held for the Syon at 600 celebration at Syon Park, Brentford (once the site of Syon Abbey, and now that of Syon House, the home of the Duke of Northumberland).
Some Background —
Syon Abbey was founded by Henry V on the banks of the Thames just outside of London in 1415. Though Syon Abbey’s physical walls no longer exist, the Bridgettines of Syon still sing their service today: they are the only English Catholic House to boast an unbroken line and practice stretching back before the Reformation.
The Bridgettine liturgy was, according to tradition, dictated to St Bridget of Sweden by an angel. It honors the Virgin Mary in a weekly round of prayers, lessons, and songs that tell the story of the Blessed Virgin’s life. Later additions to the repertoire include antiphons, responsories, and hymns to other famous women associated with the order: Mary’s mother, St Anne; St Bridget herself; and Bridget’s daughter, Catherine of Sweden. Syon was a locus of female devotion, literacy, and power, and it was also one of England’s most popular pilgrimage destinations — Margery Kempe, quite famously, ends her Boke at its doors. By the time Henry VIII’s closure of the monasteries forced the nuns of Syon to leave the country in 1539, the Abbey had become one of the wealthiest and most important religious spaces in England.
The Medieval nun was part of a social network of laypeople and professional religious, of sinners and saints, and of wealthy and poor. When she sang her daily services, she was not only concerned with accurately interpreting what the notes in her liturgical book meant: what intervals she should sing, how long she should hold each note, or whether the text beneath the notes was lined up properly. She was also concerned about how these notes meant: how her song constituted relationships between those inside and outside the cloister as well as between her and her God. In a very real way, her own subjectivity was performed in the manifestation of her song. Her concerns with music theory may have been necessary to her performance, but they did not provide the totality of its meaning. Unfortunately, modern academic criticism of Medieval song—both by literary critics and musicologists—has a tendency to overlook this incompletion.
My investigation has focused on a few central questions: Where did the processional chants come from? Were they truly unique – “angelic” – or were there similar chants in other liturgies in the Medieval period? What sort of poetry was used to honor the women of the church? How does a formal analysis of the relationship between text and tone determine how music means in a performative environment? There were monks living in Syon Abbey, too, and they sang the chants of the Sarum rite. How did the men’s and women’s musical worlds interact? This project was an attempt to answer these questions, and, just as importantly, to bring the written voice into the lively world of performance after 500 years of silence–to ameliorate the distance between the Medieval past and a living present.
The three manuscripts I worked with – Syon Abbey, MS 1, Cambridge University Library Additional MS 8885, and Cambridge, St John’s College MS 139 – comprise over 400 leaves of chant text and tone. Although it is a rare occasion in which one manuscript provides a completely idiosyncratic reading, the amount of archive-trawling that needs to be done to ensure these chants’ uniqueness is risibly huge: not only is there a millennia and more’s corpus of liturgical texts (always accruing new material, too!), but the available chant tones themselves also number in the thousands. Databases and surveys make checking for uniqueness easier, but they do not totally alleviate the terrible fear that somehow, somewhere, a match for these tones might be found. That having been said, the tropes and chants for the feasts of St Bridget and her daughter, St Catherine, are, to the best of my knowledge, totally original.
The Feast of the Birth of St Bridget of Sweden
Note: the text of this well-known hymn is original (though the melody is not)
Salve festa dies toto venerabilis evo qua birgitta choris iungiter angelicis. Salve sanctorum regum de stirpe suborta celitus in nube fulsit origo tua. Salve succrescens annis cui gracia rident flagrat et in mente virginitatis amor. Salve sponsa tamen roto demita parentum tunc nutris sobolem moribus alma tuam. Salve post mortem viri christo sociata celis rapta vides mistica mira dei. Salve prompsisti populis eadem medicamen libris liquisti que recolenda tuis. Salve nos salva regem rege prospera regno semper procura sis que patrona pia.
[Hail, festival day, most venerable of all ages, in which Bridget joined the angelic choir. Springing up from the lineage of holy kings, your origins shone forth from the heavenly clouds. Growing up, grace smiled upon you, and love of virginity burned in your mind. You became a wife, and raised your offspring according to your kindness. After your husband’s death you became an ally of Christ, were enraptured into heaven, and had a mystical sight of God. Chosen from the people, you left to the same your medicating books as a memoriam. Save us, prospering always in your kingdom. Attend, and be our pious patron]
Virtutis dei dextere trinam regenti machinam trino dictata munere birgitta dedit gloriam.
[Bridget gave glory to the triune God, as her service was dicated through his threefold way.]
Captiva mundi carcere mundam conservans animam. Soluta carnis onere sponso que iuncta federe partem elegit optimam.
[The prisoner of the world is kept clean from the world’s prison. Released from fleshly burdens, the spouse, joined by marriage, has chosen the better part.]
Virgo dei genitrix ex qua lux oriri dignata est eterna intende supplicum tuorum preces servorum. Ut per tua sancta suffragia mereamur possidere regna celestia.
[Virgin, who gave birth to God and from which light springs, you are eternally worthy; hear the supplication and prayers of your servants, so that through your holy intercession, we might deserve to take hold of the heavenly kingdom]
The Feast of the Canonization of St Bridget
O facies mosayca solis choruscans radiis sanctitate magnifica magnis clares prodigiis. In requie pacifica sponsi fruens ex enviis. O femina mirifica continuis letifica servos tuos presidiis. Gloria patri et filio et spiritui sancto.
[O behold the face of Moses shining like the circle of the sun in magnificent holiness, She rests, free from the detractors, in the peace of the spouse. O miraculous woman, your servants give you continual praise. Glory be to the father and to the son and to the holy spirit]
Occulta consciencie pura mundat confessio magne signum clemencie fusa monstrat oracio. Quam matris omnis gracie mereretur supplicacio. In hac valle tristicie tristi succurrat filie divina miseracio.
[Secret confession cleanses the pure conscience, the pouring out of prayer is a sign of great clemency. How much did she merit the supplications of the mother of all grace. In this valley of sorrows you succur your holy daughter in her misery]
St Catherine of Sweden’s Day
Redemptor rex israel venit in virgine. Repletur Elizabet sacro spiramine prophetat puerulus in rerum ordine miranda sit novitas. Laus tibi domine.
[The Savior, the King of Israel, comes to the Virgin. Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, prophesies that the little child will miraculously restore the order of things. Praise be to you, oh Lord.]
Hec est virgo prudens que veniente sponso aptavit lampades suas et introivit cum domino ad nupcias.
[Here is a prudent virgin who, when the spouse came, took up her lamp and entered with the Lord to his wedding feast.]
Hec est que nescivit thorum in delicto habebit fructum in refeccione ammarum sanctarum.
[Here is one who did not know a sinful bed; she will have blessings in the rest of holy admiration.]
Induit me dominus vestimento salutis et indumento leticie circundedit me.
Et tanquam sponsam decoravit me corona. Tradidit auribus meis inestimabiles margaritas et circundedit me vernantibus atque chorus cantibus gemmis. Gloria patri et filio et spiritui sancto.
[Lord, clothe me with the robe of salvation and encircle me with happiness. And, as a bride, grant me a crown. Decorate my ears with inestimable pearls and encricle me with blossoms and a jeweled chorus. Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.]
Feast of the Dedication of Syon Abbey
Domum tuam domine mariam virginem in qua decorem induisti et te virtute precinxisti decet sanctitudo in longitudinem dierum.
[Lady Virgin Mary, you have adorned your household and by your virtue it is fitting that you have been surrounded with holiness throughout the length of your days.]
Antiphon for Sunday
O iocundissimam iocunditatem deus pater sponsam amplectitur filius matrem spiritus sanctus suum sacrarum celestis tota milicia suam dignissimam dominam mariam virginem laude ineffabili confitetur.
[O, most joyous of joys! God the Father embraces his spouse, the mother of the Son. Your Holy Spirit and the whole army of the sacred heavens gives you the honor, Lady Mary, Virgin, and confesses your ineffable praise.]
I would like to thank the staff and parish of St Mary’s Episcopal Church, Philadelphia, PA, for providing a venue for the performance.
For more information about the nuns of Syon and links to further resources, see the Syon Abbey Society webpage.