Following up on the last post about the Ascension Sequence, Rex Omnipotens die hodierna, here are program notes written by Susan Hellauer of Anonymous 4; the notes accompany their CD "1000: A Mass for the End of Time" - and are relevant to Ascension Day:
After this I looked, and, behold, a door was opened in heaven; and the first voice which I heard was as it were of a trumpet talking with me; which said, Come up hither, and I will show thee things which must be hereafter. . . . And I beheld when he had opened the sixth seal, and lo, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood. And the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind. And the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places. . . . And when he had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour.
–The Apocalypse of John the Divine
It was a time of dread and hope, collapse and renewal, of violent anarchy and the elusive promise of worldwide peace. As the first millennium approached, the alliances of Charlemagne’s ninth-century empire broke apart at the seams, and Europe was plunged into a nightmarish cycle of deadly feuds, invasion and war.
Slowly, painfully, a new European order began to emerge from the rubble. Once-pagan warrior kings looked upon Christianity as a politically unifying and civilizing force. The Church, under the brilliant leadership of Pope Sylvester II (formerly the scholar-monk Gerbert of Aurillac) began to turn this spiritual authority into political power. Great cathedrals, the first monumental architecture in the west since the collapse of the Roman Empire five hundred years before, began to appear. There occurred as well a burst of intense creative activity in European Christian liturgy and its music. The traditional Roman plainchant repertory was vigorously renewed and greatly enlarged; new developments in the science of music, including staff line notation and solfeggio, allowed the new creations to be quickly learned, written down and disseminated throughout Europe.
Much as the fear of nuclear annihilation was an ever-present theme in the second half of the twentieth century, so too did fear and anticipation of the Last Judgment and end of the world influence the late-tenth-century Christian world view. Although many simple folk were unaware of the exact year and its significance, laymen and clerics alike (themselves unaware that the “official” calendar was a few years off in dating Jesus’s birth) debated the exact hour and day of “the end.” Would it be on New Year’s Eve 999 or New Year’s Day 1000, or Easter, or Ascension Day, or Christmas; or would the end actually come in 1033 – a thousand years after the death and resurrection of Jesus? In his Apocalypse, John the Divine had seen the devil being chained and sealed for a thousand years, then let loose for “a little season.” Was the terror and uncertainty of the tenth century a sign of Satan’s return? Would an antichrist rise up, to be defeated in anticipation of the Last Judgment? Who would be saved, who damned, and what horrors awaited the earth?
In the Christian liturgy, the Last Judgment is most strongly conjured up in the liturgies of the Advent season, the Requiem mass, and the feast of Jesus’s Ascension, celebrated forty days after Easter. His imminent return, in the glorious manner in which he departed (Acts 1:9–11), had been expected by the earliest Christians; as centuries passed this expectation was transferred to the first millennium. Our program is based on the Ordinary and Proper chants of the Ascension mass, most with added tropes — newly written text and music added to make them more solemn or festive — drawing on related Ascension themes, including the Last Judgment. Most of these works are found in manuscripts of c. 1000 originating in Aquitaine, in southwestern France (many of them associated with the Abbey of St. Martial in Limoges). Two of them, the Gloria: Prudentia prudentium and the Alleluia: Ascendens cristus, are from the Winchester Troper, an important source from Britain, c. 1000, containing some of the very earliest written polyphony for liturgical use. The troped portions of the Aquitanian chants would almost certainly have been adorned with polyphony, created by the singers according to certain rules of improvisation that are preserved for us in theoretical treatises of the time. We have constructed polyphonic lines, based on examples from the Winchester Troper and on contemporary theoretical writings, with an occasional drone or ison to enhance the texture.
The Propers of the mass (Introit, Alleluia, Prose with Sequence, Offertory and Communion) are those items specific to the feast at hand. With the exception of the Alleluias, all here are enlarged with Ascension tropes. Most notable of these is the extensive introductory dialog to the Introit: Viri galilei, Quem creditis super astra ascendisse. It is a rich, self-contained work in itself, modeled on the widely popular Easter Introit trope Quem queritis, which is generally seen as the precursor of liturgical drama. Like the Quem queritis, Quem creditis exists in more than one version; we have chosen the melody associated with the Aquitanian abbey of St. Martial in Limoges. In this work one can easily hear how the Aquitanian plainchant style differs from the earlier, more subtly refined Gregorian style, most recognizably in its vigorous, outgoing melody, with gesture and emphasis enhancing a strong tonal center. The second of the two Alleluias, Ascendens cristus, is set with an organal line in the Winchester Troper. The prose, or prose with sequence, its origins related to the practice of troping, was a relatively new addition to the medieval mass, with Frankish composers of the ninth and tenth centuries adding great numbers of them for specific saints and feasts, large and small, to the liturgical stock. The Ascension Prose and sequence: Rex omnipotens, with its introductory trope Salvator mundi te ascendente, is one of the finest of these. After each double versicle of the prose, an untexted “sequence” of pitches follows, to which would most probably have been added an improvised polyphonic or organal line. We also sing the extensive trope, Elevatus est rex fortis, to the Offertory: Viri galilei, with an added organal line.
The items of the Ordinary of the mass are those that (usually) remain the same regardless of the occasion. But in the age of troping, they could be made “proper” to the day with added texts. The Gloria is expanded with the Ascension trope Prudentia prudentium, and the Kyrie: Celestis terrestrisque, although its text is not specific to the Ascension, is designated for that feast in its manuscript source, written in the little town of Apt, where a fine, anonymous musician in an artistic backwater created new liturgical works of his (or her) own inspiration. The brief but artful Sanctus: Ante seculum and Agnus: Omnipotens eterne are intended for general use on high feast days, and we have added organal lines to their tropes.
The processional hymn Judicii signum enjoyed a long life in medieval liturgy, and is based on the prophecies of one of the early medieval Christian Sibyls. After the mass chants, we sing a Lection from the Apocalypse of Saint John, which, along with the sibyllic oracles, was the Middle Ages’ primary source for information about the coming Armageddon. Regnantem sempiterna is a perfect, gem-like prosa of the ninth-century West-Frankish school, and the hymn Cives celestis patrie, with which we end the program, describes the foundation jewels (and their mystical meanings) of the new Jerusalem — the perfect city that will replace the earth at the end of time.
And he carried me away in the spirit to a great and high mountain, and showed me that great city, the holy Jerusalem. . . . And the foundations of the wall of that city were garnished with all manner of precious stones. . . . And the twelve gates were twelve pearls; every several gate was of one pearl; and the street of the city was pure gold, as it were transparent glass. . . . And the gates of it shall not be shut at all by day: for there shall be no night there.
- Apocalypse, chapter 21