Medieval Radio Blog

The Melodies of the Christmastide Celebrations

Late Medieval Liturgical Songs from Hungary

This article is a written version of our Christmas podcast, broadcast on CEU Medieval Radio on December 24th and 25th of 2019. The article provides background information on the study of medieval music in Hungary, medieval Christmas liturgy and introduces an album, produced in Hungary in 1978 featuring Late Medieval plainchant, and a short description of each song and their role in the religious celebrations.

We hope you will like this short journey into the world of medieval liturgical music. Unfortunately, it can be hard for non-specialists, and especially people who did not delve deep into music history, to access this body of sources. While the music can be appreciated for its beauty alone, the Latin verses, complicated terminology and the relatively unknown history of music research and early music performance makes it hard for casual listeners to navigate the world of medieval music. For the music of non-English speaking countries, this can be even more complicated.

Since CEU Medieval Radio is based in Budapest, we have decided to focus this time on the music of the Medieval Hungarian Kingdom. Let us begin the story with a look at one of the prominent albums of early music from Hungary:

Gregorian Chants from Hungary I.: The Melodies of the Christmastide Celebrations

We have chosen to base our Christmas podcast on a recording originally from 1978, called Gregorian Chants from Hungary 1.: The melodies of the Christmastide Celebrations. The album was produced by László Dobszay, Janka Szendrei and Benjámin Rajeczky, three of the most prominent scholars of early music in Hungary. This album is the first of a series of Medieval Gregorian Chant collections from Hungarian sources, spanning seven records, covering the whole liturgical year.

The music produced by this choir is fascinating because unlike other musical groups, who sing from modern scores, these songs are based on the research of Dobszay, Szendrei and Rajeczky from Central European musical sources. What you can hear is their interpretation of the medieval scores coming directly from codices produced in the Late Medieval Hungarian Kingdom. Some of these were the first publication of these sources.

Apart from the fascinating history of these medieval liturgical songs, it is also worth to appreciate just how beautiful medieval plainchant can be. The research of medieval liturgical sources in Hungary is special in the regard that it was taken on not by historians, but by musicians, who could skillfully interpret the melodic variations, musical structure and stylistic choices and could produce a historically informed performance of high quality.

The chants on this record were performed by the Schola Hungarica choir, founded by László Dobszay and Janka Szendrei in 1969. Unfortunately, the choir disbanded shortly before Dobszay passed away in 2011.

Medieval Hungarian Liturgy and the Plainchant

Although generally speaking every rite resembles the papal rite of Rome, local variations do occur. Hungary is special in the regard that it mostly follows the rite of Esztergom.  Esztergom was the more prominent, and maybe the first of the two archbishoprics of Hungary. The development of a characteristic Hungarian rite started in the early 11th century, when the local clergy adapted the Roman rite for use in Hungary. During the second half of the 12th century, in the time of Géza II and Béla III, when power was concentrated in the royal seat of Esztergom – on the same hill where the cathedral and the bishop’s palace was located – and during the time when a new notation style was spreading across Europe, the rite of Esztergom was developed, codifying the existing regional variations on the roman liturgy. This rite was in use in the Kingdom of Hungary until 1630.  The Hungarian-founded Pauline order also adapted this liturgy.

The medieval Gregorian chant had two musical dialects: the diatonic, which spread largely in the West and South, and the pentatonic seen mostly in the Netherlands, Germany, and Central Europe. In the pentaton dialect, half steps were not common, and the melodic movements were more robust than the fine, nuanced melodies of the diatonic dialect. The liturgical reform in the second half of the 12th century affected the liturgical music too, codifying the melodic varieties that would remain in use until the rite of Esztergom was finally given up.

Christmas in the Middle Ages and the Structure of the Christmas Liturgy

The Medieval Liturgical year celebrated the nativity of Christ which was the first feast of the liturgical year, and was preceded by Advent, a period of preparation of four weeks.  Christmas was also one of the only feasts which did not shift date according to the date of Easter which varies from year to year. The date of the 25th of December was already set down in the Middle Ages, maybe as early as 354. According to the Julian Calendar, it was the longest night.

There are several hypotheses as to why this particular date was chosen, according to one, it was probably connected to the winter solstice and pagan traditions, such as the Roman festivity for the Sun god. According to a different theory, it was intended to fall exactly nine months after the Annunciation.

Because of the importance of Christmas, the celebration consisted of three different masses. The first one was celebrated during the night between the 24th and the 25th of December, the second one at dawn and the third one during the day, intertwined with the Liturgy of the Hours, which had small alterations from its general structure, marking Christmas as one of the most spectacular celebrations of Christianity.

The structure of the celebrations is as follows: it begins with Vespers in the evening of the 24th, followed by Compline. During the night of Christmas, the Matins (also called Vigil), Midnight Mass, Laudes and the Dawn Mass were celebrated one after another, lasting from roughly midnight until dawn. The Main Mass was celebrated on the following day, the 25th.

Although the Christmas masses generally followed the structure of other mass, specific texts were read and sung. For example, specific Antiphons and Responsories were performed for the occasion. Additionally, the following Sunday was also important, and many of the elements of Christmas Day liturgy were repeated then.

And now for a look of the songs on the album:

Songs from the Vespers on Christmas Eve

Ave spes nostra (Hail, our hope)

Ave spes nostra is an antiphon which celebrates Mary as a birth giver. This antiphon was sung before the first Vespers. As Veselovska, Adamko and Bednarikova describe, the liturgy of the first Vespers of the Nativity started with this processional antiphon. This antiphon was performed by a group of boys in dialogue with a choir. The boys were positioned in three different locations in the church and were holding candles while singing three invocations. The choratores (chief cantors), in turn, sang the fourth invocation, and then everyone joined together for the latter part of the antiphon.

The text and the melody for this chant come from a late medieval Antiphonary, one of the massive and very elaborate liturgical books commissioned by Osváth Thúz Laki, Bishop of Zagreb in the fifteenth century (location: Zagreb, Nacionalna i sveučilišna knjižnica, shelfmark M.R. 10).

Veni, Redemptor Gentium (Come, Redeemer of Nations)

Veni, Redemptor Gentium is the oldest Christmas hymn and it is part of the first Vespers. Veni, redemptor gentium is probably the oldest Christmas ecclesiastical song in existence. It was composed by St. Ambrose of Milan in the late fourth century, as it can be attested from several contemporary sources, including Ambrose’s mentor and a good friend, St. Augustine. The authorship of the Ambrose is also mentioned by other significant church fathers of the period. Pope Celestine mentioned it in a sermon preached before a synod in Rome in 430. Cassiodorus, a Roman statesman and scholar who lived in the Ostrogothic Kingdom of Italy, attributes it to St. Ambrose too.

Although he was not the first churchman to compose hymns, Ambrose is often referred to as “the father of Western hymnody”. It was he, who is credited for introducing an array of musical techniques into Latin. Ambrose imported many Greek musical ideas, such as the antiphonal chant, in which parts a chorus alternate in singing different parts of a hymn. Ambrose was also the first to use to tool of rhyme, and he incorporated rhythms from Roman soldiers marches into Latin hymns.

Veni, Redemptor Gentium originally had more than a Christmas spirit. The hymn was used so the people can identify with Ambrose’s point of view in the time when the great theological confusion enveloped the emerging Christian Empire. Ambrose wrote several hymns, including Veni, redemptor gentium, to be used as a powerful tool in the fight led against the Arians, who denied Christ’s divine nature.

The text and melody for this chant come from the Buda Psalter, the earliest preserved Book of Psalms from the Rite of Esztergom, from the end of the fifteenth century (location: Esztergom, Cathedral Library, shelfmark: Ms I 3 c).

Songs from the Matins on Christmas Eve

Christus natus est nobis (Christ is born for us)

Christus natus est nobis is an invitatory antiphon which opens the Matins. This chant starts with a Christmas antiphon which conveys the festive message. It is followed by Psalm 94. This antiphon comes from a book produced by the Pauline Order (location: Zagreb, Nacionalna i sveučilišna knjižnica, shelfmark: M. R. 8.), while the melody of the psalm comes from the Antiphonary of Bishop Thúz Laki.

Iubilamen (Jubilamen)

Iubilamen consists of a sung lesson from the Bible which was performed in two vocal parts during the Matins. This lesson is a reading from the prophet Isaiah. It has short introduction which calls for silence, so that the listeners can better understand the words. It also asks the Virgin Mary to intercede for the congregation.

The source for this chant is also the Antiphonary of Osváth Thúz Laki.

Descendit de caelis (He came down from Heaven)

Descendit de caelis is a responsory chant for the Matins. Similar in nature to antiphons, responsories were chants designed to be performed by two main voices: the chantor and the choir, which “responded” to the first voice. Descendit de caelis is part of the triumphant chants for the Christmas liturgy and contains its own peculiar melodies.

The second half of the first melodic section serves as the refrain. The melismata (verses where sections of melodies are sung over the same syllable) of the second and third melodic sections were intended for the soloists.

Genealogia Christi (The Genealogy of Christ)

Genealogia Christi, or Christ’s genealogy is a reading that was sung in three vocal parts, at the end of the Matins. The genealogy was taken from the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew, starting with Abraham.

The long list of names, spanning over forty generations was divided into stanzas, which ended in a repeating organal melody for three parts. Organum is an early version of polyphony, where there is one firm melody (cantus firmus) and one or more voices at a fixed interval.

Te Deum laudamus (Thee, O God, we praise)

Te Deum laudamus, often simply called Te Deum is one of the most ancient hymns, coming from the 4th century. This hymn was sung at the end of the Matins.

The hymn follows the outline of the Apostles’ Creed, mixing a poetic vision of the heavenly liturgy with its declamation of faith. At the end, both the Church and the singer in particular ask for mercy on past sins, protection from future sin, and the singer reaffirms their trust in God.

The text and melody for this chant comes from the so-called Peer Codex (location: National Széchenyi Library, shelfmark: MNy 12), and it indicates that by the end of the 15th century it was already customary for it to be sung in Hungarian. In Székelyudvarhely, in what is today Romania, the Te Deum is still sung to this melody.

Songs from the Dawn Mass

Lux fulgebit (Light shines)

The next piece, Lux fulgebit was performed at the beginning of the mass when the celebrants enter the church and take their places. Lux fulgebit is the introit which was sung in the Dawn Mass across Europe, and consists of a setting of verses from Isaiah 9 and Psalm 92.

This melody is a very characteristic Hungarian variation. The text and the melody come from the Futaki Graduale, written by Ferenc Futaki in 1463. The book is currently in Istanbul, in the Topkapı Sarayı (Topkapi palace, shelfmark 2429), a large museum that used to be the main residence of the Ottoman Sultans.

Alleluia. Dominus regnavit (Alleluia. The Lord hath reigned)

Alleluia. Dominus Regnavit is a chant from the Alleluia genre, a characteristic part of the mass. This particular piece was sung in the Dawn mass across Europe.

This melody is known only in Hungary. The manuscript that this chant was adapted from is the Missale Notatum of Esztergom, which comes from the first half of the fourteenth century and was used in Pozsony (currently Bratislava, Slovakia) where it remains, although some of its folios are missing. This book is one of the most significant musicological relics of Medieval Hungary, as it is the first surviving connected manuscript of plainchant from the Esztergom Rite.

Eia, recolamus (Bless my soul, let us sing)

Eia, recolamus is a sequence, and it comes directly after the Alleluia in the Dawn Mass. A sequence is a type of chant with a specific role, which developed from an addition to the last syllable of the Alleluia. A sequence at this time in Europe had a fixed musical structure: it had rhyming couplets among an introductory and closing line.

This sequence was known all over Europe by the 11th century. The version performed here comes from the Esztergom Sequentionale, from the first half of the fourteenth century. This book accompanied the Missale Notatum mentioned above.

Procedentem sponsum (The bridegroom entering)

The next chant on the album belongs to the Benedicamus genre. Some of the Benedicamus have survived to the present day as separate chants with the liturgical texts interspersed with them. This chant was usually sung in Matins, but here it indicates the end of the Dawn Mass section.

Just as some of the previous examples, this text also comes from the Antiphonary of Osváth Laki Thúz.

Songs from the Vespers on Christmas Day

Verbum caro factum est (The word was made flesh)

The next chant, Verbum caro factum est, is a responsory which was sung in the second Vespers. In Italy, it is still used in the Christmas mass today. This responsory refers to the incarnation of Christ and is taken from the Gospel of St John.

The chant is based on the so-called Zalka Antiphonary (location: Győr, Egyházmegyei Kincstár és Könyvtár, shelfmark: MS A 2). It is the largest codex from medieval Hungary, weighing in at more than 70 kilograms, and it is lavishly decorated.

It has been established now that the so-called Zalka Antiphonary is, in fact, a gradual or liber gradualis: while the antiphonary was meant to be used during the Liturgy of the Hours, the gradual is meant to accompany the missale and is used during the mass.  It comes from from the end of the fifteenth century, from Várad (present-day Oradea, Romania). Várad used to be one of the most prominent bishoprics in Hungary.

Hodie Christus natus est: Today Christ is Born

Hodie Christus Natus est is an antiphonal Gregorian chant. It was sung as a response to the singing of the chant for the Virgin Mary for the second Vespers. In the “Hodie” type of antiphons, the birth of Christ is presented as if it is happening now instead of the distant past.

This grand antiphon, adapted by many composers throughout the centuries, concludes the celebrations of Christmas.

Let us now introduce the last song from the album, which does not strictly belong to any specific part of the Christmas liturgy, but it was still part of Christmastide celebrations:

Dies est laetitiae (This is the Day of Rejoicing)

Dies est laetitiae is a cantio. The Latin cantiones were religious processional songs that were adapted for popular use, usually adding a refrain. Forms of them in the vernacular are the ancestors of most Hungarian folk hymns, and this piece in particular has been adapted into vernacular and spread as a folk song across Central Europe.

The text and the melody for this chant also come from the Antiphonary of Bishop Thúz Laki.

We hope that you enjoyed this brief journey into Late Medieval Hungary and Christmas Gregorian Chants. If you came here after listening to the programme, we hope you found the extra information you were looking for.

This content was put together by the students of the CEU Medieval Department, Anna Kinde, Olga Kalashnikova and Vedran Bileta, with assistance from visiting student Vania Buso from the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice. The podcast version was proofread and narrated by Karen Culver, alumna of the Department.

We would like to thank the Department of Early Music of the Institute of Musicology at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences for their help with the research, especially Zsuzsa Czagány. Our thanks also goes to Miklós Földváry, the leader of the Research Group of Liturgical History at the Eötvös Lóránd University and professor Béla Zsolt Szakács of CEU Medieval Studies Department for their help.

If you would like to, please consider supporting the operation costs of the Medieval Radio by donating here (under “Designation” please select Medieval Radio). Thanks!



If we raised your interest, these are some further readings we would recommend:

Eva Veselovská: Medieval Church Music Sources from the Territory of Slovakia

László Dobszay: A history of Hungarian Music. Budapest: Corvina Press, 1983

László Dobszay: The System of the Hungarian Plainsong Sources. In: Studia Musicologica Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae T. 27, Fasc. 1/4 (1985), pp. 37-65

Some collections of sources that might be of use:

Slovak Early Music Database: Cantus Planus in Slovacia

Cantus: A Database for Latin Ecclesiastical Chant

Hungarian Chant Database

Source of the featured image: The Nativity, detail of the feast-day side of an altar wing from Szepeshely (today Spišská Kapitula, Slovakia), 1480-1490, by an Uknown Painter. Hungarian National Gallery. 



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