Cappella Romana: Getting down Gregorian style

Most Seattleites are familiar with the Sunday night 'compline' services at St. Mark's Cathedral, but Cappella Romana, a visiting Portland choir, will take things to a whole new ecstatic level.
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St. James Cathedral

Most Seattleites are familiar with the Sunday night 'compline' services at St. Mark's Cathedral, but Cappella Romana, a visiting Portland choir, will take things to a whole new ecstatic level.

In most American cities, nightlife options after sunset Sunday evening are few. Seattle is no exception, but it offers one that no other city does.

For the last 56 years, the cavernous space of St. Mark’s Cathedral on Capitol Hill has opened its doors to hundreds of people who come to sit, kneel, or recline while an all-male choir intones a sequence of prayers, psalms and hymns dating back 1,500 years.

Is it irreverent to call St. Mark’s 'compline' service “night-life”? Not really.

Night-life doesn’t have to be rowdy. And among the many thousands of Seattleites who’ve achieved spiritual refreshment attending the service (not to mention untold thousands more who’ve tuned into KING-FM’s live broadcast of the service over the decades), probably not one in a hundred knows (or cares) just what 'compline' is. The experience is enough.

But that experience is a little like squinting through a knothole at Van Eyck’s Adoration of the Lamb altarpiece. In full perspective, the service at St. Mark’s, a variant on one devised for Henry VIII’s breakaway Church of England in the mid-16th century, is just one flourishing tendril of an enormous jungle of ceremonies with roots in Mediterranean pre-history and branches spreading through every aspect of European history and culture.

Meanwhile to the south of St. Mark's on Saturday, Nov. 17, Seattle residents will have an extraordinary opportunity to experience another luminous example of that tapestry of liturgy, when the Cappella Romana choir of Portland visits St. James’ Cathedral to perform a 12th century ceremony of vespers, composed for the feast day of the St. James at his great church in Compostela, Spain (Known to modern-day pilgrims as Santiago de Compostela).

When the Roman Catholic Church eliminated Latin as the language of worship in the mid-1960s, many traditionalists thought it would destroy the millennium and a half-old musico-textual tradition we call “Gregorian chant.”

Instead, the dictates of “Vatican II” liberated the Gregorian repertory from centuries of misunderstanding and misinterpretation. For the first time since the Reformation, scholars and performers were free to study and re-interpret ancient liturgical manuscripts on strictly scientific principles, without having to consider dogma and religious politics.

And one scholar in particular has done more than any other to bring these studies to a wide public — the Algerian-born French musicologist Marcel Pérès. What one hears in recordings by Pérès’ 30-year-old Ensemble Organum is revelatory to anyone used to the smooth, mellifluous flow of other recordings from the Gregorian-chant repertory.

Anything but churchy-respectable, and still controversial in some conservative religious and musicological circles, his singers engage passionately with the music, as suits the often-ecstatic language of the Psalms and Masses they're singing. The result is revelatory.

Perhaps the most revelatory of all the Ensemble Organum’s performances is that of the vespers service contained in the so-called Codex Calixtinus, a collection of 12th century manuscripts discovered in the library of the cathedral of St. James’ cult-site Compostela. It is that music which the Cappella Romana will be performing at St. James Cathedral, under Pérès’ direction, from facimiles of the Codex material itself.

Pérès’ study of these texts discovered layers of music obscured by tradition, chants devised to be superimposed in thrilling near-cacophony, boisterous celebrations of St. James and his miracles, marching songs for his pious pilgrims, fierce tributes to his militant spirit (St. James was a soldier). In its 2004 recording, his own ensemble enters fully into the drama of the texts, ready to take up arms against any enemy of the faith.

It took Cappella Romana director Alexander Lingas years to arrange for a residency with Pérès, who rarely works outside Europe and even more rarely agrees to direct other ensembles than his own. One can’t expect the Cappella Romana singers to achieve the interpretive perfection of his Ensemble Organum, but their own deep familiarity with the Greek liturgy gives them a head-start.

And the resonant cavern of St. James' is a perfect venue for the sinuous vocal lines and reverberant drones of the service as reconstructed by Pérès.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Roger Downey

Roger Downey is a Seattle writer interested in food, the arts, the sciences, and urban manners. He is currently working on a book about the birth of opera in 1630s Venice.