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Angel Instruments

Freiberg Cathedral seen from the Untermarkt

Freiberg Cathedral

A new recording imagines the sounds of a 16th century German cathedral. Titled Te Deum Laudamus, the program includes works from collections of sacred music manuscripts housed at the Freiberg Latin School Library of the Dom St. Marien Freiberg Cathedral.

The Freiberg Cathedral was a center for civic, ecclesiastical, and educational activities in pre-to-post Reformation Saxony. The first incarnation of the Freiberg church was as the Romanesque Basilica of St. Mary completed soon after Freiberg officially became a town in 1186. After considerable expansion, the Basilica eventually became a collegiate church in 1480, but was destroyed by fire four years later, along with much of the rest of Freiberg. The church was rebuilt but more change was on the way. The Reformation reached Freiberg in 1537 and the Cathedral has been Protestant ever since.

The church’s history is meaningful to the music on this recording, as it was in the 16th c., both swept up in change and firmly rooted in tradition.

Te Deum Laudamus

The title track of Te Deum Laudamus is a post-Reformation piece integrating both Latin and German vernacular in accordance with new Lutheran Church regulations that services be conducted in the common language of the people. The piece uses Martin Luther’s German translations of the Te Deum verses that Rogier Michael integrates into a simplified Gregorian tune in alternation with a corresponding Latin verse in six parts.

Distinctive Copies

The library that holds Michael’s Te Deum also houses numerous other manuscripts, many of which are copies of editions that were circulating around Europe at the time. But what makes the Frieberg Cathedral copies interesting are their considerable deviations from the printed texts from which they were copied. Why the changes? There’s a good chance that copyists at the Cathedral adapted them when they wrote them out, tailoring them to the specific needs and practices of the Freiberg Cathedral and its musicians. The best example of this shows up in the copy of the Missa super Mon couer se recommande a vous by Phillippe de Monte which among other changes, reassigns certain syllabic placement and renames two of the voice parts.

Interestingly, both Michael and de Monte were Catholic composers even though their music was sung at the Protestant Freiberg cathedral—the specifics of diverse liturgical functions being still in flux.

The Freiberg Cathedral Angel Instruments of 1594

This music on this recording is all primarily vocal, but instruments are used in the performances as well. The use of instruments to double or replace voice parts was a practice that became more and more common in the middle to end of the 16th century. And instruments, in fact, seem to be the main inspiration behind the concept of this recording. The performers use—as is prominently advertised on the albums cover-“the Freiberg Cathedral Angel Instruments of 1594.”

These so called “angel” instruments get their nickname because they were for hundreds of years covered over with layers of metallic foil and stored in the hands of carved wooden angels as part of the decorations that adorn a funeral chapel in the Freiberg Cathedral. The types of instruments include cornets, trombones, harps, violins, lutes and the like. Some of the wind and percussion instruments are detailed, but non-functional models while some of the string instruments show evidence of actually being played, some even signed by an important instrument builder from the region, Paul Klemm zu Randeck.

Recreating the sounds of the Renaissance

The last time anyone played these instruments was likely more than 400 years ago. In the meantime, wood worms and other elements have taken a degenerative toll. But various museums and educational institutions, scientists, musicians and instrument makers have joined forces and technologies (Radiology, photography, 3D laser scans, endoscopy, and computer models, to name a few) in an effort to make faithful reproductions of the instruments and recreate the sounds of the Renaissance.

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