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II-01-03 Natus ante saecula – sequence for Christmas Day

Most chant for the Christian liturgy was codified by 800CE thanks to the efforts of Pope Gregory (540-604) and the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne (748-814), who unified his far-flung empire by using Christian liturgy.  After 850CE, creativity shifted to the elaboration of liturgical chant. New texts (tropes) were inserted into the melismas of existing chants. Both texts and melodies (sequences) were created to enhance the Proper of the Mass. Notker Balbulus (c.840-912), a monk at the monastery of Reichenau is credited with the creation of many sequences; among them this sequence for Christmas Day.

Hans Buchner, the organist at Constance during Isaac’s time there, had been the pupil of Paul Hofhaimer, organist for Maximilian’s Hofkapelle. Buchner’s Fundamentbuch records his settings for the verses of this sequence not set by Isaac. The fact that Buchner recorded the verses NOT set by Isaac are indicative that Mahrt’s theory of organ improvisation for the verses not set by Isaac’s polyphony is probably what was intended. In this instance, Isaac sets the “b” portions of the six verses while Buchner sets the “a” portions. Buchner’s music can be found in Erbe deutscher Musik, Bands 54-55 (Frankfurt: H. Litolff’s Verlag, 1974) edited by Jost Hanno Schmidt.

Neither Isaac’s nor Buchner’s melodies match what is recorded by Richard L. Crocker in The Early Medieval Sequence (University of California Press, 1977) or Lance Brunner in Early Medieval Chants from Nonantola (A-R Editions, 1999) for this sequence. The Buchner opening does not quote the beginning of the original Notker melody but rather, it uses the “b” section of the chant for its improvisation. Meanwhile, Isaac’s setting of the “b” section of the first verse uses the chant of that section, but it also quotes the “a” section of Notker’s original melody in the second phrase. Because sequences originated as tropes – poems attached to melismatic chant alleluias – the similarities between the alleluia Dies Sanctificatus for Christmas Day and the melodies in both Isaac’s and Buchner’s polyphony are significant. Other interesting interplay occurs such as the Buchner opening of the seventh verse being quoted in the Isaac polyphonic response. There are places in the Isaac motet such as mm. 52-56 where a voice part appears to be a chant quotation (the soprano voice in this instance) but I cannot identify a corresponding chant line.

Other mysteries present themselves such as, a) neither Buchner’s nor Isaac’s setting of verse 5 have any resemblance to the traditional sequence melody, although they both open in triple meter; b) both Isaac and Buchner set the last couplet (6B), something that might discredit the theory of their connectivity; c) both musicians seem to have been using the opening melody of the third verse as a motto for many of the verses – which is another connection to the opening of the Dies Sanctificatus chant; and d) there are textual differences between what is recorded by Crocker and Brunner and the Formschneider prints.

This motet presents all sorts of editorial challenges. One of the most interesting occurs in verse 4 where the bass part is notated in a series of changing mensural signatures and proportional changes. The bass part in the Formschneider print looks like this:

while the soprano, alto, and tenor parts are notated in ¢. O is triple meter but at a higher tactus level than ¢, meaning that a breve here transcribes as a whole note rather than a half note. So, the first mensura (our modern day “measure” ought to be notated in 6/2 meter, equivalent to three measures of ¢. Similarly, a measure of C would be twice as long as a measure of ¢.  The longa following the C section is in ¢ and so, like the other three voices is transcribed as a whole note. Immediately following that is a 2:1 proportion sign, followed a little later by a 4:1 proportion sign. After working out all the other parts, it becomes obvious that the 4:1 proportion following the 2:1 proportion cannot be cumulative, but instead refers back to ¢ which is the common mensural signature of the time. After working all this out, the bass voice becomes this:

The puzzle about this notation is: Why does Isaac go to all this trouble to confuse the bass singers? My (baseless) supposition is that he purposely used this notation as a joke or challenge. He knew these singers personally, having worked with them for a least two years during the Reichstag in Constance. There is no logical reason why he would have used such an arcane musical notation. Of course, the possibility exists that Isaac never used this notation and that in the intervening years between Constance and Nuremberg, the notation was changed by some unknown person.

From a performance standpoint, the non-Isaac sections can be sung as chant with a soloist or in unison. However, the Buchner settings from the Fundamentbuch is probably what was used. Given a competent organist and venue this is preferred. Originally the alleluia Dies Sanctificatus would have been sung up to the end of the alleluia verse. Then this sequence would have been sung, followed by the alleluia chorus.

Natus ante saecula Dei filius invisibilis, interminus, Per quem fit machina caeli ac terrae, maris et in his degentium,

Born before the beginning of time, the Son of God, beyond perception or limit; through whom the workings of heaven and earth were made, of the sea, and all things therein,

Per quem Dies e horae labant et se iterum reciprocant, Quem angei in arce poli voce consona semper canunt: 

Through whom the days and hours flicker and rekindle, Whom the angels in heaven continually proclaim with harmonious voice:

Hoc corpus assumpserat fragile Sine labe originalis criminis de carne Mariae virginis quo primiparentis culpam Aevaeque lasciviam tergeret. Hoc praesens die cula loquitur Praelucida, adaucta longitudine, quod sol post radio sui luminis vetustas mundi depulerit genitus tenebras

He took on a fragile body – without stain of original sin from the flesh of the Virgin Mary – through which the guilt of the first parent and the lust of Eve were wiped clean. Therefore, the present short day, sun past the radius, of brilliant light, speaks forth because the newly begotten Son, by the rays of its light, has expelled the long-standing darkness.

Nec nox vacat novi Sideris luce, quod magorum oculos terruit scios: Nec gregum magistris defuit lumen, quos praestrinxit claritas militum Dei.

The night did not lack the light of the new star, for it struck fear in the knowing eyes of the Magi. Neither was the light invisible to the shepherds, for they were awestruck by the glory of the heavenly hosts.

Gaude, Dei genitrix, quam circumstant obstetricum vice concinentes angeli gloriam Deo. Christe patris unice, qui humanum nostril causa forman assumpsisti, refove supplices tuos,

Rejoice, O Mother of God, whom, in place of a midwife are surrounded by angels singing “Glory to God”. O Christ, Only Begotten, you who have taken human form for our sake, restore your humble servants;

Et quorum participem te fore dignatus es, Jesu, degnanter eorum suscipe preces, Ut ipsos divinitatis tuae participes Deus, facere digneris, unice Dei.


And you humbled yourself that you might share in their suffering:, Jesus, deign to receive their prayers, So that you might make them participants of your divinity, O only God!

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