“A Byzantine Emperor at King Henry’s Court: Christmas 1400, London”
Anonymous: Selections for Christmas Eve, Day, and Evening
Xénos Korónes: Kalophonic Polykrónion
Kosmas of Jerusalem: From the First Kanon of Christmas Matins
St. John Koukouzélos: Kalophonic Megalynárion
St. Romanos the Melodist: Prologue of the Kontákion for the Nativity of Christ
Agáthon Korónes: Communion Verse for Christmas
Cappella Romana, Alexander Lingas (music director and founder)
Recorded in The Madeleine Parish, Portland, Oregon (September 18‑22, 2022) – 70’41
Cappella Records CR427 SACD – Booklet in Greek and Latin with English translations
When we think of “West meets East” in music, we are apt to recall Ravi Shankar performing with Yehudi Menuhin in the 1960s, or any of the recordings of Silk Road with Yo‑Yo Ma in recent years. But musical collaborations east and west go back much further. Two distinctly original traditions of sacred music crossed paths during a historic meeting in London’s Eltham Palace in 1400 CE. At that time, Manuel II Palaialogos, the Byzantine Emperor of the Romans, met English King Henry IV. You might call it Palaialogos Meets Plantagenet, but I call it an early music tour de force.
Titled A Byzantine Emperor at King Henry’s Court, this is the 30th album to be released by the a cappella ensemble, Cappella Romana, under the direction of its founder, Alexander Lingas. Enlightened scholarship and expressive musicianship pervade this captivating collection, which is divided into three sections which display music of both Catholic and Orthodox traditions for Christmas Eve, Day, and Evening. Unlike the aforementioned efforts to blend eastern and western influences in modern times, Emperor and King would most likely have celebrated the holy day separately, not in some forced and unfamiliar union. We presume as well that while the English court honored the birth of Christ on December 25, the Orthodox visitors would have celebrated the holiday on January 6 (some Orthodox churches observe Christmas on other dates).
While we don’t know exactly what happened during that fateful meeting between the two monarchs, we do know that Manuel II traveled the long distance from Constantinople (today’s Istanbul, Turkey) to what are now Italy and France and on to England to request funds to help defeat Turkish forces.
With its members’ vast knowledge of specific periods of early music, Cappella Romana skillfully combines enlightened scholarship with music that is both expressive and respectful of religious sentiment. For many listeners, the Roman Catholic choral selections will be more recognizable, ringing with such familiar titles as Kyrie (a Greek term embraced in the Catholic mass), Gloria, and Magnificat. Less well known to westerners are distinctively Orthodox selections, such as the Prologue of the Kontakion for the Nativity of Christ.
The album opens with the Sarum Responsory at Vespers for the Vigil of the Nativity of the Lord, a graceful Latin hymn for mixed voices. The immediate contrast with Orthodox chant comes in the second selection, an assertive offering of Acclamations from the Imperial Ceremony of the Prokypsis. What a pleasant shock it is to hear such a powerful expression of medieval faith, such original ornamentations hard on the heels of a lyrical but predictable Latin hymn. The third chorus in this set of Christmas Eve selections offers an Orthodox hymn vastly different in character and feeling from the previous offering, the Kalophonic Polychrónion by Xénos Korónes.
While the album offers much to interest music scholars and historians, its greatest strength may be its appeal to a general audience. The richness, the dare‑I‑say sensuality of the Eastern rite chants and hymns opens doors to a new kind of music for many listeners. Even for those of no particular religious inclination, this is a collection that invites calm introspective and enjoyment of a well‑balanced array of aural ornaments and melodic lines. Voices both low and high—four of the 12 ensemble members are female—weave a constantly evolving, never static experience which can be sacred, secular, or therapeutic depending on the listener’s point of view. Layered among the Byzantine selections, the more familiar Latin verses take on some of the mystery and charm of their Eastern kin.
“Byzantine Emperor” comes with a 36‑page booklet which provides not only context, but also the complete texts in Greek and Latin, with English translations. The album cover is a copy of a medieval painting depicting the meeting of Emperor and King, clasping hands in the spirit of fellowship. Surely, this album, as well, welcomes those who are new to the Eastern tradition. The blend of well‑performed music from strikingly different cultures teaches us that we, too, may hold hands, look deeply into each others’ eyes and become open to tolerance and understanding