Crux. Parisian Easter Music of the 13th & 14th centuries
liner notes / Ensemble Peregrina



Cross, form of penitence, key of grace, mace of sin, vein of forgiveness, root of the wood of justice, way of life, banner of glory, bed of the beloved in midday sun, light that fully illuminates the cloud of sadness, serenity of conscience. May man bear it [the cross], may he draw strength from it. The Cross is necessary if you want to sustain the joys of the true light.

The Cross, one of the most prominent religious symbols in history, is meant to remind Christians of God’s act of love in Christ’s sacrifice at Calvary bringing victory over sin and death. The crucifixion of Christ and the Cross itself are among the most popular motifs of art, literature and music of any period and were certainly central topics of medieval art, as in 13th century Paris where a new musical style, known as the Notre-Dame School, blossomed. The influence of the Notre Dame School spread across the whole of Europe. Here we witness an incredibly rich production of new monophonic and polyphonic music, the latter including organa, motets and conductus. The pieces of this last genre in particular not only represent complex and elaborate music of the highest quality, but also offer a glimpse of the large number of strong and beautiful texts connected with the motif of crucifixion or dealing with medieval Christian meditations on the meaning of mortal life.

Most of these pieces, like the 3-part conductus on Christ’s obedience towards the Father, Quis tibi Christe meritas, whose text artfully quotes the gradual for Maundy Thursday, are anonymous. Some, however, can be attributed to a contemporary author. Among them is one of the most important figures of that time, the Parisian theologian and university master Philip the Chancellor (c.1165-1236). This renowned preacher and philosopher was also a lyric poet to whom more than 80 Latin songs and conductus are ascribed in various manuscripts. To some texts he may even have written the melodies, however we do not have any evidence for this. His lyrics, mostly commenting on topical religious events, are characterized by a great deal of word-play, rich usage of symbols and elaborate structure. Many are concerned with moral admonition and mercilessly attack the corrupt clergy. Thus, Christ’s passion was a perfect motif through which to comment on contemporary hypocrisy and abuse of power.

Christ’s sufferings are poignantly described in Philip’s 2-part conductus Clavus pungens acumine. The clavus/clavis (nail/key) word-play dominates the entire piece. The nails are a reminder of Christ’s cruel death: “Through the mystery of the nails, the heavenly kingdom is announced, through the work of the heavenly artisan the nail becomes a key”. But the corrupt priests, who are supposed to be carrying the keys of wisdom and true faith, throw them away through their extravagant and sinful way of life. The last verses of the piece speak directly to the “shepherds” gone astray: “You who have become a pack of wolves, you rip apart Christ’s limbs, and, misusing the keys, you transform them into nails”.

Nails, torture, wretched humans and ungrateful Christianity, with allusions to the lamentations of Jeremiah, are also the focus of another piece by Philip the Chancellor, the 1-part conductus Homo vide que pro te patior. Lamenting Christ speaks himself, calling the faithful to obey the commandments, avoid sin and thus choose the road to salvation. Similar advice is given in the opening piece, a 1-part rondellus, Breves dies hominis, evoking the shortness and fragility of human life and of the perils of physical corruption.

Another rare piece presenting a personal lament of Christ and alluding to the lamentations of Jeremiah is the 1-part rondellus Vineam meam plantavi, here enriched by improvised voices in the refrain. The Saviour’s solitude is expressed with the words: “I planted my vine, I have trodden the winepress alone. The vine did not yield the fruit I was hoping for, blood has stained my clothes”. The text also quotes Isaiah’s prophesies. Christ enumerates all his sufferings for man (“I drank the vinegar, I did not refuse the whip”) as well as his achievements (“I laid waste Hell, I banished him who held mankind in bondage”), concluding with the words: “I who prepared my body for the Cross, on the third day called back my soul”.

One of the sorrowful witnesses of Christ’s Passion was the Virgin Mary – another important motif of medieval art and literature, found in three pieces in this album. Planctus ante nescia by Geoffrey (d. 1198), the subprior of Saint Victor in Paris, certainly belonged to the best-known tunes of the late 12th and 13th centuries and was used in numerous contrafacta, both musical and textual, throughout the whole of medieval Europe. This masterpiece is an incredibly courageous psychological study of grief and wrath, doubt and despair and speaks of the deepest darkness in the soul of the grieving Virgin Mother but also of her reconciliation with her son’s death. In a similar way, Stabat iuxta, a wonderful setting of a prose text from the Las Huelgas manuscript, depicts a moving scene set under the Cross (also portrayed in the famous Stabat mater sequence). Here, Mary experiences all the sufferings of her dying son: she feels that she herself is nailed to the Cross, feels the thorns on her own head, and suffers scorn, being spit on and flagellation. Her pains are now compared to those spared her during the wondrous birth of Jesus. The piece finishes with the announcement of the forthcoming joy of resurrection.

Crux, de te volo conqueri by Philip the Chancellor is a dialogue between the Virgin and the Cross. The Virgin “accuses the Cross of robbing her of her ‘fruit’ and inflicting a shameful death on one who did not merit such treatment” (1). The Cross freely acknowledges adorning its branches with Mary’s flower (de tuo flore fulgeo, de tuo fructu gaudeo) and, like her while carrying the child in her womb, bearing sweet weight and possessing a sweet fruit (dulce pondus sustineo, dulcem fructum possideo), but for the salvation of the world, so that life should overcome death (ut vita mortem superet). This explanation of Christ’s sacrifice at the Cross is also found in a refrain of the rondellus A sinu Patris mittitur saying: “The Saviour of the world dies, that through His death He may crush death” (Mundi salvator moritur, ut morte mortem conterat).

The motif of bearing sweet weight reappears in the 3-part motet, Cruci Domini / Crux, forma penitencie / PORTARE. The tenor PORTARE (“to bear”) uses a melisma from the Marian Alleluia. Dulcis virgo dulcis mater for the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. This chant, however, shares the same melody and almost the same text (for the crucial melisma using the word SUSTINERE instead of PORTARE) with Alleluia. Dulce lignum dulces clavos about the finding, reception, and exaltation of the Cross, presenting once again the parallel figures of the Virgin Mary bearing the child and the Cross bearing Christ. Both texts of the upper voices of the motet praise the honorable role of the Cross and its importance as the “key of grace” and the only true path to Christian understanding.

Among the women accompanying the Virgin Mary beside the Cross we find Christ’s beloved disciple, Mary Magdalene. The Easter sequence Surgit Christus cum tropheo tells the story of the crucifixion from her perspective. The piece starts in a narrative way introducing Easter Day, but immediately turns to the grief of Mary Magdalene who does not know of her Saviour’s resurrection. Asked again and again to tell what she has seen at Calvary, she recollects her suffering while witnessing Christ’s death and her despair at discovering that the Saviour was not to be found in his grave. The questions Dic Maria quid vidisti contemplando crucem Christi (“Say, Mary, what did you see while you were contemplating Christ’s Cross?”) and Dic Maria quid fecisti postquam Jesum amisisti (“Say, Mary, what did you do after you lost Jesus?”), repeated over and over again like a kind of a mantra, have an almost therapeutic quality. They are an obvious allusion to Dic nobis Maria quid vidisti in via (“Say, Mary, what did you see on your way?”) from the famous sequence Victime paschali laudes, fragments of which have been inserted in the following Surgit Christus cum tropheo. Victime paschali laudes, here performed in the polyphonic version from the Las Huelgas manuscript, closes with the scene where the Lord’s resurrection is praised. The same moment of solemn joy is taken up in the 3-part Las Huelgas conductus Resurgentis praising the Saviour’s victory over death.

A much more naive portrayal of the day of the resurrection and the ensuing events is presented in Adam novus, a short monophonic song from the Officium peregrinorum (also known as The Play of the Pilgrims to Emmaus). The angel is met by the women at the grave and triumphantly announces the resur rection. The focus then shifts to Emmaus, where the disciples see the pilgrim but do not recognize him as the resurrected Christ. He appears in his proper form while breaking the bread, shining with great light. The triumphant victory over death is also the main theme of the rondellus Mors vite propitia with its many allusions to Old Testament figures like Joseph or Samson symbolizing Christ himself. Concluding with the refrain: “on the Sunday once again [He] rose victorious”, this simple piece expresses the purest joy and brings in the “light that fully illuminates the cloud of sadness”.


The manuscripts containing Notre Dame polyphony are generally quite legible, thus, in most cases, we have used facsimile copies. This has greatly influenced our interpretations, in particular the rhythmical decisions in the conductus. In one-part conductus the unmeasured, text-oriented rhetorical performance seemed obvious. In 2- and 3-part pieces we have clearly differentiated between the melismatic fragments (sine littera), performed according to the rules of modal notation, and the text parts (cum littera), performed with free rhythm based on word accents and the flow of speech. In the musically less complex rondelli the situation was ambiguous, the choice of modal or free performance made according to the rhythmic quality of the text itself. The text edition by G. A. Anderson has been consulted in many cases (2).

Instrumental vielle pieces, all created by Baptiste Romain, were based on some of the tunes from the recorded pieces (e.g. Estampie I following Breves dies uses the latter’s musical material, Estampie II anticipates the melody of Mors vite) and constructed in a similar way to the few still existing instrumental pieces from the late 13th century.

Agnieszka Budzińska-Bennett
translation: Lucas Bennett