Bryn Mawr Classical Review 98.6.30

Jan Nova/k, Schola Cantans. Score, Libretto, Tape. Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, Inc., Wauconda, 1998. $20. ISBN 0-86516-357-x (cassette), ISBN 0-86516-397-9 (libretto); $15. ISBN 0-8651-358-8 (score).

Reviewed by Werner Schubert, Institut fu+r Klassische Philologie, Universita+t Bern,

The present edition of Jan Nova/k's Schola Cantans contains (1) the score of ten songs, based on ancient Latin texts, for solo voice and piano (there is no indication that this score was originally published by Edizioni Zanibon, Padova, 1974), (2) a recording of these songs in a different order, supplemented by two medieval songs, taken from the famous Carmina Burana, and the Gaudeamus igitur, sung by the Choir Voces Latinae Rovereto, Italy, conducted by the composer himself, originally produced by the FKM Filmkunst-Musikverlag Munich 1980, (3) a Latin libretto with English translations. The last item is the only new contribution to this second edition, while in the other two parts the only differences are changes in the appearance of the titles of the songs and a reduction of the score to a handy size. A short introduction which is to be found in the libretto as well as in the score, reveals that the tape was the starting point for this re-edition; it does not begin with any information about Jan Nova/k himself, but with some notes on the Voces Latinae from Rovereto, the singers of the present recording. This is followed by a short account of the composer's principles, concerning in general his musical settings of Latin (and Greek) texts, which attempt to retain the original character of the Latin by keeping the syllabic quantities and metrical patterns intact. A brief biography of Nova/k and some isolated remarks upon the arrangements of the original voice-and-piano-setting for choir and small orchestra conclude the short introduction.[[1]]

Nova/k's principles show an astonishing affinity with the structures of antique verse and the irregularity of rhythm in modern music. These features are important to, let us say, Stravinsky and his emulators on the one hand, to jazz on the other. Syncopic patterns shape the songs almost everywhere, whereas their musical character varies enormously. Nevertheless the main impression for a contemporary listener is a somewhat nostalgic proximity to the pop music of the Fifties and Sixties, in spite of the fact that Nova/k gives each song a specific flavour, by making use of a rich fund of surprising harmonic and rhythmic effects that surpass the limits of the genre patterns. A highlight is Nautarum carmen (Anthol. Lat.), that combines simple driad melodies with rather witty harmonic and rhythmic irregularities. Ludi Magister (Martial. 10,62) is a fine "slowfox" with its harmonic digressions and unexpected modulations back to the main key. The famous Horatian Integer vitae (Hor. c.1,22) has been understood by some composers to be a sensitive confession of sincerity and purity of body and mind and therefore composed preferably in a choral-like manner.[[2]] In Nova/k's setting the character of a cheerful love song is preferred. Another fine piece is Vivamus, mea Lesbia (Catullus 5), which differs in many ways from the well-known composition of the same text by Carl Orff in his Catulli Carmina.

The various instructions concerning the performance are given throughout in Latin and will therefore amuse the reader and performer rather than a listening audience. One of the most humorous pieces is the musical setting of Phaedrus 13 Cum de fenestra corvus, the popular fable of the fox and the raven. The cunning fox of that fable inspired Nova/k to prescribe the tempo and expression mark Quasi passus vulpinus--foxtrot-like. For the last song in the score the composer dared to set to music the beginning of one of the most famous Latin prose works: the very first words of Caesar's Bellum Gallicum, to be performed Gressu Martiali--as a march, of course. This funny song gains its witty note--like many others of the collection--by the tension between a comparatively simple structure of the singing voice and the harmonic enrichment which emanates from the piano part.

Apparently the editors made no attempt to find the manuscripts of the arrangements the composer made himself for this recording. The composer's widow, Elissa Nova/k, probably would have been pleased if she had been asked to provide the editors with such material. Thus the purpose of another edition of an opus which is already available is not easy to fathom, particularly because there are some differences between the piano score and the orchestral versions. On the present tape, the first stanza of Dianae sumus in fide, is--compared with the score--enriched by a longer prelude and a very elaborated orchestral accompaniment, while the second one responds most closely to the score; the third stanza is enlarged by a second vocal voice, the fourth by even more voices, whereas the fifth is sung a cappella. Variations of this kind are more than mere orchestrations of the piano score. By the way, the original piano score has its own special charm, as any performance of the Schola cantans according to the score will prove.

Some of the translations of the Latin texts are taken from different volumes of The Loeb Classical Library (F. W. Cornish [Catullus], C. E. Bennett [Horace, the non-Horatian headings have been unnecessarily taken over], C. A. Ker [Martial] and H. J. Edwards [Caesar]), some are translated for this edition (in a lucid prose manner) by Judith Lynn Sebesta, Univ. of South Dakota. There are a few printer's errors (hyphenation of bristling p. 11 and majesty p. 13; clercis instead of clericis p. 14).

Unfortunately it is not so easy to understand what happened to the order of the songs. If you want to listen to the tape and to read the score or the libretto at the same time, you will be puzzled by three (!) different orders offered by the three parts of this edition. While the sequence of the first four songs is the same, the rest differs as follows:

The score: 5. Nautarum carmen, 6. Ludi magister, 7. Integer vitae, 8. Nox erat, 9. Vivamus, mea Lesbia, 10. Gallia est omnis divisa

The libretto: 5. Veris dulcis in tempore, 6. Ludi magister, 7. Vivamus, mea Lesbia, 8. Nox erat, 9. Tempus adest floridum, 10. Gallia est omnis divisa, 11. Gaudeamus igitur, 12. Nautarum carmen, 13. Integer vitae

The tape: 5. Nautarum carmen, 6. Ludi magister, 7. Tempus adest floridum, 8. Nox erat, 9. Vivamus, mea Lesbia, 10. Gallia est omnis divisa, 11. Gaudeamus igitur, 12. Veris dulcis in tempore, 13. Integer vitae

The confusion is completed by the labels on the tape, because they show the order according to the libretto, not the order actually recorded on the tape.

Although the name of the Choir Voces Latinae sounds ancient, the voices themselves are obviously young and fresh, sometimes disarmingly bold and prone to parody. Thus, if there were any doubts as to whether the enterprise of setting secular Latin texts to (pop) music and performing them is worthwille, these will be quickly dispelled.[[3]]  


[[1]] For additional information see Joachim Draheim and Werner Schubert, "Iano Novaco Sexagenario," Vox Latina 17,1981, 98-99; Wilfried Stroh (ed.): Cantica latina. Poetarum veterum novorumque carmina ad cantum cum clavibus modis instruxit Jan Nova/k. Munich and Zurich, 1985, 5-6; Wilfried Stroh, "Jan Nova/k, Musiker und Lateiner," in Michael von Albrecht and Werner Schubert (edd.), Musik in Antike und Neuzeit. Frankfurt/M., Bern, New York, 1987, 249-253.  

[[2]] E.g. F. F. Flemming (1778-1813), "Integer vitae (Carm. 1,22)," in Horaz-Vertonungen vom Mittelalter bis zur Gegenwart. Eine Anthologie, eds. Joachim Draheim and Gu+nther Wille. Amsterdam, 1985, 102; cf. also Joachim Draheim, Vertonungen antiker Texte vom Barock bis zur Gegenwart (mit einer Bibliographie der Vertonungen fu+r den Zeitraum von 1700 bis 1978). Amsterdam, 1981; Werner Schubert, "De Horatii poetae carminibus arte musica exornatis," Vox Latina 17,1981, 334-335.  

[[3]] My special thanks to James Cowey, who revised this review.