Academic journal article Studia Musicologica

Balther of Säckingen, Bishop of Speyer, Composer of Chants for St Fridolin Ca. 970

Academic journal article Studia Musicologica

Balther of Säckingen, Bishop of Speyer, Composer of Chants for St Fridolin Ca. 970

Article excerpt

In the study of musical history it is still possible to discover unknown compositions, especially from the medieval period. This paper is about liturgical chants whose existence was known, but which could not be transcribed, because no source with staff notation had yet been discovered. There are certainly very many such chants, for scholarship has tended to concentrate on the earliest manuscripts, and the later Middle Ages, when composition by no means came to a halt, have been correspondingly neglected. And later manuscripts often preserve older compositions for which earlier sources are lost. The compositions discussed here were written about 970, yet the only known source with staff notation is dated 1586.

That is interesting in itself, but the background to the creation of these chants is more interesting still. So the first part of this article sketches the historical background, then the manuscript sources are described briefly, and finally the musical style of the melodies is discussed. What sort of chant were educated musicians writing in the late tenth century? Was it any different from "Gregorian chant" as we know it today from books like the Graduale Triplex or the Antiphonale Monasticum?

This paper concerns an Irish saint, Fridolin, who came to the town of Säckingen on the River Rhine between Basel and Lake Constance sometime in the early sixth century. More than three hundred years later a scholar from Säckingen, called Balther, wrote a biography of Fridolin and composed chants to be sung on his feast day, about the year 970. Balther prefaces his biography (known as a vita) with a letter of dedication to a former teacher, and in this preface we learn a great deal about Balther himself.

Many Irish missionaries came from the "emerald isle" to the continent of Europe. The most famous was Columbanus, who journeyed through France, past Lake Constance and down into Italy, where he died at Bobbio in the year 615. Near Lake Constance he left Gallus behind, whose fame as a hermit eventually led to the foundation of the famous monastery of St. Gallen. The influence of this missionary movement from Ireland should not be underestimated. Over 300 monasteries in the North French area alone can be attributed directly or indirectly to the Irish missionaries. They include such celebrated figures as Kilian of Würzburg and Virgilius of Salzburg, later venerated as saints.

Fridolin is not as famous as Columbanus. No writings or other evidence about his life and work survive from his own time, all we know about him is contained in Balther's vita. All relevant materials have been edited and explained in a splendid dissertation by Mechthild Pörnbacher (München), published in 1997.1 Dr. Pörnbacher was able to study a manuscript (now in Karlsruhe) with the liturgical chants notated in neumes, dating from the twelfth century. The neumes could not be transcribed or sung, until recently I found a source with the Fridolin chants in staff notation, written as late as 1586.

Balther tells us that Fridolin came from Ireland, first of all to Poitiers in France. Back in Roman times, Poitiers (Lemonum in Latin) was the city where St Hilary (Hilarius) had preached to the Pictones, and died in 367. But Fridolin found that Hilary's church had been destroyed long before, during the barbarian invasions of the fifth century. Nobody knew any more where the saint had been buried. Now Hilary appeared to Fridolin in a vision and revealed to him his resting place. Fridolin told the bishop of Poitiers, Hilary's remains were discovered, Fridolin and the bishop went to the Frankish King Clovis I (c. 466-c. 511, king 509-511), who agreed to support them in the rebuilding of Hilary's monastery. But Fridolin's labours were by no means at an end. Hilary once again appeared to him, and told him he must journey further, to the land of the Alemanni, where he would find an island in the middle of the River Rhine, and there he must preach the Word of God to the heathen. …

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