On Mortal and Immortal Wings
The ensemble Schola Gregoriana Pragensis is firmly grounded in medieval choral music, which enables them to make occasional – but never accidental! – exploits outside the church chant.
Schola Gregoriana Pragensis (SGP) was founded in 1987 by David Eben, musicologist and son of the eminent 20th century Czech composer Petr Eben. The group was strictly a liturgical choir, but after 1989 they could perform in public, too, and started recording and concert activity.
This was quite intensive, but above all, it was based on the professionalism of all its members and on the deep theoretical attainments of their leader. In the ’90s they were really forging a new path, having no local predecessors, but possessing an understanding of the waking interest in medieval choral music and imprinting its sound image into the minds and ears of Czech listeners.
Although SGP has done a lot to popularize the Gregorian chant, they stay strictly with their artistic and scientific approach, and never pander to the public by reducing the music to the level of relaxing sounds or being “cross-over” at any cost.
Nevertheless, SGP sometimes breaks ranks, singing contemporary music by Petr Eben, Arvo Pärt, or Paweł Szymański (which definitely cannot be considered searching for mere popularity), or working with the choir of Japanese Buddhist monks Gyosan-ryu Tendai Shomyo as recorded on the CD Close Voices from Far Away. Both ensembles alternate and in two pieces they even sing together, generating a unique synergy.
In the Transportation exhibition hall of the National Technical Museum May 20 SGP let their voices harmonize with the atypical ambience and with excerpts from poetry and literature featuring “man as a pilgrim” or “on a journey” (homo viator), both in the physical and the metaphorical meaning. The Gregorian pieces for this Prague Spring concert were also chosen to suit the theme, expressing mostly the finite way of human life (Francois Lebertoul: O Mortalis Homo, Guillaume de Machaut: Ma Fin est Mon Commencement).
Human finality conveyed by the plainchant to the background of artifacts of human effort to move faster, further, and higher compels both humility and admiration for human ingenuity in spite of fate. Marek Eben (actor, moderator, composer of music for stage, and David Eben’s brother), the narrator of the evening, started his reading with Ferlinghetti’s The Long Street, a metaphor for human life as a frantic train journey, on the cab of a black, heavy 19th century steam-engine.
He moved to another spot to read an excerpt from Nezval’s Edison (a glorification of the great inventor). Then he mounted up to the upper gallery, where the first evidences of human longing to fly are hanging, to read a passage from Saint-Exupéry’s Night Flight.This novel, as is well known, ends when Fabien, the pilot, is almost certainly bound to die, but opening the way to a long-term goal more important than an individual life.
The last excerpt was from St Paul’s epistle; Marek Eben read it back downstairs again, on stage, among the people. The singers stood on the longer side of the rectangular room, in a way the opposite of a church’s nave.
The Gregorian singing with special reverberation, in a place filled with proof of both human potency and fragility, let one think of beauty and ingenuity bearing a human being up like wings, however vulnerable. — oo
– Lucie Rohanová
Photo Credits: Lucie Rohanová