Once again, Maestro Paul B. Conway and the Hillyer Community Chorus & Orchestra have brought to our attention music most of us have never heard but which broadens our perspective of an era and provides us with fresh pleasures. “Music composed and used in the Upper Swabian Premonstratensian Imperial Abbey” — Franz Xaver Schlecht’s Lauretanische Litanei, and Jakob Sommer’s Missa in B” (in US premieres for both works) presented daunting research opportunities for the inquisitive.

First, to sort this out – “Premonstratensian” relates to a rural place in northeastern France called “Prémontré.” It was there that Saint Norbert, a friend of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, and thirteen companions established a monastery modeled on the ideals of the Cistercian order. The members of the order, often referred to as Norbetines, were not monks but canons regular; their functions primarily were preaching and pastoral ministry. They lived lives of poverty and placed great significance on the veneration of the Virgin Mary. The order was founded in 1120, and by the middle of the fourteenth century there were some 1,300 monasteries for men and 400 for women. Of further note, the convents for women were allowed autonomy equal to the abbeys for men, and the spiritual life of the sisters was seen as being on equal footing with that of the priests and brothers.

Now for the geographically curious – Upper Swabia is bounded on the north by the Danube, on the west by the volcanic landscape of the Hegau, and on the south by Lake Constance; in the east it extends to the river Lech. It is an area of rolling hills, lakes, bogs, and many small villages. The Nobetines established an abbey and a convent there on a donated tract of land in 1134 and around 1285 began construction of a Gothic cathedral which, after delays, was completed and dedicated in 1414. The eighteenth century was the heyday of the Dover Abbey after which it fell into decline.

The Lauretaniche Litanei (Litaniae lauretanae in Latin) is the German designation of The Litany of the Blessed Virgin. It is also known as the Litany of Loreto, since it was first known at the Shrine of Our Lady of Loreto (Italy), after it was approved by Pope Sixtus V in 1557. The Litany is comprised of seven sections; the first and last are from the ordinary of the mass — Kyrie and Agnus Dei. The second movement is a prayer for mercy from the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The remaining four parts are poems of praise and appeals to Mary.

Franz Xaver Schlecht (1730-82) was the older brother of Robert Schlecht, who was the abbot of Salem Monastery from 1778 to 1802. After studying for a law degree in Salzburg, he became the musical conductor at the Cathedral of Eichstarr and a Cistercian Father at Salem. There is no knowledge of his musical education, though it is quite possible that he was aware of the Haydn brothers, Michael and Joseph, and he may have been influenced by some of the developments that were taking place at the Mannheim School. He wrote numerous sacred works, many of which remain in use at the Salem Abbey. It is an interesting exercise to research Schlecht on the internet since many of the sources of information are in German and the Google translator renders his name in its German meaning: “bad, poor.”

The music of the Lauretaniche Litanei is accomplished in form and charming in concept and style. It is scored for standard classical era orchestra: the usual strings, woodwinds, two trumpets, and timpani. The Kyrie begins with an attention-getting trumpet figure, repeated by the French horns as the chorus opens with a broad statement of the text. The “Pater de coelis” features solo and duet work by the soprano and tenor along with the choir.  Schlecht must have had some marvelous talent at his command since the solo work is quite demanding and was beautifully done in this performance by Meg Risinger and Rob Garver. The first of the Marian sections, “Sancta Marias,” is a charming and lyrical melody introduced by the orchestral strings and sung enchantingly by alto Nancy Brenner. The choir next sang “Mater admirabilis,” a vigorous intercessory prayer appealing to Mary in her capacity as mother. The next section, “Speculum justitiae,” a gentle prayer for justice, makes use of the full quartet of soloists: Risinger, Brenner, Garver and bass Lewis Moore. The final Marian prayer, addressed to “The Queen of Heaven,” engages the full choir and orchestra in fugal counterpoint that is masterfully devised and was very nicely performed.  The closing Agnus Dei is a gentle and lilting lullaby and ends with an extraordinary coda; each voice, from soprano to bass, enters two beats apart singing a descending D minor scale which is cadenced into a serene D major chord in the final measure.

The Missa in B by Jakob Sommer followed without a break. Another of the monks of Salem Monastery, little is known of Sommer other than the dates of his birth and death, 1764-96. He may well have heard and been familiar with the music of both Mozart and Haydn. His treatment of the ordinary of the mass divides the longer texts into several parts to allow for greater musical development. He uses the soloists individually and together to provide variety of texture and intensity as was common practice in the mature classical era.

Of special note in the Missa in B is the “Quoniam” segment of the Gloria (“For thou alone art holy”), which is set as a bass solo of distinguished style and was sung grippingly by Moore. The “Cum sancto Spiritu” which follows is scored for full choir and orchestra and projects a refined and controlled power which stood out as some of the finest choral ensemble singing of the evening.

The “Et incarnatus” segment of the Credo began with an exquisite flute solo and delightful writing for the quartet. The composer inserts the word “Credo” (“I believe”) at several points throughout this part of the mass and ends the section with the word repeated as though to underscore the devotion of the music as worship. Other outstanding highlights were heard in the cheerful Benedictus and the gentle but intense “Dona nobis pacem” which ends the mass.

This concert marks the beginning of the 40th year of the Hillyer Community Chorus which was awarded the Raleigh Medal of Arts in May, 2005 – an entirely remarkable, highly commendable, and truly appreciated record indeed.