Georgius Zrunek:

Michael Pospíšil2 MASSES from the collection HARMONIA PASTORALIS (1766)

or A Playfully Serious Christmas

as the link between Advent and Carnival

sung and played on period instruments by the ensembles


The paradox of life which is gained through Death, the basis of Christianity, is similar to the paradox of Music ─ that is, Music played and sung live. Musical recording or Music in the media is a mere memory, it is playing at Music, a rival to Music. Although it seems to be practically infallible and almost perfect, it is not alive. There is no spirit ”inspiring” and ”expiring”, and therefore no Music. The essence of Music lies in its elusiveness, evanescence and fragility, which is what makes it the bearer of eternal and divine matters. A tone has to resonate and subside, that is, to die, in order to reflect Eternity and Infinity....

Probably all Missions using live Music were successful: Saints Cyril and Methodius, the Jesuits in ”Old” and ”New” India (America), the Franciscan brethren in Slovakia... Why? Live Music is entirely universal, it’s a language more comprehensible than words. Words, however, are also important, and as we believe, the Word in the beginning was sung. An outburst of joy does not require any words, just as grief has its own sounds generally understood by all living creatures.

Folk nativity scenes, sometimes referred to as ”frozen theatre” should more accurately be called ”hypothermic”. Why? Not because of their typical heart-warming atmosphere, nor the discomfort the little baby Jesus must endure, but because of the constant slow movement of the Nativity scene figures ─ our grandparents’ Nativity scenes, or crèches, did not have their figures firmly attached, they changed the scenery slightly each day, according to the corresponding Biblical events. When the Austrian Emperor Joseph II banned Nativity scenes from the churches, this activity became a sort of a family game which was later slightly pushed aside by the German burgher tradition of Christmas tree. Christmas crèche scenes used to be arranged at the beginning of Advent and were in use until Candlemas, all this time steadily moving in a “Biblical” manner. The Czech painter, puppeteer and film maker Jiří Trnka recalls admiring Josef Lada’s Nativity scene; Josef Lada, painter, illustrator and writer, recalled the Nativity scene designed by an earlier painter and illustrator Mikoláš Aleš, who recalled seeing historical Christmas crèches... etc. ....

In 1223, in the hills above Greccio, Saint Francis of Assisi founded a new means of expression of piousness: already in the Middle Ages, under the auspices of the Mass, he brought help to God’s People by a “Baroque” staging of a Live Bethlehem. When it was necessary to repair the ruins of a chapel, he invited “Jesus’s potential sponsors” – Donors – to come to the Nativity with whatever they had. This was of course only one-half of the new expression of piety: the second, invisible and more important, is played out in our own construction of the “crèche” – by inviting Baby Jesus—Child--God-Man into the manger of our heart.

Franciscans as a poor, even begging order, have in their Order a rule to accept gifts, and are forbidden to pay for anything with money. They cannot even tip the musicians! The organists, the majority of which were monks, were fed (see their obligation to accept gifts!) and the large scores propped up on the pulpit were then prepared for anyone who came. According to the well-known Czech Christmas carol, which goes “…And what could we give, when we have naught to give? We will stamp out a beat, and sing songs for you to live!...” the poorest always paid with music… Especially the type called “Franciscan masses” – ”Opus Franciscanum” was thus always open to improvisation, in various voices and instruments – devout jokes… Saint Francis of Assisi while he loved and promoted humility and poverty, at the same time campaigned for the solemn beauty of the mass.

Of course. Because the Franciscans were never completely sure who would play and sing in addition to the fed organist for example at Christmas Mass, there are even Franciscan Christmas masses written more like a screenplay than a musical score. So they are like a puppet or live Baroque theatre – due to the weak and flickering light, what was seen was not so important as what is not seen… Many important notes were not written, but that was compensated by vague directions; the scores themselves were thus improvised by the musicians.

A written score without live, given instruction – “manners” – is mostly a stumbling block and a source of misunderstanding of the style. With Zrunek however, what is surprising is that everything is clear: it is as if we see images woven between the notes; and between the letters, words from the heart. The organ rather stays in place (this is where we get the “positive organ” from), but the other musicians and singers are perhaps in motion, similar to the figures in the “frozen theatre” still representing the Nativity: coming, walking back and forth, playing and singing, leaving. Dancing, too? For every movement in and to music actually is a dance!

In the Mass Heaven and Earth meet, the Spirit and the Body, in the Nativity the Poor and the Kings meet, the Idiots and the Wise Men; in the Christmas masses of Jiří Zrunek (with written and sung contribution and confabulation of Edmund Pascha?) the brilliantly indicated high “Haydenesque” style meets the “lower” – with folk music. For while this “folk musical” was written by a quite well-educated representative of the higher estate, he was also of the begging order. With many musical monuments, we should better consider whether they are a transcription of real folk music or only its stylisation, an imitation. Then we might even understand the duality of “folklore”!

In Zrunek’s particella there are instrumental directions naming several instruments: from the “upper” world there are clarini, i.e. trumpets (of course only the “natural” ones, without valves nor holes, unlike the ones almost all trumpeters play today), but in F-tuning ─ we found an original one; and the tuba pastoritia, the shepherd’s horn, which we had to have made, at a length of 13 feet. Other instruments are named in texts inserted into the pastorales: violins, Jew’s harps, whistles, farfajka (this was likely a folk version of the chalumeau, a precursor to the clarinet), gaidas (bagpipes), “Barbora” (bass).... Some of the organs in Zrunek’s time were equipped with special stops, like Birdsong, which we imitated with water-filled clay jugs, or Cymbal Stars, a kind of merry-go-round of bells, which we imitated with bells in our hands.

Zrunek’s Christmas Mass is a combination of the ancient tradition of a complete liturgical Latin text of the mass officium onto which he has laid his translations, paraphrases, commentaries and “pastorales” – often quite humorous ones.

Into these tropes (Gk. tropos→Lat. tropus = turn) troop the trespasses of non-tropical shepherds, our “Wallachs” (Vlachs?), who for the Slovaks are Westerners, for Bohemians they are Easterners, for Moravians they are Northerners, for Poles they are Southerners ─ what a ubiquitous faux-pas, necessary to be given to God. As are we all! For the ordinary believers, it was convincing to see animals in Nativity scenes, which today we only know peripherally as items in a glass display case in the museum, but for farmers these critters were just as important as their siblings, perhaps even more important.

In the Christmas mass, thus the bleating sheep, or a composed comical interlude on the ruined and then corrected play of two musicians before the Crèche is a story of Salvation, nothing less! It does not reduce the transcendental seriousness of the mass, but it brings us deeper into Heaven. Thus is improvisation itself – we learn to break into Heaven, but it never works. Zrunek’s mass is in this sense a painless path, where only the respect for God is important, never the seriousness of expression nor a sleek style of presentation. Such expressions of religiosity always stink of Pharisaism… Maestro Zrunek, a superb priest-preacher, composed part of his Benedictus as a flock of bleating sheep. He did this partly as an attentive spiritual shepherd, and partly he is reminding us of the famous preaching of St Francis during the midnight mass in Greccio: while pronouncing each ”be” syllable , he gently bleated “baa-baa-baa”….

I am attempting to say that Zrunek’s music is life-giving: almost thirty years ago we played the first of the masses, published by Dr Mária Terray (Thanks to God!) in facsimile, with some friends at a pre-New Year’s abstinent party. My wife, in the late stages of pregnancy, laughed so much, and from the heart, at the bleating combined with the music at the Crèche and at the coarse speech of the shepherds, that in the morning, on New Year’s Day, my first daughter Kateřina was born. Thanks to God!

Why all this? So that we keep the Infant Jesus with us in every moment that we remain in this World, for Him again and again to be reborn in our hearts. This is not a mere phrase – with every new soul who is born, the Baby Jesus is also born, who is God. And theologically? “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” That’s it!