Cantici Fratris Sole, Missa Lux et Origo – CD review by Dániel Végh


Do not be misled by the spiritually inspired CD cover, the Church Music or the Latin language: Levente Gyöngyösi’s music is full of joy and humour; his composing techniques remind us of eclecticism, post-modernism or even intertextualism. As if it were Esterházy’s Harmonia caelestis, this time translated into music.  

Levente Gyöngyösi’s first CD was published by the Hungaroton Classic last year. Although the compositions (Missa Lux et Origo, Cantici Fratris Sole) have not been written lately, we can rarely meet them unless at regular premières. Therefore, it would be worth listening to the CD as Gyöngyösi’s pieces represent a rather unified world of composition and sound. Consequently, it makes us familiar with his whole life’s work (or, at least it introduces us to his music). The only drawback is that I must inevitably state some earlier notices in this review. 

The Missa Lux et Origo is a series of acapella choir movements composed to a basic melody of a Gregorian chant. The Cantici Fratris Sole is Saint Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of the Sun set to an oratorio-like music with solos, duets and some instruments. Common features of the two pieces are the quite open and transparent sound of chamber music and alongside the structure of short, mosaic-like movements, there is the eclectic combination of the old (renaissance, baroque, Viennese Classic) and modern (jazz, pop) formations. Moreover, some momentums remind us of the sound well-known in world music (dancing rhythm of the violin and singing). I hope to give a clear example: Orff’s Carmina Burana, with symphonic orchestra and profane text, is the same as the Cantici with chamber ensemble and religious text. 

Despite Gyöngyösi's musical characteristics being quite difficult to place upon first hearing them (since the majority of his quotes and style-imitations can only be identified effortlessly by those familiar with European music history), I am still convinced that those without much insight into classical music would also soon get the feeling.  Especially if they start listening to Cantici Fratris Sole, track 6 on the CD. Extraordinarily genial is the soprano aria to the organ (track 9) which could hold on its own as a character song and the choir movement composed as a passacaglia (track 11). 

Especially interesting in Missa Lux et Origo is how the Gregorian melodies and the Latin text get along with the jazzy harmonies and the frivolous composing tricks which would be more suitable with the Cantici Fratris Sole, criticised by so many for its happy, ecstasy-raising performances. 

In the case of the Cantici, it is a pity that, due to the customers, the Latin version was put to music instead of the original Italian text because the composition is more like an opera bouffe in the Italian style than a serious oratorio or cantata in Latin. 

Of course, Pál Esterházy’s Harmonia caelestis is a good example for the existence of joyful, heavenly music. I assume that the prince’s baroque cycle might be easily added to those compositions of the 13th-17th century mentioned in the booklet of the CD, which, according to Márton Kerényi, served as the source of inspiration for Gyöngyösi as a composer. And how can Prince Pál and his descendant Peter Esterházy’s work with a similar title be related? Szabolcs Molnár says in the September issue of the Muzsika: “Levente Gyöngyösi is an epic character. He encourages novel-writing. The two compositions on the CD, as for their number of pages, are novels but the anecdotic elements and novelistic details split up the big narrative. It is a subconsciously created post-modern form.” Is it not like reading a Peter Esterházy review? According to the review, the elements of prose are equal to those associations, quotations, footnotes and comments, namely the ‘typical Esterházy’ phenomenon, known as intertextuality in the society of literature, that refer to earlier periods in the history of music. 

The somewhat disappointed conclusion Szabolcs Molnár drew is undoubtedly suitable. Nevertheless, he has further worries: “I wonder weather the musician audience, who is willing to face the musical colloquialism of a withered era exclusively, can be addressed by the communication techniques of past periods?” Kerékfy is very precise when he writes that Gyöngyösi uses these tools of expression and musical forms believing that they are meaningful to the audience of today. In the Cantici, the spectrum of references is so wide and apparently so frivolous that one might think that the composer is subject to some sort of passion for games. Yet, coming to such a conclusion does not explain anything, least of all how this musical puzzle links to the chosen text.”

If I see the point correctly in Szabolcs Molnár’s reasoning, Gyöngyösi’s composing techniques raise two problems. On the one hand, he says that those musical forms and tools that appeared in past periods had a straight-forward, obvious meaning, the decoding of which was not at all problematic for the listener then but it might be for the listener of today. On the other hand, even if the audience can identify the pieces of Gyöngyösi’s early music puzzle, what exactly proves to be new, modern or original?

I suspect that overemphasising the stylistic elements, the form, the shapes, the composing structures and their conventional semantics is not advisable. As if Gyöngyösi’s opponents would not take the remarkably effective and entertaining result into consideration; in other words, even without identifying and explaining the borrowed elements, the mixture of styles and re-writing also make sense on their own. In my opinion, one of the direct consequences of Gyöngyösi’s playful methods (and it may also be their meaning) is humour: the irony that is developing from the joy of St. Francis and the grotesque are perfectly plain to the amateurs, too. By using forms of the early music, Gyöngyösi points to the fact that their effects, characters and atmospheres, are instantly recognisable to everybody. The passacaglia is woeful, for instance. Thus, the game is a role-play characterisation; it’s only a matter of finding proper characters along with proper roles. Then (if he is afraid of writing a symphonic poem or a character piece based on his own ideas), it only depends on the choice of the text. I think the grotesque and/or post-modern script should match.

Another possibility of interpretation is to start with the eclecticism many say is characteristic of Gyöngyösi’s music. Proving it eclectic, however, does not lead us to anywhere again and it only concludes that, according to János Mácsai, “the meaningful and competently selected parts placed into a proper context of universal music history” will result in a masterpiece that even endures ore. There is, however, a real post-modern trick of explaining and practising eclecticism!

Architect László Rajk Jr. wrote in his book entitled Radical Eclecticism: “Planning in the baroque or modern style is a challenge all the same. Both are the manifestations of an abstract system, it is only a matter of patience and determination. If one of them is kitschy, the other is kitschy as well. Eclecticism offers everybody originality. The architect does not think according to one specific system but he organises the pile of elements of different systems with different logic into a new system. Eclecticism offers every creator radical newness.” Following Rajk’s flow of thoughts, post-modern eclecticism points to the fact that the structuring mechanism of the baroque (and other past) period is based on the adjustment of tiny but well-recognisable, conventional elements. Post-modernism only differs in the sense that it creates something new based on the store of rich forms of many periods and it does not use one exclusively. What Szabolcs Molnár describes as anecdoting fragmentation probably was in practice in the periods that used musical colloquialism and today, of course in a closer circle, these combinations seem natural. This may resemble the relationship of dead and alive metaphors in deconstructionist literary theory. 

The disharmony of the text and music that by turns appears in Gyöngyösi’s music might be explained by him not yet having crossed the line between eclecticism and radical eclecticism because he does not create a new system out of the elements that follow different logic; he intends to renew forms of early music with genres and texts of early music. (The Stork Calif is an exception from this respect. There, dramaturgic problems stood in the way which might be due to the unsuccessful stage-adaptation of the Babits novel.) Rajk’s model is evident: in the name of radical eclecticism, he built a marketplace (the ship on Lehel square) out of post-industrial, church- and palace-elements. Gyöngyösi’s Lúdas Matyi (Mattie the Goose-boy) could be that building where the material and the repertoire of expressions, characters and role-play, drama and the grotesque, find each other at last to create a real opera bouffe of the 21st century. Then, a frivolous cycle of songs should follow, using Dani Varró’s texts. Even more close-fitting would be if the young composer experimented with an Esterházy text or even The Tragedy of Man, should we be looking for a spiritual, poetic and not a contemporary text.

Until then, forgetting about the Latin text, we can truly enjoy Gyöngyösi’s CD since the composer said in the interview of its premier, in 2002, that the Cantici is just a pre-study to his second opera.