The piece performed for this display comes from one of the main surviving liturgical manuscripts from medieval Sicily. Known today as MS289, it is one of four designated the Troparium of Catania: MS288, MS289, 19241, and Vitrina 20-4, currently held at the Biblioteca de Nacional in Madrid. Although the topic of musical scholarship in the 19th and 20th centuries, because of the obscurity and the religious nature of these manuscripts, pieces from them have not entered the popular SCA reper toire.
Until I heard this piece performed by the Italian early music group Al Qantarah, which had focused on tying together the folk music traditions of Sicily with the island’s medieval Norman and Muslim history, the Troparium was unknown to me as well. The Troparium manuscripts have been scanned and put online in high resolution images, but are rather difficult to search through. Still, I wanted to figure out at least “Anni novi circulus,” as the Al Qantarah rendition had captured my imagination. I could pick out the tune by ear, but the lyrics eluded me. Searching YouTube, I stumbled across one of Trouvere’s most recent projects – “Music of the Magna Carta,” with a few pieces specifically from the Troparium of Catania. And they had done their own version of “Anni novi circulus.” On a whim, I shot an email to Gillian Page of Trouvere, and she kindly send me the link to the 1981 doctoral thesis by David Hiley at teh University of London, “The Liturgical Music of Norman Sicily: A Study Centered on Manuscripts 288, 289, 19241, and Vitrina 20-4, of the Biblioteca Nacional, Madrid.”
According to Hiley, while many of the alleluias, ordinaries, and mass chants in the Sicilian manu scripts can be attested to Norman examples from France, No. 288, which was prepared for the house hold chapel of the Norman rulers of Sicily around 1100, and No. 289, prepared for the Cappella Pa latina, represent something new: “…their repertories and variants are distinct from any other extant sources, and are therefore not copies of imported exemplars.”
“Anni novi circulus” is one of 19 conductus songs transcribed by Hiley. Although sacred and part of processionals, they are not part of the liturgy of Mass. As Hiley has transcribed these, there are no notations of time signatures or indications of meter, as a conductus was often sung without one. How ever, the words themselves have rhythm, and can be inserted easily enough into a 4/4 time signature. There is one other thing to note about these pieces: As Nativity songs, they are among the few actually documentable, earliest pieces of Christmas music for SCA purposes, especially for pre-13th century personas.
My persona is a woman of the court of King Roger II, in service of his queen, Elvira. Little is known about this queen, and nothing of her ladies. I have theorized that Adelisa might have learned how to play music and dance, picking up songs and stories from the Muslim servants and slaves at court (the muqarnas of the Cappella Palatina and the images on the nave beams at Cefalu, which was also estab lished by Roger, show depictions of women dancers and musicians). And the royal chapel, which had its own distinctive varieties of songs and where she certainly would have spent time attending ser vices, could have provided another source of music, especially at Christmas and the new year.
Plucked psalteries derived from the Middle Eastern qanuns would have been known to her (see imag es of psalteries from the 12th century on the last page). I cannot afford a reproduction of one of these psalteries and am not even sure they are being portrayed in any accurate way. But a psaltery would have been an appropriate accompaniment to a sacred song. My trapezoidal one was made by TK O’Brien’s and is small and dainty enough for a lady.
Playing around with Zoom backgrounds, I found some good shots of the “Sala de Ruggero” in the Palazzo Normanni in Palermo, one of the few rooms in the palace that can give an idea of the splen dor that Roger and his court lived in. Although the rooms were probably built in the reign of his son, William I, the mosaics and marble would have been in the styles the court had favored since Roger’s reign, the Norman/Arab Sicilian style.
One final note: the accompanying video took about 20 takes to get a clean version. Cameras and solo playing make me freeze. But I wanted to give the reader and idea of what a performance could have looked and sounded like.