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Our oldest Epiphany songs are from the Middle Ages

4. 1. 2022 | 309 visits

The Feast of the Epiphany (Three Kings) celebrated on January 6 closes the two-week period of Christmas in the Western Christian tradition. This holiday is associated with liturgical ceremonies in the ecclesiastical environment of monasteries and temples, as well as traditional processions and carol singing. Until recently, Epiphany music was on the fringes of interest in Slovakia as the least reflected part of the musical culture of the Christmas period. This has been changed by scientists from the Slovak Academy of Sciences who have studied the history of the unique Epiphany music repertoire from our territory and are currently publishing a new publication.

The concise epic form of the canonical text of the Gospel of Matthew about the three magi from the East who came to worship the born Jesus and give him gifts made it possible to specify, expand or reduce the story following the ideas and needs of a particular environment and community. The story adapted in this way was interpreted not only during the celebration of the liturgy in the temples but also the residences of the population through carol singing with elements of theatre, music and verbal art combined with the symbolism of the imaginary ceremonial space.

“The oldest musical pieces for the Feast of the Epiphany from the territory of Slovakia date from the end of the 12th century.  The first historical evidence of the Epiphany carol singing dates from the end of the 16th century and relates to the region of Gemer,” explains the director of the Institute of Musicology SAS, v.v.i. Hana Urbancová, who, together with her colleagues, evaluated the well-known and newly discovered musical sources from the Middle Ages to the 20th century.

The research brought together experts in music historiography and ethnomusicology and presents their results in the new bilingual Slovak-English publication Music for the Feast of Three Kings in Slovakia: from the Middle Ages to the 20th Century. Music for the Feast of Three Kings in Slovakia: from the Middle Ages to the 20th Century.

They bring a new perspective on the Epiphany music. They reveal how the music and singing associated with this holiday changed in style and genre from the end of the 12th century to the beginning of the 21st century. They take into account the chronological sequence of historical sources and the four main types of Epiphany music: Gregorian chant, cancion spiritual songs, pastorals and carols.

"The carol song was first published in the middle of the 17th century as part of the cancion repertoire. Spiritual songs for the Feast of the Three Kings from printed cancions are complemented by a repertoire of manuscript sources, which completes our ideas about singing in the temple, but also outside it,” adds the ethnomusicologist.

The common Epiphany processions while singing specific songs in a traditional setting were rarely recorded in the 19th century, mainly as part of theatrical forms and paratheatrical performances. Most of the Epiphany carols were documented during the 20th century from the oral tradition, with overlaps into the newer period.