With the compact disc “Lithuanian Canticles”, two Vilnius ensembles – the VISI Folklore Ensemble and the group of hymn-singers of the Church of St Francis of Assisi (Bernardine) – made an attempt to look at the riches of the old Lithuanian religious folk music and to uncover them to a wider audience.

The two ensembles differ from each other not only in respect of musical expression, emotionality and their attitude towards the folk hymn, but also because their experience in folk music performance is very different.

The VISI Folklore Ensemble is in its 25th year already, and has recorded much of Lithuanian folk music of various genres, including the recently released CDs with Simonas Stanevičius' Samogitian Songs (a two-CD set) and Liudvikas Rėza's Songs, and a CD called “Samogitian Songs and Dances”. The group regularly goes on research expeditions to Lithuania's ethnographic regions. They have written down and performed, at home and abroad, many valuable examples of folk music.

The group of hymn-singers of the Church of St Francis of Assisi (Bernardine) has been singing together for only a couple of years. The ensemble was established by the folklorist Modesta Liugaitė and the Franciscan brothers of the Church of St Francis of Assisi (Bernardine), who are open to all forms of musical expression of spirituality and devotion, be it the old, classical or contemporary ones. It was her singing family, whose songs are recorded on this CD, who encouraged Modesta Liugaitė, the artistic director of the ensemble, to take interest in Lithuanian canticles. Modesta's grandfather Petras Zalanskas from the village of Mardasavas (in the Varėna district) was one of the most famous folk singers of the Dzūkija region. Many examples of folk tunes recorded by him are contained in the archives of the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre and the Institute of Lithuanian Literature and Folklore.

It is from the above-mentioned archives that the canticles for this project were chosen. Quite unique in respect of modes and ornamentation, they date back to the middle of the 19th century and were written down before 1940. All canticles on this CD originated in East Lithuania. Though tunes from this region are mainly monophonic, in the past several decades they have been sung in two (or three) voices and by men and women together.

The CD contains canticles of various genres: alongside Lent and funeral canticles, there are also hymns to the Virgin Mary, Saint Joseph and other saints. Lots of authentic canticles are extant, but only a very small number of them has been published or recorded to date.

The canticles on this CD, which were selected by the singers themselves, include the traditional tunes of the Lent period, “Remember, O Christian, what Jesus did suffer” and “When Mary Magdalene for Jesus sought” (these canticles are sung also at funerals). The latter is especially popular in various regions of Lithuania, therefore it is no coincidence that it was recorded twice on this CD. The aim was to show the diversity of melodic variations in canticle singing. The melody sung by the singers of the Church of St Francis of Assisi (Bernardine) is one-voiced and ornamented, while the VISI ensemble performs a two-voiced variation, which is popular not only in Dzūkija, but also in the whole of Lithuania.

The CD includes also the popular in the whole of Lithuania Lent canticles “There stands Mother lamenting” and “Hail, Queen of Heaven”, and several heartfelt hymns to the Virgin Mary.

All old canticles are often called kantičkos, not even thinking about what the real meaning of the word is. Just a couple of decades ago, in many of Lithuanian farmsteads one could find dusty hymnals with hard covers and yellowish pages, which had been highly respected and cherished by village people and handed down from generation to generation.

The poetics of the canticles is very expressive and illustrative, and the canticles themselves are long and colourfully depict episodes from the saints' lives, Christ's martyrdom, and the joy of Christmas. Many words which are no longer used, such as čyščius, griekas, dūšia and spasabas, can be found in the texts. Unfortunately, all efforts to modernise the wording have been unsuccessful to date. Many of the 20th-century attempts to blue-pencil this valuable religious poetry were hasty and untalented. With no attention paid to the rhythmic patterns of melody and text and to the relationship between word stress and musical metre, the melodies became clumsy and distorted, and therefore many of them have been forgotten.

This CD, on which we can hear old texts from kantičkos, consisting of dozens of verses, aims to revive and popularise the ancient canticles and to present them to those who have never heard how they were sung by our forefathers in Lithuanian villages, at funerals and May services, and during Lent and Christmas. By the way, Lithuania is one of few countries in Europe where even at the end of the 20th century folk songs and canticles were still sung in many villages and oral tradition was still alive.

The earliest records about canticle singing go back as far as pre-Christian pagan times. The emergence of Lithuanian liturgical texts, such as prayers, gospel excerpts, psalms and canticles, is associated with the acceptance of Christianity. It is assumed that this happened in the middle of the 13th century, when Mindaugas was baptised (1251) and crowned king (1253). After the acceptance of Christianity in 1387 (in Samogitia in 1413 and 1417), Lithuanian Christian singing texts must have emerged in Lithuania. The earliest of them are associated with the activities of the Franciscan Order in Lithuania. The Franciscans, who were active already in the times of Mindaugas, Vytenis and Gediminas, contributed greatly not only to the baptism of Lithuania in the early stage, but also to the emergence of the Lithuanian writing.
The historical records on plainsong singing in Vilnius Cathedral go back to the 15th century. In Lithuanian churches, Latin Gregorian chant was sung, and, naturally, this was the privilege of priests. Each day during Advent of 1501, as many as eight masses were sung by the Franciscans. The mass hymns were sung not only in churches of Vilnius, but also in the bishopric churches of Medininkai and some periphery ones.

The appearance of the first foreign-language hymnals in Lithuania dates back to the late Middle Ages. Manuscript hymnals in Latin existed in various monasteries in Lithuania, and several of such graduals and antiphons, dated from the 14th and 15th centuries, have survived. The shortage of historical record makes it difficult to analyse the development of church and folk hymns. However, it is obvious that Christian hymns in Lithuanian were sung long before the first Lithuanian book, Martynas Ma˛vydas' (c. 1520­1563) Catechism, was published in 1547.

The publishing and scientific activities of the Lithuanian Catholic confession became even more extensive due to the cultural initiative of the Jesuit Order. The Jesuits took care that members of the Catholic communities were taught in Lithuanian, founded monasteries and published Lithuanian books and hymnals. Many prominent figures in Lithuanian culture were educated at Jesuit schools in Vilnius, Kra˛iai and elsewhere.

By the middle of the 17th century, only two Catholic canticles in Lithuanian (one of them twice) were published. Translated by Mikalojus Daukša (1527/38–1613) and included in his translation of Kathechismas by Jacobus Ledesma in 1595, the antiphon “Hail, Queen of Heaven” (Salve regina caeli Mater) by Hermannus Contractus (11th c.) and the hymn “Godhead here in hiding, whom I do adore” (Adoro te devote latens Deitas) by Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225/26–1274) are considered the forerunners of the Lithuanian Catholic hymnody.

“Hail, Queen of Heaven” (we can hear it on this CD) is not only one of the earliest examples of Lithuanian Catholic poetry, but also one of the most popular funeral canticles of our time. An adapted version of this canticle was included in anonymous catechism in 1605.

The first Catholic hymnal in Polish in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Walent Bartoszewski's (c. 1574–1645) Parthenomelica albo pienia nabožne o Pannie Naišwiętszej, was published in Vilnius in 1613.

The first Lithuanian Catholic hymnal, The Hymns Suited for the Catholic Faith, was published in 1646. Its author and compiler was the Jesuit Salomon Slawoczynski (before 1630 c. –1660). This hymnal was a foundation for the entire Lithuanian Catholic hymnody and an example for compilers, authors and translators of many later hymnals and other publications containing hymns. The emergence of this hymnal was also a significant event in Lithuania's literary life of the time. The collection consisted of 124 canticles and 48 psalms. Almost all the canticles were translations from Latin and Polish, ant it is obvious that the author was familiar with earlier Polish hymnals, though several original canticles were also included. It should be noted that a number of funeral canticles from Slawoczynski's hymnal, adapted and with different text variants, can be still heard today in many ethnographic regions in Lithuania.

The second Lithuanian Catholic hymnal, The Voice of the Heart Goes to the Lord, Saint Virgin Mary and All Saints, who Reign in Heaven (called for short The Voice of the Heart), was published in c. 1679, and its first edition known to have survived is dated 1726. The author of the hymnal, which contains 115 canticles and 40 psalms, was the Jesuit Pranciškus Šrubauskis (1620–1680). In compiling The Voice of the Heart, Šrubauskis relied mostly on Slawoczynski's hymnal. Šrubauskis' hymnal was very popular and by 1852 was reprinted as many as 22 times. It includes many funeral and other canticles that have been sung up to this day.

It was the priest Vincentas Valmikas (c. 1778–1836) who took care of the editing and publishing of Lithuanian hymnals at the beginning of the 19th century. In 1820, he edited The Voice of the Heart and published it under the title Samogitian Canticles. This main Lithuanian Catholic 19th-century hymnal was reprinted several times. In 1855, it was revised and supplemented by Bishop Motiejus Valancius (1801–1875), and several dozens of editions of this hymnal were published in the 19th and 20th centuries. The later editions (after 1860) included also Sacred Canticles of Ploughmen by the priest and poet Antanas Baranauskas (1835–1902).

The canticles written, translated and revised by Motiejus Valančius, Antanas Baranauskas, as well as those from the book Secular and Sacred Canticles (1814) by Antanas Strazdas (1760–1833), were a foundation for folk hymn-singing in the Lithuanian Catholic Church. Right up until the end of the 20th century, Samogitian Canticles was not only an important Lithuanian literary work, going back to the Baroque period, but also a practical source of poetic canticles that have remained in use until the present day. However, with the last edition of Samogitian Canticles, the era of the influence of Baroque literature upon Lithuanian poetry came to the end.

In the middle of the 20th century, the hymnal Samogitian Canticles was revised again. As it was already mentioned, due to careless editing, the canticles' baroque poetics suffered very badly. Moreover, they were shortened ignoring the plot line. With no attention paid to the relationship between word stress and musical stress, the old canticles became distorted. However, even today in Lithuanian Catholic churches the believers sing from those unsuccessfully edited prayer books, and this is probably the reason of the unpopularity of congregational singing in Lithuania. There are also many village singers who sing from these old dusty hymnals of our ancestors, like Valančius' Samogitian Canticles and later ones, and, naturally, while recording this CD, the performers were also holding them in their hands.

In the Lithuanian research literature, the questions of the origin of Lithuanian Catholic canticles have been analysed only sporadically, and no comprehensive study of their melodics has appeared to date. It is thought that the melodies were mainly influenced by three musical traditions: Catholic and Protestant sacred hymns and folk hymns from West Europe (especially Polish, German, Austrian and Czech ones); Gregorian chant and psalms; and Lithuanian folk songs and instrumental music.

Lots of variants of Lithuanian Catholic folk melodies have existed for hundreds of years and have come down to us by oral tradition. The canticles from Lithuania's different ethnographic regions differ from each other not only in their melodics and rhythmic and metrical patterns, but also in the ways of performance. Canticles from Dzūkija are single-voiced with the old church modes prevailing in the melodies. In Samogitia, the same canticles are sung homophonically, sometimes with an accompaniment of wind instruments, and their intonational structure and character of performance are very different.

Unfortunately, due to the rapidly vanishing old Lithuanian religious rituals and oral tradition, poor editing of the baroque texts and distortion of the melodies, this unique and highly significant part of the Lithuanian culture is sinking into oblivion. It does not seem that the new Catholic generation could revive old Lithuanian rural religious traditions (as is apparent from the experience of West Europe, where the oral tradition disappeared a century ago, and in some places even several centuries ago). However, it is the melodics of Baroque and Valančius' times that could serve as a source of inspiration for congregational singing, because, firstly, these canticles are highly valuable both historically and culturally, and, secondly, their intonational information is very close to a Lithuanian's natural musical vocabulary.

By presenting this music to the listener and exploring it themselves, the project organisers and performers hope that canticle singing will not only strengthen the Lithuanian Catholic Church tradition of congregational singing, but will also revive this rich and valuable legacy of our ancestors and pass it on to the future generations.

By Vilija Dačinskienė
Translated by Reda Stabinskienė