The Visit to the Sepulchre

an adaptation of the musical drama in the Fleury Playbook (ca. 1200)

for choir SATB, soloists and chamber organ       27’     2017


The Three Marys - soprano 1, soprano 2, mezzo-soprano 

The Two Angels - tenor 1, tenor 2

The Gardener - bass

Chorus of Mourners S(S)ATB

for Newbury Chamber Choir  First performance in St John's Church, Newbury, 8th April 2017

“…a musical delight but a dramatic one too.  This wonderful, original score drew the audience in from the start and we relished being swept along on that very journey,,, an uplifting and unforgettable evening.” (Newbury Weekly News)

This work is an adaptation for a contemporary choral performance of the musical drama Visitatio Sepulchri which survives in the manuscript known as the Fleury Playbook. (The town of Fleury is now known as St-Benoit-sur-Loire). The music is a free interpretation of the original plainsong melodies.

There is a legend of the Three Marys, having been witnesses of Christ's resurrection, escaping to France to avoid persecution. According to another legend, they were daughters of St Anne (the mother of Mary, mother of Jesus) by different husbands. Certainly, there grew many cults around them, their visit to Jesus' tomb and, subsequently, around the Holy Shroud as well. The dialogue between the Three Marys and the Angels which took place at the Sepulchre became the centre-piece of a liturgical ceremony from about the tenth century; this in turn grew into a dramatic presentation of the Easter story, and eventually gave rise to the genre of the medieval Mystery plays that spilled out onto the streets in performances by the larger community. The current version aspires to be a part of that tradition.

The Visit to the Sepulchre opens with choruses of mourners lamenting the loss of their Lord (Heu, misere); subsequent phrases begin with the word Heu! (Alas!) The people have come to anoint Christ's body (Iam properemus ad tumulum). They express their anger at the society which condemned him to death (O ira nefanda... O gens dampnanda) but resolve to achieve what they came to do before they can lay the body to rest (Eamus ergo propere). Yet they wonder how they will manage to move the stone (Sed nequinus hoc patrare).

As they turn towards the tomb they are confronted by Two Angels who ask whom they are seeking (Quem queritis in sepulcro, O Christicole?) Jesus Nazarenum is the reply. "Why do you seek the living amongst the dead?" ask the Angels. (Quid Christicole viventem queritis cum mortuis?) The mourners express their disbelief (Ad monumentem Domini) and look inside the empty tomb.

The women are further stricken with grief to find no body (Heu, quam dira doloris) while the men recall that Christ's resurrection was foretold to the disciples (Miranda sunt que vidimus!)

Now follows the dialogue between the Angels and the Three Marys: the Angels ask why they are still weeping (Mulier, quid ploras?) "They have taken my Lord", say the women (Quia tulerunt Dominum meum). "Do not mourn, he is risen", say the Angels. "We long to see him", reply the women (Ardens est cor meum). The Gardener enters and also asks why they weep and whom they seek. "Our Lord: if you have taken him away, tell me where he is", say the women (Domine, si tu sustulisti eum).

Finally, the Gardener addresses them by name and they recognise him as the risen Lord (Raboni!) He draws back. "Do not touch me", he says, "for I am not yet with my Father" (Noli me tangere).

The Three Marys give thanks (Congratulamini mihi) and the people join in a chorus of rejoicing (Venite et videte). While they marvel at the Resurrection (Surrexit Dominus) they also recall Christ's sacrifice (qui pro nobis pependit). The Angels sing as the Shroud is unfolded (Cernite, vos socii); the garment is hailed as evidence of the Resurrection amidst further rejoicing (Resurrexit hodie).

The Gardener reappears in the likeness of the Lord, now attired as Christ in majesty; he tells the people to go and spread the good news (Ite, nunciate fratribus meis). The people hail him as the brave Lion, the Son of God (Leo fortis) before singing the Te Deum (Te Deum laudamus). In a procession, the performers leave the church to a refrain of Resurrexit hodie.