Advent Antiphons in the Worcester Antiphoner

Advent Antiphons in the Worcester Antiphoner

 One of the most remarkable manuscripts in the Cathedral Library is the Worcester Antiphoner (MS F160), which gives the chants for both the office and the mass, and which dates from the 1230s or a little later. Anyone looking at this volume for the first time will be struck by two things in particular.  First, the colours of the inks show very little fading – they are hardly less bright than they must have been when it was written at Worcester nearly eight hundred years ago.  And secondly, they will notice the very skilled penmanship of the scribe responsible for much of the work.  Any difficulty we have now in reading this is due to our unfamiliarity with the Latin abbreviations rather than to problems deciphering the script.


Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)


The above illustration shows the first five of eight so-called “O antiphons”, which were sung before and after the Magnificat at Vespers on the eight days before Christmas Eve. Above them is a closely-written list of the antiphons, hymns, responsories and verses sung during the third and fourth weeks of Advent.  The music was not needed for these as it had appeared elsewhere in the volume and parchment was too precious to repeat chants unnecessarily.

The E, F and G in the margin are so-called “dominical letters” which helped to choose between the alternative schedules that were needed because of varying dates of Advent with regard to Christmas and various saints’ feastdays. Ember days and the weekly commemorative office of the Virgin also had to be fitted in, and the duty of sorting out these complexities according to the guidance of the Antiphoner fell to the precentor.  His accounts include the item “in croniclis mutandis” (for modifying the calendar), which seems to refer to this.

The chants for the O Antiphons are headed (on the right of the first line of music, following a blue paragraph mark) with the words xvii kalends januarii antiphona (the antiphon 17 days [before the] kalends of January – ie. 16th December).  The antiphons all have the same melody, slightly adapted to the phrasing and stress structure of each text.  They are thought to have been written together by the same person because of the similarity of the wording, and were in use in this country at least as far back as the eighth century.  At Worcester we know that they were used at the time of the Norman Conquest because they appear in the Wulstan Portiforium of that date.

In the left margin a later hand has added the names of the monastic obedientaries who intoned the antiphons: the prior, the cantor, the kitchener (coquinarius), the cellarer (celerarius) and the sacrist. The subcellarer, chamberlain and pitancer were responsible for the other three.  In addition to the job of intoning the antiphons, these officers gave each monk a sum of money (or pittance) on the day of their duty.

Richard Newsholme


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