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Darkness into Light

Darkness into Light: Medieval and Modern—A Mystical Journey (2002)

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I have written here before about the Chilingirian String Quartet (see post on October 28, Chilingirian Quartet at the Library of Congress) and their recording with the quartet of women's voices Anonymous 4 (see post on February 9): Darkness into Light: Medieval and Modern—A Mystical Journey (released in 2002). The basis for the recording (and the performance program the two groups presented on tour) was the new commission from British composer Sir John Tavener, composed for these eight musicians, The Bridegroom (1999). Tavener's popularity has become almost legendary since one of his pieces, Song for Athene, was performed at the funeral of Princess Diana. Since then, he has also composed a piece, Prayer of the Heart (released on February 2), for the Brodsky Quartet (who will play at the Library of Congress a week from today on February 20) and the Icelandic pop singer Björk (who will not perform at the Library of Congress, yet). (For more information, see the Grapewire from when asked in an interview in 1999 about this project of working with Björk, Tavener said, "I want to write something for her. I don't see why not. She's far more intelligent than most classical singers." Ouch.) It is now rumored that Tavener is under consideration for appointment to the honorary position of Master of the Queen's Music (see Michael Church, Finding A Composer Fit for a Queen—The Search for a Master of the Queen's Music, February 12, in The Independent).

In the choir at the National Shrine here in Washington, we have performed some of his other pieces, the Hymn For The Dormition Of The Mother Of God (1985), Today The Virgin (1989), and The Lamb (1985). Tavener is a convert to the Russian Orthodox Church and draws much of his inspiration from the Orthodox liturgy, including most of the texts for his choral music, which are English translations of liturgical texts. Like much of the liturgical music of the Orthodox tradition, Tavener's music is intentionally simple and even austere. Often homophonic in texture and solemn in style, it tends to focus on a limited set of harmonic colors in each piece, a repetition that creates a grand sense of stasis and allows the text to be heard. The Bridegroom, in that sense, does not really break new ground. Tavener describes the piece in his notes as follows:
The music should be almost unbearable in its ecstatic light, its endless melodic arc, its intense compunction. The quartet of strings represents Christ the Bridegroom, and the female voices the people in the world, full of that longing which is a kind of Divine eros.
Compare that description with what Tavener says about another piece by him also on this recording, Come and Do Your Will in Me (1998): "The music must be sung with enormous intensity and sonority, casting all into the fire of God." And also his words about As One Who Has Slept (1997), also on this recording: "full of awe, silence and expectation. The atmosphere is deeply solemn." Also, the fourth piece here by Tavener, The Lord's Prayer (2000), "should be sung very quietly, with an inner serenity and calm that is almost 'silent'." Alright already, we get the idea.

This is a beautiful performance, by both groups, who blend together flawlessly. (I can't help but feel that the Chilingirian String Quartet is scandalously underutilized in this work. All they do is create an atmosphere of shimmering chords, which they do exquisitely.) What makes the album hang together is a stroke of genius, created by one of the members of Anonymous 4, Susan Hellauer, who is the musicological leader of the group. (For example, she contributed the transcriptions of medieval pieces, Latin translations, and program notes to this recording.) Her idea was to proceed from the main themes of The Bridegroom, based on the New Testament parable of the wise and foolish virgins (Matthew 25: 1-13), as she writes in the program notes:
This parable draws on one of the oldest and most fundamental of spiritual dichotomies: that of darkness and light. The cycles of the day and of the year—the rhythms of the sun— were richly imbued with the symbolism of the fall and redemption by the infant Christian church. Its annual cycle of feasts and its daily rituals (the eight "hours" of the Divine Office, along with the mid-morning Eucharist, or Mass) are intimately connected with the journey from darkness into light. From Office and Mass we have chosen medieval plainchant and polyphony that mark steps on that journey.
The pairing of Tavener's neomedieval compositions with medieval works on the same theme is the great strength of this recording, quite the opposite of how another critic (Matthew Westphal, Darkness into Light, May 2003, for put it, that "the plainchant doesn't make a very good match with the Tavener works . . . when listened to straight through, the CD feels like two different albums spliced together." If anything, the combination of selections creates a recording that is monochromatic, rather than two contrasting colors: after listening to the whole thing, I found myself needing to hear something sharp, angular, and with jostling rhythm, like Bach or Stravinsky. The only piece that really branches out from a strictly modal and diatonic idiom is The Lord's Prayer, which hypnotically oscillates between the tension of dissonance and its resolution.

A musicological note about the transcriptions of medieval works. Susan Hellauer has transcribed four hymns, all of which are sung in the original monophonic versions, with simple dignity. Only one of these is directly related to the parable of the virgins ("Medie noctis tempus est"), but the others were expertly chosen to evoke the same longing of the bride for the bridegroom, as well as the different hours of light and darkness that fill out the recording's theme. Three lections were also chosen, all of which are set to polyphonic reading tones. It is these pieces that have the most in common with the works of Tavener, in that they establish a sort of formula that is adapted to different textual demands accordingly. You can hear the same sort of cyclical approach at work in the Tavener pieces, but with a more modern harmonic vocabulary.

The other medieval piece on the recording is a single Alleluia with verse ("Quinque prudentes virgines"). This text, like so many Gregorian chants, personalizes the parable to the monks or clerics who were singing and listening: as the five wise virgins who had extra oil and could see when the bridegroom was arriving, we are told "exite obviam christo domino" (go out to meet Christ the lord). It's a perfect choice for the theme here (and it is on the track just prior to The Bridegroom). One strange moment of daring performance practice occurs in this piece, without any mention in the program notes. The piece was transcribed from a manuscript in the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris: latin 903, an 11th-century gradual from Saint-Yrieix in southern France. This book is written in Aquitanian notation, a system of music writing that indicates precise intervals by arranging points and other marks on a series of horizontal lines. An unusual neume, a special form of the quilisma, is used as a sort of clef: where it occurs in a chant indicates the location of the half-step. Since it is also a special sign, perhaps indicating some sort of vocal ornament, it is performed here as a sort of trill. This oddity is the only slightly jarring sound on a recording that is uniformly undulating and mellifluous.