Charles T. Downey, Anonymous 4’s voices ring in new year with Folger Consort
Washington Post, January 9, 2012
Scholar Margot Fassler recently claimed that Hildegard von Bingen "has more securely attributable monophonic chants assigned to her name than any composer from the entire Middle Ages." She is also remarkable because "she is the only composer in the history of Western music who was also a serious and highly respected theologian." As noted in the review, it is her widespread influence as a theologian, because her visions and writings were taken quite seriously by popes and other church leaders, that sets her apart. It is also the reason that Pope Benedict XVI has decided to make her canonization official later this year, when she will also be named Doctor of the Church.
The voices of Anonymous 4 are matched with no music quite as perfectly as they are with the complexities of the 13th-century motet. The esteemed quartet’s 1994 recording of selections from this body of music, transcribed from the Montpellier Codex, was one of its best, and more than a decade later, the group still dazzles in this repertory. Its presence Friday made the Folger Consort’s New Year’s concert, an annual tradition at Washington National Cathedral, an instant musical highlight of the year to come.
11,000 Virgins: Chants for the Feast of St. Ursula, Anonymous 4
The Origin of Fire, Anonymous 4
Love's Illusion: Music from the Montpellier Codex, Anonymous 4
Resonant Witness: Conversations Between Music and Theology, ed. Jeremy S. Begbie and Steven R. Guthrie (includes Margot Fassler, "Music for the Love Feast: Hildegard of Bingen and the Song of Songs," pp. 355-81)
To unravel the medieval motet’s tangle of voices, a knot of different texts and languages, these performances often began with just one texted voice’s part, with the others layered on gradually in repetition. Crystalline intonation and clarity of diction, without fussy exaggeration of the Latin, rarefied the pieces into limpid delicacies. Four instrumentalists offered much simpler, strikingly understated performances of contemporaneous melodies, often the catchy tenors that were the basis of the motets on the program — an ingenious programming decision. [Continue reading]
For whatever reason, the notoriety of Hildegard's music has been attached to all sorts of ideas about her as a revolutionary, generally for the wrong reasons. Fassler goes to some length to show how Hildegard's compositions were made for the traditional celebrations of her convent, and other monastic foundations, mostly for the Divine Office and mostly for feasts of saints and the Virgin Mary. Fassler also demonstrates, with a thorough marshaling of evidence, that it is a mistake to take Hildegard's use of amorous imagery out of the context of the Song of Songs and its theological interpretation, or of the soul and its bridegroom, Jesus.
Fassler also notes that the florid style of Hildegard's monophonic compositions, far from being revolutionary, was similar to the prevailing style of new chant composition from the 11th century onwards. Many composers, not always known by name like Hildegard, were composing chants with a broader ambitus and more melismatic elaboration ("wildly elaborate," as Fassler puts it, "with magnificent leaps and long melismas"). Hildegard did tend to emphasize, quite intentionally, the high end of the human voice, giving her music a distinctly high feminine quality. She especially favored the traditional melodic motifs of mode 3 -- the scalar content you get if you play from E to E on the piano -- especially the sound created by the half-steps above both the final and reciting note (E-F and B-C), as heard over and over in some of the selections on this concert. She did use transpositions in the way the music was notated in some cases -- for example, putting the final on A so that she could use both B♭ and B♮ above the final. That practice was also known in other manuscripts, to capture some parts of very early chants, like the Te deum, that appear to have been composed before the modal system was in place, to be able to include F♯, which was not theoretically accepted.