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Anonymous 4, La Bele Marie

As I announced here a few days ago (see post on February 9), Anonymous 4 is in residency at Catholic University this semester to take part in a team-taught seminar ("Sacred and Secular Music in Medieval Culture"). I gave my lecture in the course this past Wednesday, on the Divine Office in the Middle Ages, and lectures by other scholars and master classes with Anonymous 4 will continue for the rest of the semester. Some of Anonymous 4's presentations in April will be open to the public, and I will publish some more information about that when I know what is going to happen.

La bele marie: Chant and Polyphony in Honor of Mary

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Last night, on Valentine's Day, Anonymous 4 gave a concert of music from their recent CD, La bele marie: Chant and Polyphony in Honor of Mary (you can read more about the CD and listen to a few tracks here), in the Crypt Church of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. The program featured 16 of the 17 selections from the recording (the group did not perform the prosa "Ave maria gracia plena," and some of the verses in the program were not sung), and the warm, resonant acoustic of the Crypt Church provided a perfect sonic space for the four voices. (The members of the Choir of the National Shrine, myself included, far prefer singing in the Crypt Church to the cavernous space of the Upper Church.) The preference of Anonymous 4 is always to sing a shorter program, without intermission or applause between pieces, and so, when the four woman walked down the center aisle to stand in front of the altar, we were treated to about 90 minutes of exquisite music.

Most of the pieces on this program are conductus (this Latin word is a noun of the fourth declension, so the plural form in the nominative case is the same as the singular). That does not mean that the concert was repetitive, since the conductus genre in the Middle Ages was remarkably varied: they were composed in from one to four parts and in a number of styles. Conductus texts are in Latin and represent some of the best examples of new poetry of the time. The first conductus ("O maria o felix") was monophonic, featuring all four singers on the same part, in a simple style. What is most interesting about this piece is its text, in which the Virgin Mary is extolled as "spiritus sancti cratera" (chalice of the Holy Spirit), "stella non occidua" (star never setting), and "ficus sed non fatua" (fig tree not barren). Some of the interesting Biblical images applied to Mary, which I had never encountered before, include "Ioseph spica" (Joseph's ears of corn), referring to the dream about the ears of corn that Joseph interpreted for Pharaoh in Egypt (Genesis 41), for which Joseph is elevated from the status of servant to governor of Egypt. Another is "humus de qua vipera per quam sicca ione perit hedera" (earth whence came the worm by which the dry gourd of Jonah perished), which is the vine or ivy that God caused to grow over Jonah's head and then also killed with a worm. She is also the "funda davitica" (David's sling) that slew Goliath (1 Kings 17), as well as the "david sitim satians puteus" (well for slaking David's thirst) from which David longs to drink (2 Kings 23).

The second conductus ("Pia mater gratie") on the program was polyphonic and again featured all four singers. Where the first piece was strophic and simple, the second had a short text and featured long and complicated melismatic passages, which sounded more like a medieval motet than a typical conductus. The third piece ("De la mere au sauveor") was the first of four monophonic French chansons, each of which was performed as a solo by one of the women. This one was sung by Jacqueline Horner, the only member of Anonymous 4 who was not original to the group (she replaced Ruth Cunningham in 1998). A more typical example of the conductus genre ("O maria virginei") was next, featuring three singers. Among the many images in this piece's text for Mary is that of "vellis gedeonis" (Gideon's fleece), an allusion to Judges 6 that also appears in other pieces on the program. After that, a two-part conductus ("Verbum bonum et suave"), which was also strophic, featured the beautiful medieval cadence of a major 2nd resolving to a unison.

Susan Hellauer sang the second French chanson on the program ("Mainte chançon ai fait") which begins with the wonderful words of a composer of secular chansons trying to turn over a new leaf:
Mainte chançon ai fait de grant ordure
Més, se Dieu plaist, jamés n'en avrai cure.
En moi a petit eu
Bien et sens et mesure
Or me tieng a deceu
Quant si lonc tens me dure.
Bien ai mon cuer esmeu
Car por chanter l'ai meu
De la roine pure
Par qui somes esleu
En grant joie et receu
Et fors de grant ardure.
I have composed many songs of great filth
but if it please God, I shall never again care about them.
In me there has been
neither rhyme nor reason.
Now I think I was deceived
that it lasted so long.
My heart is certainly stirred,
for I have begun to sing
about the pure queen
by whom we are chosen
and received in great joy
and kept from burning.
Ms. Hellauer is the musicological leader of the group, and her dark and low voice is perfectly suited to the performance of this exceptionally beautiful song, which retells the story of the Annunciation (Luke 1) in a way that a 13th-century court lady may have experienced it. Mary's response to the angel's announcement that she will bear God's son includes the phrase "Mout sembleroit grant ennuis/Se sanz home engendroie" (It would really seem like a drag/If I could get pregnant without a man).

Anonymous 4: Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellauer, Jacqueline Horner, Johanna Maria RoseAll four singers joined in the singing of the next conductus ("Beata viscera"), attributed to the Notre-Dame composer Perotinus, according to the recording's program notes. This monophonic piece shows that music does not require anything more than one part to be extremely appealing and emotionally moving. This is a strophic song with a marvelous refrain that begins on a high note (after the ending of each verse on the low final): the wonderment of the refrain's text ("O mira novitas et novum gaudium/matris integritas post puerperium" [O new wonder and new joy, the mother's chastity after giving birth]) is reflected by the brief, strange opening melisma on O, which could be represented with the solfège syllables sol-fa-mi-re-ti. It may not seem like much out of context, but the effect within this song is truly wondrous. Sadly, at the end of this piece, in spite of the warning to turn off pagers and other electronic devices (which the seminar's organizer, Grayson Wagstaff, said was an offense that merited being ejected), a cell phone went off in the audience. From her place on the left part of the altar, Ms. Hellauer glared in the direction of the offender and shook her head.

When the sound stopped, three of the singers proceeded to sing the next conductus ("Mundum renovavit"), which is a good example of the strange harmonic structures that can be found in medieval music, especially in the second half of each stanza. The third French chanson ("Je te pri de cuer") was sung by Johanna Maria Rose, and it revealed symptoms of what is hopefully only a cold or other temporary illness and not more long-lasting vocal problems, which might be one of the reasons why the group is ending its touring activities. The intonation problems and weakness in sustaining high notes that were heard in Ms. Rose's performance of this song were less evident when she sang with the other women, but still there. Ms. Hellauer and Marsha Genensky combined for the two-part conductus "Salve sancta parens" that came next. Some conductus may have had a role in the medieval liturgy, and the text of this piece is in the same character as any number of Marian chants from the same period. The three-part conductus that followed it ("Serena virginum") and the final conductus on the program ("Ave nobilis venerabilis"), in four parts, both conclude with the versicle "Benedicamus domino/Deo gracias," that was sung at the end of the medieval service of Matins. Pieces like this may have been composed as a sort of trope on that versicle to be sung in the Divine Office. In both cases, the response "Deo gracias" was sung in simple monophony.

The final French chanson ("De la trés douce Marie") was sung by Marsha Genensky. This song is an example of the ballade, one of the formes fixes, song patterns favored by the troubadours and trouvères and carried on by polyphonic song composers in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. This form can be represented by the letters aabC: each of the first two lines is sung to the same section of music (a), and the third and fourth lines to a different section of music (b), followed by the three lines of the refrain ("Cil doit bien," C). All three of the remaining conductus featured all four members of Anonymous 4. During "Ave virgo virginum" someone's watch alarm behind me went off with a steady beep for 10 seconds and with a double-time beep for another 10 seconds. This happened twice, and I think the owner of the watch couldn't hear it or in any case did not stop it. In spite of that distraction, I admired some more unusual Biblical images for the Virgin Mary in this piece, such as "moysi fiscella" (basket of Moses) and "mosaice rubus visionis" (bush of Moses' vision). Here, the imagery of Gideon's fleece is explained further: "celi rorans pluvia vellus gedeonis" (distilling heaven's rains, fleece of Gideon). The different rhythmic styles available to composers of the period were displayed in the penultimate conductus ("Mater patris et filia"), in which those first four words are sung in an unmetered, melismatic style, while the rest of the piece is in a stricter modal rhythm that is fast-moving and hocket-like.

This was a remarkable concert, and Anonymous 4, in spite of one singer's struggles, were in top form. The intonation and purity of tone were impeccable, as was the selection of pieces. The audience did not want the evening to end and insisted on an encore with their applause. Anonymous 4 obliged us with a short polyphonic setting of the words that end the Latin Mass ("Ite missa est: Deo gratias" [Go, the Mass is ended: thanks be to God]). Submissive to the commands of four who had so enchanted us, we applauded them as they processed out and then did as we were told.

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