Brighter Than a Cloud That Carries the Sun: Anonymous 4 and Folger Consort at Washington National Cathedral
We spend much of our lives drowning in sound, most of it unremarkable, much of it downright ugly. In a major metropolitan city like DC, it’s a rare experience to enter a space packed with people willing to share in the solemn hush and presence of music whose origins date hundreds of years prior to the hubbub of modern life. How extraordinary it was, then, to enter Washington National Cathedral amidst a capacity crowd last Friday night to hear two of the world’s finest early music ensembles – the award-winning female vocal quartet Anonymous 4 and the Folger Consort, a regional treasure with international reach.
Chief amongst the attractions of this concert was, at least for this early music fan, the chance to hear Anonymous 4 sing sublime works by Hildegard von Bingen, one of the most fascinating figures of medieval times. Active in Rupertsberg (near Bergen, Germany) during the 12th Century (that’s 800 years ago… for those of you who think “old school” means the 1980s!), Hildegard was a mystic, poet, herbalist, philosopher, advice-giver, and a rare representative of a powerful female spiritual presence during an era when men dominated the church. (Er wait, that’s still true now?) Hildegard is perhaps best known however for her compositions, which popular legend says were dictated to her freely from God during episodic visions commonly assumed today to have been migraine headaches. “The light that I see is not spatial, but it is far, far brighter than a cloud that carries the sun,” she wrote in a letter at age 77. Simply put, hearing Hildegard’s music is about as close to a guaranteed transcendent musical experience as one could hope to have, and Anonymous 4 has become one of the world’s most successful groups recording her compositions – check out these two stunningly gorgeous CDs on the terrific Harmonia Mundi label. (I gave the first CD to my massage therapist, who now swears by it in her sessions!)
The first half of the concert pitted the all-instrumental Folger Consort (or at least four of its members) alongside Anonymous 4, the groups alternating pieces. The opening piece, an instrumental symphonia by Hildegard, featured the Folger musicians intoning soft, pillow-like sonorities in an exquisite blend. One of the delights of hearing early music is hearing the timbres (and unusual tunings) of instruments unfamiliar to modern audiences; guest performer Debra Nagy’s retinue of recorder, organette, and douçaine (ancestor of the modern oboe) provided particular wonder, and the various harps and lutes played by the other gifted performer/scholars aided in a full-on transformation to an ancient sonic universe.
Much of the music centered on the Phyrgian mode, a spooky, incantorial variation on our more familiar major scale (beginning on the third degree of the major scale, all you music theory dorks) featuring a tiny chromatic half-step between its home (“tonic”) note and second scale degree; many pieces made use of this yearning dissonance especially at final cadences. Significantly, the high-vaulted architecture and gorgeous visual imagery which comprises the National Cathedral – probably the finest space in DC for this sort of music – provided a natural fit for the spaciousness and resonance required in this repertoire. (If all you know of reverb is the artificial stuff heard on pop radio, take some time to hear vocal music in a large cathedral. No comparison!) I noticed a visceral, visual reaction from the crowd when the four singers of Anonymous 4 began the ascending line of O quam mirabilis est (incidentally, a melody I once transcribed and played with a free jazz group!), as a few heads literally turned upward toward the enormous ceiling. One would’ve been forgiven for being utterly convinced that the sound seeped from the building itself rather than from the human singers on stage. Hildegard’s O Ecclesia also underscored for me the deeply sensual potential of this repertoire, and it was fascinating to watch the members of Anonymous 4 cue each other with incredibly subtle shifts in eyes, body, and breath. A listener near me let out an audible gasp at the gorgeous conclusion of Hildegard’s antiphon O aeterne deus.
The two groups began to join each other on pieces, creating a stunning blend which allowed for low instrumental drones to center the focus on one tone and provide support to the higher tessitura of the singers, oddly reminiscent of the ecstatic improvisation found in Indian classical music. In most cases, Hildegard’s music is monophonic, meaning all four singers are singing the exact same pitches. (This music pre-dates the transition to the sumptuous polyphonic textures of the Renaissance.) Thus, the French motets taken from music of the so-called “Notre-Dame school,” the historically important period when composers like Leonin and Perotin began to write in secondary harmonies, felt like a seismic sonic shift.
Music aside, I do wish there were more young people (young in this context meaning “under 50,” I suppose!) showing up to hear this truly awesome music. Granted, tickets for this sort of thing aren’t cheap, but the demographics (not to mention diversity) seem for the most part, save for a smattering of young couples, as one would expect. Who will listen to this stuff in twenty years? Who will show up and support? This music has the potential to soothe, to heal, to penetrate to core regions of the soul, and I wish there were easier ways to get the good word out to younger audiences, as I don’t see the “X Factor” featuring Hildegard von Bingen any time soon. (To that end, I recently assigned a transcription of a Hildegard chant to a class full of aspiring hip-hop producers, who really fell for the stuff!) Check out the Folger’s upcoming stuff here, hipsters... truly world-class programming in our own backyard.
A final note. At one point during all this musical exquisiteness, I asked myself: What does this music, this timeless art require of us? Perhaps simply to be awake, aware, and present, it seems, and that’s a challenge easy to bypass in our hectic lives. Kudos to these dedicated performers and concert producers who keep this music alive, and to the spirits of the musicians who set these notes down so many years ago.
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