|Program Notes on:
A Portrait of Anonymous 4
The scene: St. Michael’s, a small, handsome, hundred-year-old church
on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, late on a May afternoon, warm sunlight
pouring through seven Tiffany-designed stained-glass windows. The four
members of Anonymous 4 are rehearsing for a performance later in the week.
The music that afternoon—serene, elegant, sometimes punctuated by unexpected
dissonance—seems to float, incense made audible, swirling like an angelic
visitation around the solitary, ecstatic listener.
The members of the group, Ruth Cunningham, Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellauer,
and Johanna Maria Rose, first came together in 1986, bringing with them
a variety of skills and training, including medieval musicology, baroque
flute and recorder, modern trumpet and historic brass instruments, Renaissance
and baroque vocal and choral music, traditional folk song, languages (both
extinct and extant), and acting. From the beginning, Anonymous 4 has been
a resident ensemble at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church.
Anonymous 4 was named as a musicological pun—the original Anonymous
4 is a label given to a thirteenth-century treatise on music and to its
author, an unnamed English cleric who studied at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame
in Paris in the late thirteenth century. One of many anonymous medieval
treatises on music, this unique document preserves the names of the great
composers Léonin and Pérotin, and describes the musical life
at Notre-Dame in the early part of the thirteenth century.
The group seems to focus primarily on music from the eleventh through
the mid-fourteenth centuries. Why do you restrict yourselves to this
time period? “We sing a great deal of chant, which was the mainstay of
almost every sung church service. Of course, much of the chant that we
sing existed before the eleventh century, but it wasn’t until around then
that the pitches began to be clearly indicated in manuscript sources. Our
polyphonic repertory is defined and confined by the range of vocal parts,
which up to the mid-fourteenth century were approximately equal. The overall
pitch range became increasingly wider during the fourteenth century, until
in the middle to late fifteenth century we find true treble and bass parts.
“We focus mainly on sacred music, since this is the bulk of the music
that has survived in manuscript. Ironically, even the French secular motets
we sing (in our Love’s Illusion program) were probably written by clerics
for their own entertainment.” Who was the sacred music actually written
for? Who would have sung it? “Much of the chant and some of the polyphony
would have been sung by groups of monks, in their monasteries, or by groups
of nuns, in their convents, as part of their worship. Some of the most
complex chant and the more virtuosic polyphony (such as the works of Léonin
and Pérotin) would have been sung in the public cathedrals by highly
trained male singers, who were required to take clerical orders in order
to achieve their positions.”
Dealing with a historical period that survives mostly in manuscript
sources, how does a specialist ensemble manage to pull together new repertory?
“Certain repertories have been published in good scholarly editions,
so we use them; there’s no reason to reinvent the wheel. Even when working
with the best editions, however, we do tend to do a certain amount of rhythmic
‘fixing,’ within stylistic bounds. When we are working from manuscript
sources, what we have to do varies with each new venture. In our Codex
Calixtinus program, Miracles of Sant’Iago, which Susan transcribed, only
pitches were clearly notated. Our rhythmic interpretation had to be worked
out from our own background of stylistic awareness.
“Most transcribers work alone. But Susan has the great advantage of
working almost daily with three other musicians who’ve been immersed together
in the medieval sacred repertory for ten years. This way we can try things
out continually as she goes along, and decide on the spot what will work
and what won’t.
“We find new material in a number of ways. We are familiar with many
medieval manuscripts and repertories that we want to explore, and these
form the sources for many of our programs. We have also been introduced
to some unusual repertories by scholars with whom we are in contact. But
sometimes we discover a new idea through sheer dumb luck. Take, for example,
our new Hungarian Christmas program. Hildegard of Bingen was the guiding
spirit there. While Susan was digging out some editions of Hildegard’s
music at the Columbia University Library, another book fell on her foot,
a book of Hungarian medieval music that had gotten stuck to the Hildegard
volume. It turned out to be a real treasure, and led to our recording A
Star in the East.”
What is it that you love best about what you do?
“One of the most exciting things for us is the creation of a new program.
Each one is a major undertaking, requiring about a year for musical and
literary research, creation of a program framework or structure, selection
of the particular pieces which create a perfect overall shape, not
to mention rehearsal! From the start, our goal has been to create thematically
unified programs, each based on a single concept. Sometimes the theme revolves
around a particular real or legendary figure; sometimes it focuses on a
particular manuscript; sometimes it loosely recreates a liturgical service.
And within each program, we look for musical variety and continuity, as
well as for texts which illustrate the central theme. Because we work so
intensively together to develop and shape each program, each of us ends
up with a strong feeling of commitment to our final creation.
“Our other greatest joy is singing the music within the setting we’ve
found for it. It feels as though, during each seventy-five-minute performance,
we enter another world of our own making. Our purpose is to come to a common
musical intent, by going through the painstaking yet mysterious process
of blending our very different voices, personalities, and responses to
the musical pieces, texts, and phrases we sing. Whenever we reach this
kind of ensemble consciousness, we are reminded of our reason for being
-- Anonymous 4 in conversation with Alan Rich