The exceptional acoustics and spare architecture at St. Philip Neri Catholic Church proved the perfect backdrop for the final concert of In Mulieribus' inaugural season last Sunday. This group has received high accolades for such a new ensemble, as seen by being featured on NPR's Performance Today in January of 2008, and the selection of their first (and hopefully not last) CD Notre Dame de Grace as one of the four classical CD recommendations in the Oregonian's "Wired Gift Guide" last year.
Before last Sunday's concert, I had a chance to interview Anna Song, and I wrote briefly about my great respect for this group on my blog Musical Oozings. Medieval music, for me, always has a certain haunting quality to it. I hear uncertainty, apprehension and a quivering acceptance of a world whose nature is not fully comprehended. This was a world in which the supernatural manifest itself in daily life, in every conceivable manner. There is so much longing, such deep and pervading devotion, that I am always instantly smitten by the first notes. The purity of tone, the ancient languages; everything speaks unmistakably of an aesthetic from a time long since past.
There was a respectable crowd for a gorgeous, sunny afternoon, and minutes before these women took the stage the audience settled into a hushed silence, pregnant with expectation. The first pieces were ancient indeed: they came from the Montpellier Codex, which according to Song is "the single largest source of 13th century French polyphony." From the first moments the music was otherworldly, and even without understanding the languid Occitane language in which it was written, the meaning was clear. The longing and deep devotion I spoke of, often of a religious nature, was this time directed towards a corporeal object, although the terms used in the sometimes tragic, always deeply sincere texts spoke to an almost spiritual elevation of the object of love.
It has been a long time since I have seen my sweetheart. It grieved me greatly when I had to leave, for I love and desire her. I become distraught indeed when I languish for want of serving her, I cannot help it...I can neither enjoy it God, nor repent of it, so I must suffer pains of which I cannot be cured.
This was sung in the enchanting langue d'Oc (Occitane, a rarely-spoken language now, was as prevalent in the middle ages as the langue d'Oil, which evolved in to French as we know it.) Below this there was a perpetual, droning high-pitched pedal tone, never wanting for intensity. Its clarity and candor was such that the only way I could tell that it was sung by real, vibrant singers, as opposed to being an extant, inexplicable sound in the surrounding ether, was the occasional, ever-so-subtle shift in harmonic overtones, or the minutest fluctuation in volume as one singer or another drew breath to continue this pedal point.
Many of these songs represented an early, experimental form of polyphony in which multiple, completely independent texts were sung simultaneously one right on top of another, which occasionally resulted in a thick layering that was as independent textually as later polyphonic music would prove to be melodically. Song noted that "the idea of composing vertically was centuries away," as this compelling melange clearly illustrated.
Although the harmonies this group is capable of are stunning, one of my favorite moments of the afternoon came when alto Tuesday Rupp sang solo for A Chantar m'er, a lamentation by Beatrice, Countess of Dia. This music is the only example of a song by a female troubadour for which the complete music and text survive. Rupp's throaty, impassioned voice was plaintive and powerful all at once; she sang with rhythmic fluidity and near-perfect diction, with a haunting sadness that imparted in no uncertain terms the poetry's themes of rejection and loss. The first half closed with music by Adam de la Halle, and five pieces by Guillaume de Machaut, works whose music and text were infused with a subtle though undeniable eroticism, as were many of the works presented in this concert.
The second half opened with Ecco la Primavera from the Ballate of Francesco Landini. For this exuberant piece Song kept time on a primitive drum that reminded me of an Irish bodhran. After this the program switched to the early Renaissance, and although Landini and Dufay's lives may have even overlapped by a few months, the distinction in the music was clear. The vertical aspect that Song wrote about became immediately audible, and it was an invigorating change of pace. There was one piece in English by Thomas Morley, which took the form of a duet sung by sopranos Kari Ferguson and Ann Wetherell, whose crisp enunciation and metric rhythmic accents were delightful to hear.
The concert closed with a set of pieces by Claudio Monteverdi, songs whose rich polyphony hinted at being right on the cusp of the high Renaissance and the earliest intimations of the Baroque, so in a sense In Mulieribus presented us with a chronological perspective on the treatment of courtly love in European vocal music throughout the first half of the last millenium. This group displays a deep and thorough scholasticism coupled with musicianship of the highest caliber, and I can't wait to hear more of their music in the future.