To those of you who know me, it is common knowledge that I am obsessed with the Baroque Era. But within the past couple years, I have stumbled down the magical rabbit hole of early music; early meaning pre-Baroque era (well before the 1600’s, even 1500’s for that matter!). I am not very knowledgeable in the writing style, nor many composers, nor the rules of writing–but all I can say is that ever since opening my mind and ears, this has been a wonderful experience.
All of what I’m about to write is pure conjecture on my part; nothing set-in-stone or fact. Early music, to me, means ‘before the Renaissance and Baroque era, either in Medieval or pre-Medieval era’…so around the years between 900-1400 AD. Does music exist from those years? Of course! Have I heard all of it? Of course not! The music from those centuries shares similarities with music written nowadays–some of it is monophonic, simple, effective, and expressive–but of course what do I know of the theory of ages past?
Almost two years ago, when visiting my college, I was looking through their donation pile of books and compact discs. In the pile was an album called ‘Legends of St. Nicholas,’ and it featured Medieval Chant and Polyphony, sung by Anonymous4 (an a capella group of sopranos and altos consisting of four women). I remember not expecting anything from this music, as I knew nothing of plainchant or early polyphony, therefore my ears were pleasantly surprised as I heard the singing. Very Old English and Latin are the languages which this album contains, and still now I am reading the text over and over and internalizing the music.
Here is album and all its tracks; do enjoy! Discovering Anonymous4 has led me to more of their hard work and talent. Through them I have heard the music of Hildegard von Bingen (who more will be written on quite soon) and other anonymous composers.
Now, coming from someone who is obsessed with counterpoint, imitation, fugues, intricate and involved music–what is the appeal, you may ask, behind my fascination with these early pieces of music? Is it spiritually comforting? Musically appealing? Or the fact that the music is (from what I have heard) soothing, expressive, and simple? Granted, Legends is not the only album I have experienced; the album Origin of Fire contains music written by Bingen, and Mass for the End of Time contains music which is haunting, consoling, joyful, and…there is something more profound within the notes. My perspective may be flawed and too wrapped up in my own emotional thoughts–after all, I’m hardly an academic.
I have no knowledge how one can interpret Medieval music, or plainchant (commonly referred to as ‘Gregorian chant’ but this is incorrect terminology; Early Music Sources elaborates here. I do know that the notation system was called ‘nuemes’ and pitch was a difficult aspect to represent (did they even have instruments which to refer to pitch in those days?) and I know that the music was also learned by rote and purely a capella.
Another excellent resource for this music is Ensemble Organum lead by Marcel Peres. This all-male choir presents music written as early as the 1100’s (or earlier?) by various composers; although if you were to dive into the style of early writing, this mass by Machaut may not be…the easiest place to begin. Exhilarating music but admittedly strange to my ears!
My first introduction to Ensemble Organum was an excerpt from the following album. I stumbled on this piece around early 2020 while browsing Youtube, occasionally being riddled with panic and anxiety attacks due to the virus outbreak. This may not be easy on the ears but over time, I found it to be…cathartic, in a strange way; expressing some kind of terror or awe. ‘Dum Esset Salvatore in Monte’
I know little of the history of this album of the music therein; translations too are difficult to obtain online. This hymn, presented by tenors and basses, ornamented in ways my ears aren’t used to hearing, was the tip of the iceberg. How can four or five men sound like fifty? I never knew that music or singing like this was possible. I attempted, a while ago, to notate this music; as far as I can tell, it is modal and loosely based in our modern c# minor.
The whole album ‘Compostela ad Vesperas Sancti Iacobi’ contains music in Latin, whose translations I am still trying to discover. The ensemble has presented many albums; ‘Le Chant des Templars’ is a wonderful gem of music whose history I know nothing about. Fascinating, isn’t it, that I’m writing more about what I don’t know than what I do know! The opening ‘Crucem Sanctam’ is not neccesarily joyful, but celebratory–perhaps thinking of a possible victory? This whole album is still new to me, but the lower notes given by the basses are quite powerful. Is this really how monks would have sung this music?
The power of the unaccompanied human voice is a tool utilized, in an artistic and expressive manner, by composer Hildegard von Bingen. What, in this music, is captivating to my ears and mind? I know little Latin and religion, for me, is sometimes a tricky topic. But there is something admittedly haunting about music such as this.
And who was, exactly, the miracle to music known as Hildegard von Bingen? She wore, figuratively, many hats and had many talents. She was a nun, a prophet, a composer, a seer, a healer, scientist, herbalist, for starters. Amid all of these things, she lived for a very long time (more than seventy or eighty years, if memory serves) and held a great amount of power and influence for one so humble. Her music is often either for solo voice, a capella ensemble, or found with instrumental accompaniment. Instruments, in those days, may have included some kind of strings as well as a portative organ–or perhaps I only assume this due to the recordings I have heard.
My first glimpse at the music of Hildegard was through the album Canticles of Ecstasy, recorded by ensemble Sequentia. But another work of hers with significant importance is Ordo Virtutum, one of the first plays on morality. Of course, the version I linked is theatrical and acted out; I do not know if this is historically accurate or merely a matter of artistic interpretation. The piece depicts the struggles of the soul and strive for virtues, amid toiling with the Devil. An interesting aspect of this music is that the Devil is given no sung lines; he can only grunt and shout in a matter of no elegance. The Soul sings amid the Virtues, sometimes a capella but there are moments of instrumental accompaniment as well. Sequentia has also recorded this piece, and I highly recommend it to be listened to.
There is more to be written on early music by me-more to come in the future! I thank you very much for reading my words.