Last Friday at 8 p.m., crowds of students and Williamstown community members streamed into Thompson Chapel for the much-anticipated concert by Anonymous 4, a four-woman singing ensemble comprised of vocalists Marsha Genensky, Ruth Cunningham, Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek and Susan Hellauer.
Entitled “Secret Voices: The Las Huelgas Codex,” the concert explored songs from the codex belonging to a unique order of Cistercian nuns created in the 1100s. Although at that time women were forbidden to sing in polyphony (two independent melodies being sung at the same time), the “Las Huelgas” nunnery was made up of mostly royal and noble women, and hence it was an open “secret” that nuns there performed in polyphony. Through their performance, Anonymous 4 sought to prove that they, “far from singing men’s music, are following in the footsteps of their much-older sisters who had no difficulty … performing the most beautiful, virtuosic, avant-garde polyphonic music of their time,” as it said in their program. The talented instrumentalists Shira Kammen on the vielle (a sort of medieval equivalent of the violin) and percussionist Peter Maund accompanied them throughout the night.
The concert was broken up into eight separate sections, most including several different songs tied together by an instrumental transition. The group started the concert off with an engaging number entitled “Sequence: Virgines egrerie,” in which a slow drum beat guided the four women and vielle through a rapidly speeding and crescendoing melody, sounding less like a traditional church hymn than a sort of medieval dancing tune. In other pieces, however, the drum fell silent and the voices of the singers began to reflect what one might consider a more traditionally church-like tone, “in virgulto gracie,” where Genensky and Cunningham harmonized in one pure, single voice that rose and fell, concluding in an extended “amen.” In others, Cunningham sang alone while playing the harp, or all four women came together to sing a light, playful tune accompanied by the beating of the tambourine.
There were also several beautiful instrumental pieces during which the drum or tambourine accompanied the vielle to a frenzied crescendo before fading into silence, often creating a seamless transition into the next piece.
In the program, Anonymous 4 explained the reasoning behind their song choices. “In ‘Secret Voices’,” the program read, “we have created a ‘day’ of music in honor of the Virgin Mary, and have also included songs with texts that refer to the monastic life of the nuns themselves.” Some songs, such as “Ave maris stella” and “Virgen Madre groriosa” praised the Virgin Mary, while others contained familiar Christian themes such as the story of Eve in “Entre Ava e Eva” or warned against enemies, as in “Benedicamus domino: Belial vocatur.”
In many of these pieces, melody echoed content – for example, “Benedicamus domino: Belial vocatur” described a demon of “sly cunning,” and while the piece developed much like any other, the harmonies sounded just a little off-key, creating an unpleasant sense of dissonance in the ear of the listener. In contrast, songs that praised God or the Virgin Mary often had a spirited, joyful tone driven forward by the insistent beat of the drum or tambourine.
Regardless of the different themes or melodies within each song, each had a similar enchanting, ethereal quality which seemed to characterize the entire concert. The voices of Anonymous 4 echoed beautifully in the chapel, both soaring and unintelligible (all of the songs were sung in Latin). In some respects this ethereal unintelligibility was one of the concert’s weaknesses, creating in the various pieces a sort of uniformity that, by the end of the hour and a half long concert, may have bored some viewers. Overall, however, the performance contained a unique combination of energy and beauty that must have an undeniable attraction to every ready listener.