Medieval music has gained popularity in the last two decades. Since 1990s, the medieval music has managed to penetrate the highest echelons of the world of classical music. Yet, when asked, no reputable medieval music performers date to say they sing truly authentic music and offer different vocal interpretations of the surviving medieval pieces (“A Conversation with Anonymous 4”). This paper focuses on basic challenges that are faced by the groups performing or singing medieval music. It discusses how early music ensembles overcome the existing challenges and explores how Anonymous 4 and Sequentia interpret pieces of medieval music based on their approaches to medieval music performance.
First, there are a number of challenges faced by modern-day performers who interpret medieval music. The first challenge is the inability to have essential experience of the actual sound, “face-to-face musical experience” (Bagby, 2005). Next, the lack of knowledge about how the medieval music actually sounded leads to variety of interpretations by modern performers. Indeed, according to the group Anonymous 4, no dynamics, expression, or tempo have ever been indicated in the notes, so it is up to the performer how to sing a piece. Another challenge is that modern medieval music-making is influenced by the economic demands of the music market and the means of music distribution. On the one hand, performance of medieval songs has to conform to the demands of the modern-day audience. On the other hand, performers need to adjust to adjust to the marketing principles even if it happens at the expense of historical accuracy. Variations of interpretations and marketing demands lead to melting of the genre, and distorted medieval music performance (Bagby, 2005). At the same time, need to adapt to the market leads the musicians to explore new horizons, introduce variations in performance and improvisation.
Modern medieval music ensembles have learned to overcome these challenges. Anonymous 4, an ensemble of four medieval sacred music singers, have overcome the challenge by offering a historically well-grounded argument for their specific blend of timbres. In particular, the group challenged the argument that the medieval scared chants were performed only by men and found evidence that women, too, performed this music. Those women were nuns in convents, who sang such music during their own services. One of the brightest examples of medieval music composers and performers was Hildegard of Bingen, an abbess. Anonymous 4 are singing songs from her repertoire and thus demonstrate the relevancy of female performance of medieval songs (Kozinn, n.d., p.7).
Anonymous 4 have employed a range of effective marketing strategies used in the pop world. They promote their recordings through touring with programs based on released disks, add variety by expanding on the genre, performing with maximal historical accuracy (in pronunciation, for example), finding the right balance between sacred and courtly music in repertoire. To avoid dull and monotonous performance, the group are seeking new opportunities for creativity: they explore new genres, collaborate with modern composers, invite more performers to sing (Kozinn, n.d., p.7).
One example of how Anonymous 4 chose to perform a specific piece of medieval music was the challenge with French and English 13th century polyphony. The intricate and interweaving music lines were doomed to sound muddy and not at all distinct had they been performed by baritones. Yet, the ensemble chose to perform the pieces in higher voices. The lines now seemed well blended and at the same time quite clearly etched (Hellauer, 2002). Also, the ensemble combined chant with sacred polyphony, and that added complexity and freshness. As for Sequentia, an ensemble of the early music, used a vocal style which is both angular and dramatic as well as employed improvisations in instrumentation in their performance of medieval music. They, too, combine chants with polyphony.
Overall, medieval music needs to be performed in historically informed ways. While it is almost impossible to achieve the performance that was typical for the Middle Ages period, it is certainly possible to convey the message and the feelings of the music. This is because human soul has not changed through the times.