“Voices from the Island Sanctuary” – Sequentia’s Medieval Concert in the Miller Theatre Early Music Series

This evening I attended a concert by Sequentia, directed by Benjamin Bagby, part of the Early Music Series presented by Miller Theater at Columbia University.  In search of the correct acoustics for presentations of medieval and renaissance vocal music, they present these concerts at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Times Square.

The title of tonight's concert was "Voices from the Island Sanctuary," referring to the Ile de la Cite in Paris where the Cathedral of Notre Dame is located.  During the 12th and 13th centuries, the Cathedral was surrounded by connecting buildings all enclosed within a wall to create a virtual island sanctuary taking up a substantial portion of the actual island, where clerical law rather than the civil law of Paris would apply and the monks would carry on their business under the rule of the archbishop of Paris.  Bagby and his all-male vocal group attempted to provide a musical window into that time with a mix of sacred and secular music, some monodic, some polyphonic, some anonymous, some attributed to Philippe le Chancelier (d. 1236), Pierre de Blois (d. 1212), or Hilarius d'Orleans (12th c.).

This group casts a marvelous spell with its sweet, smooth vocal style, but I wondered at times whether their presentation of the secular music could possibly be anything like what it would have sounded like when new.  The performance, while quite beautiful – even spellbinding – seemed so totally disconnected from the texts of some of the secular pieces as to pose a giant puzzle for me. 

They did not include complete Latin texts with the translations in the programs that were handed out by the ushers, but I noted when passing through the rear of the church that there seemed to be a limited number of complete Latin texts with translations for the concert available for the taking.  Looking around me when I was seated, I noted that few in the audience had picked these up.  What was printed in the distributed program was just English translations, in very small print that would be difficult to read in the light of the church, and without the Latin to follow, would be less useful for listeners.  The text I picked up was in reasonably large print that was quite readable.  It seemed to me likely that many in the audience, who were not looking at texts during the performance, might have had little idea of what the performers were actually singing, which might explain the poker faces in the audience when the actual lyrics being sung were quite blatantly erotic.

The lyrics for some of the secular songs were quite ribald, out of sync with the smooth, restrained performing style.  I could imagine a more rhythmically marked style for those numbers that would give a better representation of the text.  Now it is possible that scholarship shows that the music would always be performed in the slowly flowing mellifluous manner of this evening's concert, regardless of the texts, but somehow I just can't believe it. 

Thus, although I found the concert as a whole quite spellbinding and the performances very beautiful, I was just not convinced by some of the secular songs.  There were two that were sung solo and unaccompanied that were more convincing, and the final number came close to what I would have imagined to be something like the style I would have expected in light of the text.  I'm probably entering thorny waters here…. for how can we really know how any of this music from 800 years ago would actually have been performed?  It is all conjecture, after all, based on what evidence may survive in written descriptions, but were I doing the conjecturing as a performer I would be inclined to give more weight to the text in deciding on the style of performance.

I have some of Sequentia's recordings in my collection — especially of music by Hildegard of Bingen — but this was my first time hearing them live, and I was very, very impressed by their precision and great beauty.

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