Early Music Stages a Revival
American composer Richard Einhorn first saw a scratchy print of Carl Dreyer's magnificent silent film "The Passion of Joan of Arc" (1928) on a dirty wall in a basement room of New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1988. Poor as the conditions were, he was transported by the experience and inspired to begin his dazzling oratorio, "Voices of Light," to accompany the film.
The oratorio, which combines elements of medieval music with the grand scale of contemporary orchestra and chorus, can stand splendidly on its own. It has been described as sonorous and dramatic at times, managing moments of fragile beauty.
The complete multimedia event with film, full orchestra, chorus, and soloists has packed in eager audiences in concert halls across the country and garnered critical praise for Mr. Einhorn since its debut in 1994.
The film, about the trial and execution of Joan of Arc, is generally recognized by film historians and art critics as a masterpiece of the silent era. Books have been written about it, yet it's difficult to see because screenings are rare. Einhorn has given it a new life.
And that further life has blossomed in the context of an early-music revival. Early music is not "whatever you hear before 7 a.m.," jokes Kathleen Fay, executive director of the Boston Early Music Festival. Medieval plainsong (church music - many hymns and carols derive from this source), court dances, songs of troubadours, court entertainments of the Renaissance, and the earliest operas and Baroque pieces have returned in breathtaking variety.
Early music is back, and it's big. It has even shown up in popular music like Enigma's "Sadeness."
In any fine CD store, you can find a whole section devoted to early music. The solemn pace of the Gregorian chant sung without musical accompaniment offers a pure, sweet sound that evokes the expression of faithful love and praise. The rousing court dances and songs of troubadours awaken long-sleeping memories of chivalry, and speak to the joy and wit of a distant, yet familiar culture.
One reason for the revival of early music has been the increase of scholarship in the area and the increasing interest of musicians in the period. Chanticleer began as a group of friends, members of a professional chorus, who met to experiment with plainsong and other early music - as did Anonymous 4 (see story, above). The Boston Camerata has been around since 1954, and in 1974 began touring extensively through Europe and the Americas.
Many groups, like the Cambridge Singers, include early music in sampler albums. And other groups like the Waverly Consort, Msica Antiqua de Albuquerque, Sequentia, and the Tallis Scholars offer a wide variety of styles, sometimes with mixed-gender voices.
"New York Pro Musica set the table in the '50s and '60s," says music critic Mark Shullguld, who adds that other recordings of early music ranged from excellent to wretched.
"And in the '60s David Munroe - a young intense English fellow who played the recorder like a rock guitar - helped open up the field for the public. Then 'Chant' [a 1994 CD] broke open the whole field....
"Once [audiences] realized that the music was beautiful and that they could connect with ancient times and people - for me, that's always been part of the excitement - then it took off," Mr. Shullguld says.
The earliest manuscripts offer notes and text without indicating tempo, rhythm, key, and so on. Sometimes the notes and text don't even line up. Learning to perform these works requires tremendous scholarship - and a good deal of intuition.
Paul O'Dette, artistic director of the Boston Early Music Festival and one of the world's great lutenists, points out that it took years just for musicians to master the huge array of medieval and Renaissance instruments - which are as various as wildflowers.
But when those instruments were mastered, the music of Bach, Purcell, and Monteverdi came to life, says Mr. O'Dette. "There was a kind of vitality to the performances [that used original instruments] of well-known pieces that attracted new audiences," he says. "And at the same time, a number of wonderful masterpieces that had never been heard in modern times were discovered and performed."
O'Dette says that much early repertoire is attractive and accessible to contemporary audiences because it is influenced by dance music. "The rhythmic vitality of this dance music gives structure and beat that is much closer to pop or folk music today than the classical canon," he says.
The "new" world of early music offers more than an influx of unheard masterpieces, however. "It offers a welcome relief, a calmness, that I think lifts people's souls above everyday life into a peaceful place," says Joe Jennings, music director of Chanticleer. "And that's not just the lyrical, slow music, but even the active music as well. The harmonies may be simple, but they are basic to the human spirit."
"It seems to me there are two different possibilities for artistic expression," says O'Dette. "You can try to express in art what is happening now in the late 20th century - the tense, anxious daily conditions. The other side is to make something to escape to. The tranquillity of early music allows you to escape the pressures of the daily routine and enjoy something of great beauty."
The great beauty of early music has surfaced in the music of contemporary composers like Einhorn, Arvo Prt, John Tavener, Peter Maxwell Davies, and Henryk Grecki, to name a few. But even Stravinsky admired the 16th-century madrigals of Gesualdo, and Respighi and Vaughan Williams found inspiration in medieval and Renaissance music.
Early-music performers like Chanticleer and Anonymous 4 are lending their talents to the work of some contemporary composers. Einhorn, for example, is currently writing a new piece for the Anonymous 4, who also star on his Sony CD of "Voices" as Joan.
"I think minimalism and early music have certain similarities: Sparseness and repetition are characteristic of both," says Marin Alsop, artistic director of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. "But it was a dramatic choice for [Einhorn] to go back to an early-music style to convey the feeling of the period."
When Einhorn brought "Voices" to Denver, every concert-screening sold out. "Talk backs" afterward kept hundreds in the auditorium. "I can't get the music out of my head," says Ms. Alsop. "For weeks after I conducted it, the melodies and the text stayed with me.... People tell me all the time they get the CD and listen to it over and over again."
Einhorn drew his inspiration from medieval texts written by women of Joan's era (early 13th century). "In 1988 there were no recordings at all of Hildegard von Bingen," he says. "But I found her writings and the writings of other women of the period - the research was amazing - and I arranged the texts into a kind of montage."
From the montage came the music, melodic, exquisite - modern minimalism meets early music. Dramatic and arousing on the one hand, it has moments of clear, sweet purity that speak of the noble, loving heart of an honest young girl - the Maid of Orlans, unjustly accused and persecuted, but never forgotten.
* 'Voices of Light' performance dates include Hamburg, Germany, June 14 (European premire) and Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York, May 10, 1999.
If You Want to Start Your Own Collection
Anonymous 4 - Love's Illusion: Music From the Montpellier Codex, 13th Century (Harmonia Mundi)
Anonymous 4, Netherlands Radio Choir, Netherlands Radio Philharmonic, and Steven Mercurio - Voices of Light, by Richard Einhorn (Sony)
The Boston Camerata - John Dowland: Farewell, Unkind [Songs and Dances] (1563-1626) (Erato)
Early Music for Dummies (EMI)
The Waverly Consort - 1492: Music From the Age of Discovery (EMI Classics)