ANON WAS A WOMAN : Enchanting Chanting

By Ivry, Benjamin | Commonweal, May 18, 2001 | Go to article overview

ANON WAS A WOMAN : Enchanting Chanting


Ivry, Benjamin, Commonweal


Praised by some critics as the "hottest vocal quartet" since the Beatles, the singing group Anonymous 4 has sold more than 1 million CDs of meditative medieval music on Harmonia Mundi. In the wake of best-selling Gregorian chant CDs that soothe today's overstressed audiences, Anonymous 4, in permanent residence at Manhattan's Corpus Christi Church, tour worldwide. Their sound is virginally pure yet sexy, girlish and yet offering maternal comfort. Unlike male singers of Gregorian, who often sound sober and somber, the singers of Anonymous 4 are always upbeat and determined, no doubt in part because of their individual skills and backgrounds. Marsha Genesky and Susan Hellauer have degrees in folklore and early music, respectively, while contralto Susan Hellauer's studies in musicology give the group its scholarly seriousness. Irish singer Jacqueline Horner recently replaced founding member (and trained flautist) Ruth Cunningham, who left the group to pursue a career in the use of music in healing. Indeed, the guest book on the group's Web site (www.anonymous4.com) features many accounts of the health-related benefits of the group's music.

Despite the music's beneficent powers, the group itself retains a lightness of touch that is welcome. Their name is a joke, borrowed from the name "Anonymous IV," which music professors use for an unknown thirteenth-century author of a music treatise. To purists, who complain that monastic music was written for male voices, Hellauer demurs: "While women were not allowed to sing in the cathedral, and therefore would not have been 'professional' soloists of sacred music, within the confines of their convents they would have sung chant, just as men did in their monasteries. Certainly, the virtuoso chant of the twelfth-century reformer and mystic Hildegard of Bingen would have been sung by the nuns in her charge. Both medieval chant and polyphonic manuscripts have survived in convents; from this we can infer that women sang polyphony as well." Hellauer emphasizes that the group's fans--some proudly call themselves "4-Heads"--may be "drawn to an ancient tradition of spirituality, which is the source of much of the music we sing. Many people these days seem to be seeking a connection to the world of the spirit, perhaps as a reaction to our overwhelmingly technological world."

Anonymous 4 concerts are usually based on a unified theme. They may have to do with a saint or a feast day, with a liturgical service or a literary idea. Although the group does not stress the liturgical significance of the music, preferring to attract a wide audience drawn to spiritual melodies, clearly the packaging and presentation of the works are inextricably linked with the greatest cultural accomplishments of the medieval church. …

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