WE’LL ALWAYS HAVE (12th-CENTURY) PARIS: Sequentia program explores Medieval melting-pot on Friends series
Paris in the 12th century was a hotbed of student unrest, corruption and greed, and lively political discourse – and it saw a ferment of artistic, literary and musical creativity the likes of which the Western world has rarely witnessed. Within the walled Notre Dame Cathedral complex on the city’s Ile de la Cité lived hundreds of clerics, noblemen, students, servants and choirboys. And when it came to music, they were singing not just Masses and Offices but songs about all manner of things. It was here in this enclave of creativity that polyphony in music – multiple voices sounding at the same time, each forming its own melody but blending seamlessly with the others – made several giant leaps forward. It wasn’t that polyphony was brand new, but for the first time composers like Léonin and Pérotin (whether they were actual people or rather groups or “schools”) were writing down what was already being heard in oral tradition – so that it could be reproduced by others later. Essentially, the musical “score” was born, and gradually this gave rise to more and more conscious acts of “composing.”
Attempts to write down polyphony were not new, says Benjamin Bagby, “but it was really in Paris that it achieved a momentum, a critical mass that allowed it to become a unified style that is immediately identifiable.” It is from this legacy from the 12th and early 13th centuries that Bagby and his early-music ensemble Sequentia have built their program “Voices from the Island Sanctuary: Ecclesiastical Singers in Paris, which they’ll perform on a Friends of Chamber Music program on January the 21st at Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral. But don’t expect a bunch of musty old church music: This program is designed to show off the lively variety of songs being written in this cultural cauldron.
“It’s more about the people who sang,” says Bagby, the Chicago native whom local audiences remember from his magnificent one-man performance of Beowulf two seasons ago. “They did sing religious and liturgical music, but they sang a huge number of other things as well. They sang political songs, death laments, love songs, philosophical pieces: They sang topical pieces about things really going on in their lives, and they sang satirical songs. They were like the Jon Stewart ‘Daily Show’ of their time, and they were very topical and very biting in their satire sometimes.” Benjamin spoke from his home in Paris, where Sequentia is based, and where the ensemble has become one of the world’s pioneering forces in the performance of pre- (and in some casesvery pre-) Baroque music. He is acclaimed as a musician who looks for the human core in early music – thus helping us connect to this music even when there are technical details about its performance that we cannot know. This project is no exception, as it has focused on the young men (and they were mostly men) making these songs.
“We have to always bear in mind these were young men,” Benjamin says. “We’re all much too old to be singing this music, we should be 18 and 19 years old, which were full-grown adults in the 12th century. This really was the energy of youth, that’s why I call one of those sets ‘Angry Young Men on the Left Bank.’ They really were angry about things – things we’re still angry about, like corruption, and how money had taken over and replaced virtue, and all kinds of things about governments and power.
“Those are subjects that always interest the young, and of course the University of Paris in those days was a very big group of international students in a big urban environment. They were really excited to be there: It was the center of the Western world, and with the possible exception of China it was the most sophisticated and interesting place to be living at that time.” As Latin was the lingua franca of the era, he says, Paris was filled with Poles, Italians, Englishmen, Germans, Frenchmen and Spaniards “all speaking bad Latin.” They were “chasing girls or boys or whatever, they were trying to have a good time, as well as learn something and advance their careers.” Thus this program of 12th century songs is “anything but religious or austere,” he says. “Yes, there is that aspect, but it’s only one of many.”
The musicians of Sequentia perform this music through a combination of reading available scores and extemporizing – “but always according to certain rules,” he says, gleaned from singing treatises of the day. When it comes to three-part writing and beyond, however, more and more advanced planning is necessary. Like the Cathedral of Notre Dame, which itself was being built during this time – during the period when Romanesque concepts were giving way to Gothic architecture – it was a period in which “you have to think about how many stones you will need to bear the weight of an arch.” Likewise in performing two voices “you can still afford a little bit of flexibility in planning: Some things can be left to the performer. But in three voices you need the master architect to take over.”
How does a middle-class boy from Chicago – who spent a brief time as a teen living in Prairie Village and attending Shawnee Mission East – become interested in music from such remote times and places? “As with everyone, it was chance encounters with books, with people, with films,” he says. “And I certainly had fantastic teachers in school.” In the Seventh Grade a teacher gave him Beowulf, for example. “She said, you should read this, and I did, and I loved it. And then she gave me Dante’s Inferno to read.” He had great music teachers, too, “back in the days when we all had music in school.”
And just how close is what we’ll hear at Sequentia’s 12th-century program be to what was heard back then? “I think we have as close a sound as we’re likely to get until the time machine is invented and we can actually go study with those people,” he says with a laugh. “We cannot know certain things about vocal color, about articulation, about pronunciation, there simply things that we’ll never know, so we have to guess or imagine them. … But these singers are very flexible and very creative, and if I can explain to them clearly enough the type of sound that we want to achieve, they’re able to do it.”
Sequentia performs at 8 p.m. January the 21st at Grace & Holy Trinity Cathedral downtown. For tickets call 816-561-9999 or go towww.chambermusic.org.
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