What’s olde is new: Sequentia finds the eternal in medieval song

Mon Jan 20, 2020 at 2:19 pm
Medieval music ensemble Sequentia performed “Charms, Riddles, and Elegies” as a quartet on Sunday at Manhattan’s Corpus Christi Church. L-R Norbert Rodenkirchen, Stef Conner, Benjamin Bagby, and Hanna Marti. Photo: Reto Marti

What is classical music? There is no easy answer, but there are some simple ones. An example is that classical music is old — a tradition with roots deep in Western history. But old music is not necessarily classical.

Sunday afternoon at Corpus Christi Church, the group Sequentia performed quite old medieval music for the Music Before 1800 concert series. There was nothing classical about it, and in a way there was nothing old about it, and in every way it was excellent.

For this concert, Sequentia was a quartet: founder Benjamin Bagby singing and playing an Anglo-Saxon harp; Hanna Marti singing and playing harps; Stef Conner singing; and Norbert Rodenkirchen playing wooden and bone flutes, and some harp as well. The seeming limits of the instrumental palette in terms of color and harmonic range (these were modern recreations of small, hand-held harps) were irrelevant against the fabulous singing from Marti and Conner, Rodenkirchen’s mesmerizing solos, and Sequentia’s grasp of the material.

Classical music is a composer’s music. Medieval music is part of its heritage, but it’s a players music, more like modern popular music than any sonata or concerto. Sequentia titled their Program “Words of Power: Charms, Riddles and Elegies of the Medieval Northlands,” and filled it with a variety of instrumentals, elegies, spoken riddles and songs meant to ward off bodily ills. Nary a composer in sight, but an abundance of everyday thoughts and words, and wonderful playing and singing.

Trade the harps for guitars, and translate the words from Anglo-Saxon and Old High German, and this would have been a rock concert. Songs were predominant. There are songs in the classical repertoire, of course, but these were songs as known around the world — repeated melodies, verses and choruses, with phrases and words marked out in clear, strong rhythms. Baroque music turned the voice into an instrument, and a clear beat started to disappear in the 19th century, but they never left the larger universe of human music making — those qualities will always be relevant and have an expressive directness.

As will the subjects Sequentia sang of Sunday. Sprinkled with mischievous Anglo-Saxon riddles, like patter with the audience between numbers, the songs were either practical — meant to cure worms, stop bleeding and stabbing pains, prevent boils, and manage swarms of bees — or diverting. 

Bagby sang the elegy “The Song of the Lone Survivor,” familiar to anyone who has witnessed his remarkable performances of Beowulf. But the concert was built around three other elegies, “Deor,” “The Wife’s Lament,” and “Wulf and Eadwacer,” sung in Anglo-Saxon. These were story songs, about love and devotion, the sacrifices of same, and the pain and hardship of loss, separation, and loneliness.

These were sung in turn by Conner and Marti, who were tremendous. If one listens to Handel, say, one hears the abstraction and stylization of emotion into ornamentation and runs of sixteenth-notes. Put on Billie Holiday to feel the power of human experience in the singer herself, in her body and voice and thus straight to one’s ears and heart. That was how Conner and Marti sang Sunday, not just telling stories but impressing them into the listener’s life. Their voices were clear-toned and strong, their articulation of this strange, lost language showed they knew the meaning of every word, and the way they brought each phrase to finality on strong downbeats made the music urgent.

Having words at the forefront is ironic in that illiteracy was common in Medieval times. In a way, so was musical illiteracy, in that notation was in its fledging state; there was little music to read, so musicians learned via listening and playing. And many of their songs were catalogues of people and places, a way to spread both history and the news, and pass it down to subsequent generations. Musical content has been preserved this way, intact, for millennia, the songs less a body of work than work that lives in the musician’s body. Sequentia did not interpret, they played.

Rodenkirchen soloed on “Lilia,” an ancient Icelandic instrumental, with a lovely and hypnotic melody sprinkled with quarter-tone passing notes, the sure tread of a half-step with exponentially more expression. He opened the last of the four short sets with another instrumental, attributed to Notker the Stammerer. A program note explained that it was transcribed and reconstructed by the flutist from his “research into the earliest possible written sources of instrumental music.” 

That limns the edge of a timeless space where people tell stories and sing songs about love, pain, joy, and loss, things that will always be with us. Sequentia isn’t really playing old music, it’s just singing songs we all know and love.

Stile Antico performs 4 p.m., February 9, at Corpus Christi Church. mb1800.org

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