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Anonymous 4 need no introduction; after touring for almost thirty years and creating recordings which have sold some two million copies, they have been heard all over the world, their blended voices at the service not only of mediaeval music but also of contemporary works written for them.
Duke's Baldwin Auditorium was filled by a welcoming audience and by the voices of singers Ruth Cunningham, Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellauer, and Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek. The warm acoustical environment was "live" enough to give their music the space needed by its sonorities but clear enough for their words to be understood. The first sounds heard in the opening motet, Mater dei plena / Mater virgo pia / EIUS, were of the four voices singing in a beautiful, strong and perfectly-blended unison.
Words were, indeed, the subject of the concert's first half: twelve motets and two chansons taken from the 13th-century French collection known as the Montpellier Codex, discovered c.1852 by Edmond de Coussemaker. Defining the word "motet" proves difficult, but one part of its definition is that it includes words. Most scholars agree that "motet" is derived from the French "mot," meaning "word." In the case of most of the motets on this program, there were many words, since each motet featured two, three, or four voices simultaneously singing different texts.
We heard sacred Latin motets about Marie (i.e., Mary, mother of Jesus); secular French motets about Marion, Marot, Robin, or some other love object; and motets combining both sacred and secular elements, often macaronic in structure, with both Latin and French texts.
Following intermission, the singers presented 1865: Songs of Hope and Home from the American Civil War. Revival songs, gospel songs such as "Sweet Hour of Prayer" and "Shall We Gather at the River," popular songs such as "Darling Nelly Gray," a fuguing tune, and a folk hymn were on the musical menu. Each song's arrangement was excellently crafted as a fit vehicle for this ensemble. There was more applause in this second half of the program – not for lack of appreciation of the motets, but rather for it being easier to know exactly when each of the 1865-vintage works was over.
Throughout the program, the blend of the four voices was superb, even as it was possible to hear which singer was singing which part. The higher registers were sung with warmth and clarity by Ruth Cunningham and Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek; the middle-register parts most-often sung by Marcia Genensky were pitch-perfect in their frequent fourth and fifth relations to the lowest part, sung rhythmically and convincingly by Susan Hellauer. If a few of the rising major-second intervals in closing cadences were a fraction under pitch, the singers quickly adjusted to make the small correction.
Given four female voices with no instrumental support (the tuning fork used by Cunningham to provide starting pitches doesn't count!), there will always be a certain "sameness" to the sound. Nevertheless, the total immersion into the musical language of the 13th century was never boring, but rather a fresh insight into the inventive minds which produced such fascinating music.
Whether Latin, French, or English, the group's words could serve as a lesson to many choirs about how to sing with clear diction. When pressed for an encore, Anonymous 4 responded with a brief Latin selection which brought laughter from those who knew the text: Ite missa est. Deo gratias! ("Go forth, the Mass is ended. Thanks be to God!")