700 Years Old, Still Cool 

Thursday, Apr 22 2004
Photo by Friedrun Reinhold

If I tell you that my favorite disc of recent months contains over an hour’s worth of three-minute bursts of the same kind of music, seven centuries old and built on principles in no way related to anything else in our repertory experience, you may want to change stations . . . but wait! Know first that the disc is on ECM, one of the more trustworthy of surviving classical labels, and that the performers are the Hilliard Ensemble, that lively and questing group — countertenors, tenors, baritone — whose lust for stylistic exploration is apparently boundless. Here they sing a collection of motets by the 14th-century poet, philosopher, musician and churchman Guillaume de Machaut, music whose strange, distant beauty is much enhanced by the typical ECM treatment: haunting, softly echoey sound that bespeaks the cold stones of the small Austrian church that their microphones have re-sanctified, and the dark, mysterious distances of the photography in the accompanying booklet. There aren’t many class acts left in the recording industry; ECM, along with Nonesuch and Harmonia Mundi, bravely holds the fort.

The Machaut motet is a different concoction from the polyphonic motets of Palestrina and his Renaissance pals. It is a form built up in layers, sung simultaneously. The low voice (tenor, from tenere, to hold) sings a very short text, maybe just a couple of words, in long, sustained notes. A higher voice above him (motetus) sings a much faster melody, with words that relate to the tenor’s text. A third voice (triplum) sings faster still, with a third text again related to the other two. In the first Machaut motet in the ECM collection, the tenor’s entire text is “I sigh”; the motetus begins “with sighing, suffering heart . . .” and the triplum has what amounts to a whole sermon on what to do when you fall in love. This all creates a hopeless jumble of text, of course, and you have to wonder whether Machaut or any of his numerous colleagues had any interest in having this music performed, or whether these pieces were more like philosophical designs set to music. Many of the motets have religious connotations; some will have a hymn of praise to the Virgin Mary in the lower voices, coupled with a fairly carnal encomium to the girl next door in the upper voice.

But then there’s the music. As I listened the other night, a friend asked if this was Arvo Pärt; he was off by 700 years, but right on as well. We cannot, of course, hear this music with 14th-century ears, but the weight of history can be a marvelous enablement for discovering a whole new level of freshness in this repertory. Is it so wrong to hear Arvo Pärt or Bartók or Charles Ives in the cross-relationships and false cadences in Machaut? It would be equally wrong to hear this music as any kind of primitive, to miss the high level of poetic daring in the textual or musical crossovers, the sheer beauty in the sinuous melodic lines.

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Last week, an NPR music programmer told Talk of the Nation’s Neal Conant that he uses these motets — along with Peruvian tribal chants and other assorted exotica — as “buttons” between news items on All Things Considered. Things being what they are in classical music these days, we take what we can get.


I wrote with some ecstasy a couple of weeks ago about Thomas Adès’ operatic setting of The Tempest, of which recordings are not available. Now there is more music by this remarkable young (33) Brit, and it is available, a collection of short works on EMI Classics, which comes with a “parental advisory” sticker on the cover for reasons not hard to discern. In 1999, the New York Philharmonic commissioned six composers to write “messages for the millennium” for performances on the eve of 2000, and Adès came up with the 16-minute America: A Prophecy, which heads this new disc and gives it its title. For his text and his theme, he chose to look not ahead but back, to the stable Mayan civilization of half a millennium before, and its destruction by conquerors and looters from abroad. He drew upon ancient writings (including La Guerra by the 16th-century Mateo Flecha) and on later texts sympathetic to the fate of the Mayans. “O my nation, prepare,” sings a mezzo-soprano in a twisted line resonant with ancient sounds, her voice rising out of an opening orchestral bombardment full of terrified shrieks and tongues of flame. “The people move as in dreams! They are weak from fuck and drink . . .” She sings of invaders from the east, who destroy and burn. “They will come from the east,” the chorus sings. “They will burn all the sky.” “Ash feels no pain,” responds the soloist. All this was performed in New York, 22 months before 9/11. Was nobody listening?

I don’t know whether circumstances will allow this work the circulation it deserves; hearing it on disc, long after the facts it uncannily portends, still has its dark overtones. That has to do mostly with the writing for the solo mezzo (Susan Bickley on the disc), which is pained and intense. But that matter aside (if possible), this is music of tremendous power. Percussion predominates; the sounds wrench and pound. The composer conducts the City of Birmingham Orchestra and Chorus.

An interesting variorum of short works, mostly of slight stature, fills out the disc and draws a nice picture of a composer of admirable curiosity at his cluttered desk, busily trying things out: a bit of Omar Khayyam, a wise line or two from John Donne, a snatch of Tennessee Williams erotica, a Couperin harpsichord number ingeniously transcribed for chamber ensemble, Cardiac Arrest (the rock number that showed up at a Green Umbrella not long ago) and, finally, Brahms. This is a tiny, hilarious poem by, of all people, pianist and sometime Brahms interpreter Alfred Brendel. It’s all about that composer’s very worst side. “This wading through chords and double octaves wakes even the children from their deep sleep,” proclaims the text. “‘Not Brahms again!’ they wail.” And Adès, with his fine parodistic sense, and with the help of a ponderous (i.e., Brahmsian) baritone named Christopher Maltman, has done for Brahms exactly what we have all longed to have befall him all these interminable years.

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