Medieval Music

  • Celebrating Kassiani--Early Female Composer; & the Music of Hagia Sophia


    Lost Voices of Hagia Sophia
    Cappella Romana/Alexander Lingas
    Cappella Records CR420
    Total Time:  76:50
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****

    Hymns of Kassiani
    Cappella Romana/Alexander Lingas
    Cappella Records CR422
    Total Time:  76:40
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****

    When teaching students about Medieval music I have often stressed to them to consider the locations where these ancient chants were sung.  We can look at a single monophonic line and think that it is terribly simplistic by modern compositional standards.  However, anyone who has ever been in one of these great ancient cathedrals will realize that these pieces in some ways created their own unique harmonies and overtones that greatly depended on the acoustics of the buildings themselves.  Cappella Romana is a choir that is bringing some of this ancient music to life and it is the perfect time to take a look at these two releases featuring the group.

    Lost Voices of Hagia Sophia might have been overlooked upon its release back in 2019, but it is certainly worth seeking out.  The album brings together a little over 75 minutes of Medieval Byzantine Chant.  For this recording, Cappella Romana is recreating the sound of Hagia Sophia.  The church is noted for its 11-second reverb which makes clear the sort of sonic power this music had.  Though simulated, the performance is very informed about what it is like to sing in such a space and that will these performances quite revelatory.  The release features selections from The Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross in Constantinople focusing on music for vespers, matins, as well as music for the exaltation and adoration.  Additional music from the Divine Liturgy fills out the program.  The accompanying booklet provides an excellent overview of the music here and the process used to recreate the sound of this ancient building within the concert hall at Stanford.  There is also an accompanying BluRay which features a 23-minute documentary about the unique sonic qualities of the building.  Certainly an important release for those who appreciate early music and a must have for those teaching Medieval period music.

    This year, Cappella Romana has released Hymns of Kassiani.  Those familiar with ancient music will be aware of the music of Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) whose music is filled with intriguing symbology and spirituality.  But, it would seem that the Greek Orthodox church has the claim to fame of one of the first female composers in Western notated music.  Kassiani was born ca. 810 and was a noblewoman courted by Emperor Theophilos who took offense at a comment about the nature of women.  As he chose someone else to be his wife, Kassiani’s life took a different turn and she founded a monastery in 843 going on to become its first abbess.  There she would continue writing both sacred and secular poetry and setting some of these and other liturgical texts to music.  Within the Greek Orthodox church she is best known for her Holy Week hymn, “Lord, the woman found in many sins” which is among her most popular, and still performed works.  The current album features a selection of her sacred music that include four hymns for the Christmas season and then a selection of hymnody for Lent and Holy Week (which lands on May 2nd for Orthodox Christians).  The music is rather striking with pedal points that provide a base line against the chant lines that stay mostly syllabic with little melismas for extra emphasis.  Listeners more familiar with Gregorian Chant will also notice a decidedly different modal quality with the unique lines turning in unique ways that have closer parallels in Middle Eastern chant styles.  The pieces themselves show some quite fascinating blends of phrase and text setting and the choir helps provide additional contrast by featuring the male and female sections to add some diversity.  The performances transport the listener back in time to experience this music in stunning sound.  Notes and additional information in the accompanying booklet help further bring Kassiani’s music to life by the premiere ensemble performing these ancient Byzantine music.  More music from the woman canonized as Kassiani the Hymnographer is forthcoming this year.

    For students of ancient music, these are invaluable documents of early music and for those looking to explore what music was like at its seeming inception in Western culture, these are two quite excellent places to start.  Highly Recommended!

  • Exploring the Psalms


    Birds of the Psalms
    Cappella Clausura/Amelia LeClair
    Navona Records 6176
    Total Time:  51:50
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****

    This beautiful new release of choral music features Capella Clausura.  Amelia LeClair founded the ensemble in 2004 with one of its goals to promote the work of women composers.  For this new release, LeClair has focused on music inspired by Biblical psalms.  The album takes its title from a new work by Patricia van Ness which opens the album.

    Ness’s Birds of the Psalms is a collection of 10 psalm settings that have avian imagery and this idea of the divine depicted by a bird, or a bird protected by the divine.  Dove imagery is a common component of the ancient Biblical texts in both Jewish and Christian traditions.  Among them is this image of the sheltering bird which is a common theme in six of the texts used here.  Her music here takes its inspiration as well from ancient church modes and the more melismatic settings upon which harmonies themselves occur naturally across the linear presentation of the text.  This might make the words themselves more difficult to discern at times, but it creates a rather rich wash of sound.  There is some nice word painting along the way (for example on “quakes” in the Psalm 55 setting).  The music itself overall bears close resemblance to Morten Lauridsen’s style.  Each movement helps highlight different voices creating a nice variety.  The male vocal setting of Psalm 17 adds a deep, rich plea to the text that becomes more angelic once the female voices are then added (the female voices get a similar chance in the setting of Psalm 61).  In the following setting of Psalm 57, the Latin text adds a further ancient feel.  The vocal lines as well are written in a late Medieval quality with nice imitation occurring that can bring us to some quite stunning dissonances that add an extra emotional punch.  Things move along a bit more in the seventh movement’s setting of Psalm 148 with its creeping things.  It requires some fun effects as well which add some challenge to the music and a bit of necessary energy.

    The program is filled out with beautiful renditions of Tchaikovsky’s setting of the Kiev Chant, “Svete Tihiy”, and two selections from Rachmaninov’s Vespers (“Blagoslovi, dushe moya” and “Blazhen muzh”).  These give us samples of the rich Eastern Orthodox church styles explored by these composers.  A couple of classic English anthems also appear.  First is Purcell’s brief “Hear My Prayer” followed by Weelke’s “When David Heard”.  The program closes with a setting by an Eastern Roman abbess, one of the first female medieval composers, Kassia (810-856) allowing us a window into the very beginnings of this choral tradition explored fittingly on this album.

    The album was recorded at the groups May 2016 concerts in the Boston area.  Audience noise is quite minimized apart from applause at the end of the Ness and the final work.  The church settings lend a sense of the sort of rich sound that can be attained in these spaces, always hard to capture in a recording but Navona’s engineers have managed to give the listener a real sense of sitting in the midst of a cathedral to wallow in the gorgeous music presented here.