1000: A Mass for the End of Time--Medieval Chant and Polyphony for the Ascension Harmonia Mundi USA c 2000 (HMU 907224), Anonymous 4 (Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellauer, Jacqueline Horner, Johanna Maria Rose) Since their beginnings as an ensemble in the mid-'80s, the four women who make up Anonymous 4 have remained true to their origins. The brainchild of Johanna Maria Rose, who had attended a medieval culture workshop held in a monastery, the New York-based quartet focuses solely on medieval chant (one or more voices singing a single melody line in unison) and polyphony (two or more independent parts that sound together, as in four-part choral music for soprano, alto, tenor, & bass). In their latest effort, working with musicologists and sources found in part books, on microfiche, and microfilm, the quartet has reconstructed a Mass for the Feast of the Ascension from 10th- and 11th-century manuscripts of French and English origin. The result, a kind of 1,000-year-old composite, is a Mass for our times. As the first millennium (1000 C.E.) approached, many Christians became fearfully preoccupied with the return of Jesus Christ, which, in their minds, would coincide with the end of the world. The apocalyptic themes of the Second Coming of Christ and the Last Judgment are present in the texts sung here, and helpfully translated and provided in the CD's booklet. The feast of the Ascension--coming 40 days after Easter to celebrate Christ's rise into heaven--has long had apocalyptic associations.
The Propers, or sung prayers, for the Mass for the Ascension are the Introit, Alleluia, Prose with Sequence, Offertory, and Communion, and all reflect this end-time theme. On a major feast such as the Ascension, both the Propers and Ordinary were often elaborated with additional texts and music known as tropes. Here, Anonymous 4 has added tropes based on their medieval sources. The processional, "Judicii signum," and the "Kyrie: Celestis terrestrisque" employ chants and polyphony with occasional pitch glides, trills, and drones for changes of texture. Anonymous 4's combination of borrowed historical scholarship, musical expression, and incredible purity of vocal tone makes this an extremely fine recording.

Of course, as gorgeous as this recording is, there is no substitute for hearing a Mass setting like this one in the context of an actual celebrated liturgy with the requisite sights, sounds, smells, and choreography. Luckily, this wonderful music will receive world-premiere performances in both the U.S. and Europe this year as part of the group's tours. But for now, the CD is the perfect substitute.

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