Anonymous 4, a vocal ensemble of four women, contributed as much as any other individual or group to the emergence of medieval vocal music as a popular musical style during the 1980s. However, during a decade that saw the aggressive marketing of chant recorded by the Benedictine monks of Santo Domingo de Silos and the rather outrageous Mediaeval Baebes—12 women who have been compared to the Spice Girls—Anonymous 4 hopes to prove that its worth is based on the members’ skills as performers and music historians. The group sings sacred medieval chant and polyphony, most often performing their carefully researched a cappella works in churches. Their recordings have often topped the Billboard classical music charts, beginning with the 1993 compact disc An English Ladymass.
Mark Swed commented on the group’s surprise hit status in the Los Angeles Times: “The quartet is successful beyond the wildest dreams of these former New York free-lancers who used to eke out a living singing in various early-music groups around the city.” Swed laughed at a Chamber Music Magazine comparison of Anonymous 4 and the Beatles because of their quick jump onto the music charts, but conceded “there actually is something just a little bit Beatles-esque about the quartet. The closeness of range of the three sopranos and one alto voice has some of the same sweetness of the Beatles’ falsetto close harmonies. And there is even a hint of the Beatles’ puckish humor in the women’s give-and-take among themselves.”
Formed as a trio in 1986, the ensemble evolved into a quartet in 1988, when Ruth Cunningham joined founding members Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellauer, and Johanna Maria Rose. The quartet’s name often requires explanation: the word “Anonymous” is traditionally used when a composers name is unknown and “Anonymous 4” is a reference to an unknown thirteenth-century composer who was given the designation by nineteenth-century musicologist Charles-Edmond-Henri de Coussemaker. The name has taken on further resonance because of the popular joke among female historians that “Anonymous” was a woman.
The members of Anonymous 4 have all received degrees in music and have extensive experience in instrumental and vocal performance. Ruth Cunningham attended the New England Conservatory of Music, where she earned a Bachelor of Music (B.M.) degree in Performance of Early Music. She began her career as a Baroque flute and recorder player and later studied voice. In addition to performing with Anonymous 4, she teaches and plays recorder and flute. Marsha Genensky has a bachelors degree (B.A.) in Music and folklore from Scripps College and a masters degree (M.A.) in Folklore and Folklife from the University of Pennsylvania. She first performed as a traditional folk singer, but went on to master other vocal techniques. With a background in Jewish sacred music, Anglo-American folksongs, shape note songs, and harmonic singing, Genensky writes and adapts readings for the quartet. Susan Hellauer received her B.A. in trumpet from Queens College. Her interest in music from the Middle Ages and Renaissance prompted her to begin taking voice lessons and to study medieval musicology at Queens College and Columbia University. Hellauer does music research for the quartet. Johanna Maria Rose holds a B. M. in voice from the Manhattan School of Music and a M.A. in Early Music Performance (voice and recorder) from Sarah Lawrence College. She also does literary research and adapts readings for the group.
The group’s 1992 debut album, An English Ladymass, gave listeners their first taste of English polyphony as performed by Anonymous 4. The recording was comprised of music from thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, which Anonymous 4 collected to form a composite of the kinds of music that would have been heard during masses honoring the Virgin Mary. Such compositions dominated English polyphony during that
For the Record …
Members include Ruth Cunningham, Education: New England Conservatory of Music; Marsha Genensky, Education: Scripps College, University of Pennsylvanis; Susan Hellauer, Education: Queens College and Columbia University; Johanna Maria Rose, Education: Manhattan School of Music, Sarah Lawrence College.
Began as a trio in 1986 and evolved into a quartet in 1988, when Cunningham joined Genensky, Hellauer, and Rose; recorded first album, An English Ladymass, 1993; perform regularly across the United States and Europe; have made several recordings for Harmonia Mundi; contributed to the 1996 soundtrack Voices of Light that accompanied the silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc.
time, judging from the fragments of musical documents that have been preserved. The richness of this theme was mined again for The Lily and the Lamb in 1995 and the motets and carols of On Yoolis Night in 1993.
Anonymous 4’s 1994 album, Love’s Illusion, sampled French motets based on texts from the Montpellier Codex on the theme of courtly love. These various motets probably have secular and religious origins. In 1997 the quartet released Hildegard Von Bingen: 11,000 Virgins, a collection of works by a German abbess that were written to celebrate the feast day of St. Ursula. The 11, 000 virgins named in the title were said to have been martyred with Ursula when she refused to marry a pagan Hun chieftain. This music is exceptional among the works recorded by Anonymous 4 because it was probably intended to be sung by women, not men or boys. The greatest departure for the group, however, was its participation on the recording of a opera-oratorio by Richard Einhorn titled Voices of Light, which was a soundtrack inspired by the silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc.
The singer/researchers of Anonymous 4 have explained that it takes a special approach to prepare and perform medieval compositions, because of gaps in contemporary knowledge of such music. Hellauer noted in Time, “From the beginning we let go of all theories not explicitly described in medieval documents and with time and work let the music and our own intuition teach us what to do.” Hellauer elaborated in a New York Times interview, saying, “you have to realize… this music was not written for posterity… So people didn’t waste time indicating whether it was loud, soft, slow or fast, because they were there giving those instructions. As for vocal tone, there are descriptions in treatises. But when you read something that says, for instance, ‘you should not beat your throat together,’ how are you supposed to know what that means in terms of sound?” With such concerns in mind, the group has adopted a vocal technique that differs from that of operatic tradition; New York Times reviewer Allan Kozinn described it as “a pure tone, virtually without vibrato and easily blended.”
For their live performances, Anonymous 4 most often appears in churches. These concerts combine music, poetry, and narrative, with the group working to provide a satisfying, unified program. Again, the fragmented nature of medieval music makes this difficult, as Rose explained in the New York Times: “We try to make our programs more than just a collection of our favorite pieces…. We spend a lot of time digging through material that nobody else sings. And because the pieces tend to be very short, we try to come up with ways to present them cohesively, so that our programs are not just strings of one-minute pieces.”
The live and recorded performances of Anonymous 4 have earned them warm praise from audiences and critics. Susan Larson commended the ensemble in the Boston Globe as “a quartet of pure-voiced women with a scholarly and literary bent… [and an] abstruse repertoire that nobody but musicologists used to care about… they are marvelous musicians, meticulous researchers, and they never dumb down or glitz up their material.” Writing for the Christian Science Monitor, M. S. Mason exclaimed, “They transport the listener back hundreds of years to another world. Most, though not all of their music is sacred, offering an island of serenity in a sea of twentieth-century noise—a respite from contemporary stress. The more one listens, the purer the sound seems.” Similarly, composer/reviewer Russell Platt wrote in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, “I cannot imagine purer vocal tone. The chants were unison in the highest sense: not simply a matter of breathing together, but of handling the flow and curvature of the lineto produce the impression of a single heavenly instrument.” He went on to compare their polyphony to the sound of four oboes, “their tone deliciously reedy and blurred.
Anonymous 4 has performed throughout the United States and Europe and they have been heard on National Public Radio’s “Performance Today,” “A Prairie Home Companion,” and “Weekend Edition.” They have also been featured on WETA-FM’s “Millennium of Music” and WNYC-FM’s “Around New York.”
An English Ladymass, Harmonia Mundi, 1992.
On Yoolis Night, Harmonía Mundi, 1993.
Love’s Illusion, Harmonía Mundi, 1994.
The Lily and the Lamb, Harmonía Mundi, 1995.
Noel Collection, Harmonía Mundi, 1996.
A Star in the East, Harmonía Mundi, 1996.
(Contributor) Voices of Light (soundtrack), Sony Classical, 1996
Hildegard Von Bingen: 11, 000 Virgins, Harmonía Mundi, 1997.
Billboard, August 30, 1997.
Boston Globe, June 20, 1995, p. 62; April 28, 1998, p. C8.
Christian Science Monitor, April 17, 1998, p. B4.
Los Angeles Times, February 3, 1995, p. F1.
New York Times, May 4, 1990, p. C24; May 22, 1997, p. C22.
Minneapolis Star Tribune, March 18, 1997, p. 4.
The University of Chicago, Howard Mayer Brown International Early Music Series,http://tuna.uchicago.edu/humanities/concerts/early, 1995.
www.allmusic.com, All-Music Guide, 1998.
www.harmoniamundi.com, harmonía mundi u.s.a., 1998.
—Paula Pyzik Scott
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