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December 9, 2010

Common Roots

Last night, at the Baryshnikov Arts Center's Movado Hour, I heard the Ensemble Organum, a group of unaccompanied French singers, perform Guillaume de Machaut's Messe de Nostre Dame.  This fourteenth-century work (it dates from around 1364) is generally considered to be the first complete mass to which a single composer's name has been attached.  That is interesting enough, and so is the way in which these six male singers performed the mass, with harmonies that mingled an uncanny underlying drone with a filigree of strange melodies overlaid on top.  But what made the evening for me was the way their sound strenuously evoked three other kinds of music: that of a Hebrew cantor in a synagogue, that of an Arabic singer of folk melodies, and that of a Russian Orthodox choir.  You could not hear this early Christian music without, I think, thinking of those other three strands of musical history.  It is as if all these religions--Islam, Judaism, Byzantine Christianity, and Roman Christianity--started with a common musical root, and only began to diverge sometime after the fourteenth century.  Of course, I do not know how accurate the Ensemble Organum's reconstructions are; perhaps this is just a lovely myth of origin that they have created for us, a common past belatedly imposed on a fragmented present.  But even if that is the case (and somehow I doubt it: these guys seem very serious in their purposes, both musical and religious), I am grateful for the gift of the illusion--or allusion, if it does indeed turn out to be historically true.  Can anyone who knows more than I do about the history of music please shed some light on this?
December 9, 2010 7:37 AM | | Comments (0)

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