by Stephen Higa
The decades around the year 1200 were a turning point for Western Europe. People were leaving the countryside in droves to resettle the old Roman cities, and the earlier quilt-like agricultural landscape of lords and serfs now included busy urban centers. Farmers’ boys — uprooted by the new practice of giving only their oldest brothers their fathers’ lands — moved to the cities and swelled the ranks of the urban artisan and merchant classes. A small but growing group of nouveau riche signified a European economy becoming more reliant on commerce and coins instead of the older practices of bestowing gifts and honors. Increasing mobility and increasing contact with the Islamic world and Asia set in motion a number of cultural, material, and intellectual exchanges that would determine the future shape of global history. (After all, wouldn’t Columbus set sail from Palos de la Frontera in search of a better way to acquire the Asian spices his 12th-century predecessors were just learning to crave? And wouldn’t gunpowder — which his 13th-century predecessors somehow acquired from China — give him a tragic edge over the locals once he landed in Hispaniola?)
As for religion, the Catholic Church was centralizing authority, articulating clearer dogmas, and laying down rules and procedures that would hold fast until our own era. Monastery and cathedral schools were turning into universities: professors of theology, philosophy, rhetoric, and the sciences were drawing on ancient and contemporary Greek, Arabic, and Hebrew learning and engaging in discussions that would come to form the basis of Western knowledge as we now know it. And just as religious authority was becoming more papal and professorial, alternative religious voices — increasingly populist and female — were sprouting up everywhere, especially in Europe’s growing cities: over the course of the 13th century, mystics, recluses, ascetics, and wandering preachers would become forces to be reckoned with.
And in Paris, one of those old Roman cities seeing new population growth, Notre Dame Cathedral was being built. Construction began in 1160 and continued for the next hundred years, and often the things that take longest to unfold are the most exquisite. Built in the newly fashionable Gothic style, it set the bar high for the many imitations that would come in its wake. Massive stained glass windows sprayed kaleidoscopic jewel-tones across the high vaulted interior, and everywhere long lines, elegant forms, and lacy planes crisscrossed together and then sprang upwards like slender young fiddleheads. Unimaginably vast central spaces were fringed by smaller and smaller spatial fragmentations as if the massive cathedral walls were literally dissolving into the air. Here was a perfect demonstration of Gothic obsessions: drama, gracefulness, splendor, manipulating light and darkness, experimenting with the dazzling and disorienting, exploring the interplay of the hidden and the revealed, and teasing out the delicacy and elasticity and buoyancy of stone.
In French, “Notre Dame” means “Our Lady.” Devotion to the Virgin Mary was exploding as the cathedral was going up, so the new cathedral was devoted to everyone’s new favorite saint. And the Mother of God was everything the new cathedral would be: powerful, graceful, lofty, beautiful — connecting heaven and earth, human and divine. And, just like Mary, the cathedral would inhabit and question the boundaries between the material and ethereal.
Notre Dame chose as its feast day the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which commemorated the end of Mary’s earthly life on August 15. Whether Mary “died” is an open question unresolved to this day; the gospels and epistles say nothing definitive about the matter, and during the first several Christian centuries various traditions and authorities disagreed. Did she die or simply fall asleep? Was she taken bodily up into heaven or was it only her soul? Was she resurrected on the third day (like her son) or did she ascend immediately? Some traditions have it that the apostles were preaching all over the known world when she was on her death bed, and that each man was whisked up by a cloud and taken to her side when she was about to die. And some say that Thomas, however, was too late, so when he arrived, Mary’s tomb was opened—but it was found to be empty (like her son’s).
With all these questions, it was in the 12th century that Western Europe came to consensus on one thing: that Mary had indeed been taken bodily into heaven. And as if in response to this new certainty, Notre Dame seemed to take inspiration from its namesake: sublimating stone and glass, experimenting with stretching and weightlessness, and raising tall yawning spaces it too allowed its body to float upwards.
In Notre Dame ca.1200, weightlessness, stretching, and upward motion might be felt architecturally as well as musically. The chants that adorned its liturgies were full of floating leaps, long vining melismas, and cloud-like melodic contours. And, in addition to chant, a revolutionary new musical style was developing at the hands of a small group of music professors associated with the cathedral school (particularly two men known as Leonin and Perotin) and their students. They would take a section of chant, stretch each note into a lengthy drone, and top it with one or more voice parts consisting of expansive rapturous ornaments or skipping repetitions of melodic fragments on single vowels. In this manner, they would explode the melodic integrity of the chants upwards into pixelated sprays of pure vowel sound.
In singing both the chants and this new style, we have felt mesmerized, breathless, light-headed, elevated, disembodied. But we have also felt profoundly enfleshed by this repertoire’s demands on our breath, our range, our stamina, our focus, our responsiveness to one another. In assembling our collection of songs, we have paid special attention to those pieces appropriate to the Feast of the Assumption as it was celebrated at Notre Dame. We have sought to resurrect medieval Notre Dame as ritual space and superimpose it onto this historic Brooklyn church. And while we have been attentive to the Assumption as repertoire, we have also been attentive to the Assumption as style, practice, and experience in our encounters with weightlessness, upward motion, and the troubled space between embodiment and disembodiment.
Singing medieval song in the 21st century is a dangerous act. Like St. Brendan setting sail on an uncertain sea in search of the Garden of Eden, the modern performer of medieval music must be prepared to leave everything behind and set out on uncharted waters when seeking this soundscape of ancient humanity. All that is comfortable and familiar to the modern musician — classical conservatory technique, pop sensibilities, Romanticism, modern aesthetics and expectations and prejudices — must be questioned and disrupted if we are to strive for greater faithfulness to the lost art of the medieval singer and come closer to uncovering the repertoire’s native beauty.
This process of questioning and disruption makes for an approach to medieval song that is by nature highly experimental. Any performance of music so distant from our own time would have to be. So in order to resurrect this antique repertoire, we have worked closely with medieval texts and the nuanced notation while relying heavily on such period practices as ornamentation and improvisation. In this way, our performance is — in the current parlance of today’s early music scene — “historically informed.” But caveat auditor: in the absence of original medieval sound recordings, any reconstruction of medieval performance will, of course, be completely conjectural. Medieval song can never be fully resurrected with the form it once had. Therefore, we have based our performance decisions on three factors: the medieval evidence, living roots traditions (especially those of northern France), and our own intuition. This experimentation and discovery allows us to arrive at a realization that is — we hope — plausible, enjoyable, and true to the spirit and intentions of a hypothetical “original” performance.