The women of Anonymous 4 built their careers on medieval vocal music, from ethereal chants and polyphonic pieces to carols and motets.
But their upcoming a cappella program, set to open the 12th annual Madison Early Music Festival on Saturday, July 7, is all-American. It includes traditional songs, like “Poor Wayfaring Stranger” and “Shall We Gather at the River,” that are closer in character to high-energy gospel than the serene music of monks.
This year, the Madison Early Music Festival has the theme “Welcome Home Again! An American Celebration,” and will feature return performances by the Rose Ensemble and the Newberry Consort. Daily workshops and near-nightly performances are scheduled through Saturday, July 14, in Mills Hall on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus.
Anonymous 4 — Susan Hellauer, Ruth Cunningham, Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek and Marsha Genensky — has recorded 23 albums in the past 25 years. In Madison, the group has played the Wisconsin Union Theater (1996, 2008) and Luther Memorial Church (1999), but this is the ensemble’s first visit to the early music fest.
77 Square spoke with Anonymous 4 founding member Susan Hellauer, an alto and music professor at Queens College (CUNY), from her home in New York.
Your “Gloryland” program for Madison draws from albums you recorded in 2004 (“American Angels”) and 2006 (“Gloryland”). Are you returning to those pieces after a gap, or has the popularity of the albums meant you kept them in your current repertoire?
The American repertoire seems to be asked for somewhere by someone virtually every year. We have programs that are split, half medieval, half American.
It took a lot of initial work to figure out a way to sing (the American pieces) that wasn’t overly prim and precious, yet not to sound like a parody of amateur, traditional singers who could really yell. That investment of time and effort looking for that sound, both true to us and true to history and tradition, took a long time.
It’s challenging to find quotes and direct information about how people sang. We had to comb through the written references to singing — that hasn’t been done for American music. (The program includes) a long span of time, from the 1770s to the mid-20th century.
Hymnals tend to change slowly. Will churchgoers recognize these pieces?
Some of the tunes you’ll recognize, some will be different than what’s current, depending on which church tradition you are from. Most of these came and went from the Baptist and Methodist traditions. “Amazing Grace,” the tune we know now, first appeared in the 1830s.
The gospel songs we sing are still sung by bluegrass and gospel groups. There’s a lot of traditional stuff. You’ll recognize some of these tunes very well, but the settings are earlier.
How are your American programs different than your medieval programs?
Almost all the (medieval) music we sing from 12th, 13th, early 14th century is anonymous. People wouldn’t sign their own work, it was considered a sin of pride. (This is how the ensemble got its name.)
But some settings in the gospel songs are supposed to be showstoppers. They’re not supposed to weave into the fabric of a religious service. They’re for home singing.
They are livelier, and sometimes they have a big finish that elicits applause. They’re more popular in terms of their feeling, their sensibility, than the subdued, scared, liturgically absorbed music of the middle ages.
There’s a lot of personal, direct emotional appeal. We sing in contemporary American with a little more energy, looser in the approach.
What are your plans after Madison?
Marsha (Genensky) and I are staying to teach at the festival. In August we’re going to reconvene and do a lot of rehearsing.
Next year we have a new program coming — David Lang, the Pultizer Prize-winning composer, has just written us an evening-length piece that we’re premiering next week. Then we’re going to be touring with it.
We have a new medieval program, “Marie and Marion,” about 13th century French music in honor of both Mary and Marion, Robin Hood’s girlfriend. They use the same terminology in both kinds of pieces. It’s an interesting program, a mix of secular and sacred music.