Monks intoning Gregorian chant, long lines of wide-open harmony climbing into the towers of Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, the epic love story of Tristan and Iseult and the other tales told by balladeers—the music of the medieval era has a timeless feel. People listen to chant, especially, to promote a contemplative attitude, and its religious purposes support this way of hearing medieval music.
But that’s not the way Sequentia wants you to hear it. True, their performances, backed up by lots of research, are appropriately sparse, either a cappella or accompanied by perhaps a single harp or small organ. But Sequentia puts medieval compositions together into programs that make them seem immediate, almost topical, ripped from the headlines of medieval times. One of their recent CDs is called Chant Wars. Chant wars? you might ask as the incense rises ceilingward while your chant CD spins. But the standardization of chant was part and parcel of what the Carolingian kings were trying to accomplish as they extended their power across western Europe.
Sequentia’s programs are organized around in-depth explorations of specific repertories and locales. One deals with the chant wars, another with the relationship between the reign of Eleanor of Aquitaine and the first flowering of polyphony (music with more than one line) in southwestern France a thousand years ago. When the group comes to St. Francis of Assisi church on January 27, they’ll be performing a program called “Voices of the Island Sanctuary.” The Island Sanctuary was the Ile de la Cité in Paris as its great cathedral, Notre Dame, was being built.
“Passionate Young Urban Males” is the title of one part of the program, and “Eros and Ambition” of another. What could these themes have to do with this citadel of religion? A great deal, as you’ll realize after hearing Sequentia’s music. Notre Dame became as splendid as it is because the island on which it rests was, the members of Sequentia explain, “an autonomous mini-state, with its own laws and enforcement, free from the secular power wielded by the French king residing nearby…with aristocratic churchmen called canons, managing their vast estates and political intrigues from comfortable dwellings within the close.” These powerful figures not only built a great cathedral; they created music that was very much of its time and place.
The texts of the genre called conductus, from which much of the program is drawn, might comment on corruption and on the vanities of the world. And musically inclined clerics explored new polyphonic sounds from which the monumental style associated with Notre Dame eventually grew. The Island Sanctuary was, in short, an artistic hotbed, and Sequentia brings it alive.