Anonymous 4, 1000: A Mass for the End of Time

John Schaefer

By John Schaefer

on 08.08.13 in Reviews

1000: A Mass for the End of Time - Medieval Chant and Polyphony for the Ascension

Anonymous 4

For a group that first became known as an “early music” group, Anonymous 4 certainly made their share of surprising albums: Beginning in the 1990s they started working with contemporary composers like Richard Einhorn and later Steve Reich, and then in the early years of this century they focused for several years on American “early music” — shape-note singing, folk hymns and the like. But even among such a broad continuum of music, this album stands out. Released at the end of the second millennium, it looks back to the music being sung at the end of the first millennium. Anonymous 4 were faced with several daunting tasks here: the first being the detective work required to figure out how to decipher the melodies from a time when music notation was rare and rudimentary, as well as what the “performance practice” of the time might have been. The second was to present this music in a form that made sense to an audience hearing it a thousand years later.

Apocalyptic music from the end of the first millennium

The second challenge was met by creating a mass — compiling the chants and polyphonic hymns into an order that followed the mass. The first challenge, though, required Anonymous 4, and especially Susan Hellauer, the lowest of the four voices and the group’s resident musical sleuth, to look for hints in various manuscripts as to how these pieces should be sung. As a result, for this album only, the quartet occasionally employs a subtle, but subtly startling effect: a quiver or shake on certain notes. This is more like the kind of ornamentation you’d expect from a South Indian classical singer, but its effect here is to draw the listener’s attention to the singing — and to what’s being sung. You hear it, for example, in the “Kyrie,” the second “Alleluia” and the “Sanctus.” As you might expect, the imagery in the texts is often apocalyptic, but the prospect of the Second Coming and the End of Days was probably more terrifying for the faithful who could understand the words than it is for us today.

For modern listeners, this is a gravely beautiful, and perhaps even calming collection. Try the “Prose: Regnantem sempiterna,” the “Gloria” and the “Troped Offertory” for those magical harmonies (created through different forms of polyphony on each track) that have made the Anonymous 4 sound so distinctive.