This would be Anonymous 4, not only the best, but perhaps the only American Medieval Babe group. I used to go hear them at the lunchtime concert series at Trinity Church in lower Manhattan in the 1980s, before they got famous and sold something like a gazillion albums of what is basically 14th century chant. Good for them. They called it a day back in 2004, but you know how these things go—they still tour occasionally—check out the website. Anyway, the problem here is which one?
They’ve done four Christmas albums (including the most recent one, discussed below)—the chant ones are On Yoolis Night, Legends of Saint Nicholas, and The Star in the East, which is a bunch of 14th century Hungarian chants. My slight preference is for the third one, because it has a little bit of an eastern edge, but they’re all wonderful. Anonymous 4 was a real person, by the way–musicologists actually know who some of the different “Anonymous” personages were–they just don’t know their names. There’s even some suggestion that Anonymous 4 was a woman. And there were certainly women composers back then, Hildegarde von Bingen for one. This was before the church decided women needed to be relegated somewhere out of sight, though.
One of Mrs. W’s many mystery series that she ploughs through regularly is the series with Sister Fidelma, by Peter Tremayne. Fidelma is a member of the Celtic church, which merged with the Roman church in the 7th century. But there was a time when women had high posts in the Celtic church–Fidelma herself is a lawyer and an advisor to the church leadership. Actually, the reason I gave up on the series is that, lawyer or not, Fidelma is really, really dim, and is always the absolutely last person to know who did it. This person is a lawyer and gives advice to bishops? Still, the portrayal of the Celtic church of the time, and what it gave up to merge with Rome, is interesting. What one takes away from the series is a sense that the history of Christianity in Western Europe would have been very different had the Celtic Church not become subordinated to the Roman Church. One of those alternative history things.
I am not including the most recent Christmas album by Anonymous 4, Wolcom Yule, which is nice enough, but doesn’t work as well. Voices that can be mesmerizing in one form of music don’t always work on other types of music–in this case, Celtic and English songs and carols, including a bunch of 20th century stuff. For this type of material, you need stronger solo voices, which is not necessarily what you want for perfect harmonies in a chant setting. A nice try, but not up to the standard of the earlier albums, all of which are worth getting. Actually, they’re all pretty enchanting. For something outside of the Christmas meme, check out either 1000: A Mass for the End of Time, or, for something a bit more raucous, Voices of Light, composed by Richard Einhorn to accompany the Carl Dreyer’s 1928 silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc. You can also buy all four Christmas CDs in one set.
The origin of medieval chants is one of those things musicologists have been arguing about for generations. The earliest chants, say in the fourth, fifth or sixth centuries, were thought to derive from the traditions of reciting the psalms from memory, and this is thought to have evolved into some sort of musical performance within churches. While recent scholarship has questioned this traditional explanation, it seems clear that the early church had music as part of the liturgy. One of Pope Gregory the Great’s many reforms of the church was to codify much of the musical liturgy of the time. There is something of an urban myth the Gregory, whose Papacy ran from 590 to his death in 604, actually authored Gregorian chants. While Gregory did compose some church music, though, Gregorian chants actually emerged in the late 7th and early 8th centuries. Rather than being written by Gregory, they are rather thought to have been named in his honor.
Actually, the story is considerably more interesting. Chants developed in monasteries as well as the church through the mass. And since there were monasteries and churches all over Europe, a number of competing chant traditions evolved, both within the churches (in different forms of the mass, and different masses regionally for important celebrations such as Advent and Christmas) and in monasteries. According to Thomas McKinnon in The Advent Project, during the late 7th century the two main traditions, the Gallican and Roman traditions, were merged under the Carolingians. This didn’t occur by accident—it was actually orchestrated as a way to standardize the chant, around the same time as the basic elements of the mass was also being codified. And Gregorian chants were one of the most impressive musical developments in history—within a short time, they had spread through much of Europe, displacing more regional chant forms under the aegis of the church, which was seeking as much standardization (and control) as possible. Some of this occurred through the aggressive efforts of Charlemagne to spread Christianity during the 8th century. By the end of the 9th century, Gregorian chants had displaced the Celtic chant and the Slavonic chant, and by the end of the 10th century had even displaced traditional Roman chant in Rome. And the unification wasn’t just for the form of the Mass Proper—it was to standardize the liturgy, and the accompanying music, for the entire church year.
Of course, regional variations persisted in monasteries, just as regional differences emerged in popular song in, say, the 12th century between portions of what is now France and what is now Germany. And the Christianization of Europe was a process that took hundreds and hundreds of years—portions of what are now Germany and Lithuania weren’t fully Christianized until the 14th century. You can still find all sorts of obviously pagan sculptures and carvings in English churches built as late as the 16th century. So even after the Gregorian chant emerged triumphant in the Mass Proper, there remains considerable variation across Europe in the non-mass chants—for example, those that were used in monasteries to mark the various hours of the day. Some of these variations are most pronounced in Spain, where the Moorish influence had a significant impact on medieval music in general, including in the monasteries (expect a fuller discussion of this shortly). But this was true in other regions as well. A particularly lovely CD of Christmas masses called Aquitainia, by the medieval music group Sequentia, is a case in point. Aquitaine was not yet completely part of France at that point, and the contrast between these pieces and, say, those performed in In Natali Domini, by Niederaltraicher Scholaren, which are chants and songs from Germany of the same period, is startling. What I love about medieval Christmas music, including chant, is its distance from us, which just adds to the mystery of the music and the season. It’s Christmas music, but not what we would recognize as such. For me, that’s part of its appeal. The past, as David Lowenthal has observed, is a foreign country.
A word of caution is required here-doing a google search on “Medieval Babes” brings up some interesting surprises, some Not Suitable for Work. Forewarned is forearmed.