Someone asked me today, “With over 500 choral ensembles in the Bay Area, why should anyone come hear Eh-ooh-oh… whatever it’s called?” Another friend noted “You say you direct a Medieval music group, but your next concert is all Josquin and Obrecht — two Renaissance composers!”
Composers like Obrecht and Josquin generally set only the Ordinary of the Mass (Kyrie, Gloria, etc.), and only occasionally wrote motets for the Proper (Offertory, Communion, etc.) — Isaac, Lassus, and Palestrina being among the few notable exceptions. To round out their concert programs and recordings, many Renaissance groups necessarily perform Gregorian chant, but they tend to do so according to the style that was in vogue at the end of the 19th century, which is devoid of the great variety of rhythm and nuanced inflection that gives this music its vitality.
One reason for this unfortunate trend is that much of the research in the field of Gregorian chant has been done in the service of the Church, and not for the sake of musicology. The chant books currently in widespread use were edited and compiled to satisfy a 1903 papal decree that Gregorian chant be restored as the sacred music proper to the Roman Church. Not only do these editions place practical considerations above historical accuracy, they are based on scholarship that is over a century old.
Another reason that even early music specialists resort to this outdated performance practice is that when they were in school, many of their music history books taught that the rhythm of Gregorian chant would never be understood, or else that it was a subject of heated debate among scholars (which is only partially true). Foundational texts such as Jeremy Yudkin‘s Music in Medieval Europe present page after page of examples of Gregorian chant rendered in a “non-committal” notation that indicates pitch but not rhythm.
Lastly, until the publication of the Graduale Novum in January of this year, there has not been a critical edition of the chant that provides the necessary information for both the melody and the rhythm of the chant. Even still, most chant experts do not know how to read the notations it contains, and few singers have been trained to render the intricate melodies in performance. This is where Euouae comes in.
Since we are primarily a medieval ensemble, for us for the chant is not a side dish, but the main course. We present new interpretations of the Gregorian melodies that capture something of the ecstatic spontaneity of the ancient chants alongside later polyphonic works. Having premiered over 40 works as a recitalist and during four seasons with the new music ensemble Volti, often in collaboration with the composers, I bring the same approach to the Medieval and Renaissance repertoires, treating them not as museum pieces but as something innovative, modern, and at times shocking. To imagine the experience the original performers had when encountering this polyphonic music for the first time, ensemble members steep themselves in the chant tradition from which it evolved.
Will the result be different than the other 500 choral ensembles? You’ll have to hear for yourself on November 18th at Old First Concerts.