Music from 1000 years ago

By Mollie Kaye, November 2015

An early music ensemble from France is expected to perform magic at Alix Goolden Hall this month.

Jaunty, popular songs from 100 years ago bear so little resemblance to the strains of what today’s teens are writhing to on their iPhones that it’s hard to believe the top hits of both 1915 and 2015 foundationally share something in common. They do, though, since both employ polyphony, defined as “a texture consisting of two or more simultaneous lines of independent melody.” 

If you go back 1000 years, you can find the earliest known polyphonic songs. And if you go to Alix Goolden Hall in the middle of this month, you can hear them performed live as part of the Early Music Society of the Islands’ concert series. 

Dialogos, a widely celebrated early music ensemble from France, has fortunately added Victoria to its North American tour this fall, which also includes stops in Vancouver, New York, and Yale University in Connecticut. Four unaccompanied female voices comprise the group performing Swithun! Music from Winchester, c. 1000, which celebrates the miracles of England’s revered Saint Swithun.

Founded in 1997 by director and singer Katarina Livljani?, Dialogos’ website explains that the group’s projects “link new musicological research with an innovative approach to medieval music performance, a theatrical dimension, and an expressive musicality. Dialogos is composed of women’s or men’s vocal ensembles, depending on each specific project.”

The Early Music Society of the Island’s Artistic Director James Young says EMSI is especially excited to tack Victoria onto the group’s Vancouver leg, since their inventive performances and crystalline sound give voice to the most ancient Western polyphonic repertoire being performed today. “They’d been on our radar for a while,” he says. “They’re one of the most exciting European ensembles specializing in early music, and we were very happy to take advantage of this opportunity.”

Young says that EMSI’s mandate is to put together offerings that span eight centuries. “We try to include at least one Medieval program each year, and it’s almost always going to be vocal or largely vocal.” He compares what symphony-goers get—a sampling from about 200 years of music, all of it composed for symphonies—to the historical and cultural richness of early music programmes. “If you come to our 2015-16 season, there are 800 years of music there, everything from unaccompanied voices to fortepiano.”

Dialogos performs other early vocal repertoire as well, but Swithun! was the standout option Young wanted to introduce to Island audiences. “This is the one that grabbed me. It’s the earliest polyphony, and the fascinating stories about St Swithun– a medieval ‘superman’ cult figure of the 10th century—these were the appealing aspects of the programme that made us choose this one.”

Critics from across the globe have been wowed by Dialogos, and Swithun! specifically. Scotland’s Herald reported, “As an aural and visual experience it was one of the most moving events of this year’s Festival.” David Gordon Duke of the Vancouver Sun exclaimed, “I was astonished and delighted…” And the New York Times resolutely declared, “[Director] Ms Livljani? has assembled a work so magnificent and moving that its resemblance to what medieval listeners might have heard is beside the point.”

Swithun! is the earliest known preserved example of polyphony, and was composed in Winchester, England around 1050. “Wulfstan the Cantor” narrates the journey of a man plagued by visionary dreams, trying to outrun three Furies, and who ultimately finds salvation via Swithun, saint of all miracles. 

“What will make the program more accessible to the audience is the surtitles that appear above the singers to explain the story,” says Young. Some verses are in Latin, and some are in Anglo-Saxon, a language that is “essentially unintelligible to modern English speakers. Occasionally you’ll sort of get a word or a couple of words.”

The resonance of the hall is as much a part of the musical performance as the resonance of the voices in a concert such as this one, where four a capella singers will be the only sound in the room. Alix Goolden Hall will not disappoint on this front, says Young. “This is a super venue for this kind of music. Almost all the musicians we present love Alix Goolden; many have said it’s the best hall in Canada for this kind of music, and for this concert in particular, it’s just going to be spectacular.”

The scale of the hall, and the layout of the audience seating is another aspect of this concert that Young feels will leave those in attendance fully sated, both musically and emotionally. “All the seats have excellent sight lines because of the way they are in a semi circle. Everybody is very close to the artists, and it makes for a very intimate experience. It will be magical to hear it in this kind of space.”

Young feels that the performers are likely to feel the same. “I’m sure they’re going to rave about the acoustics in there. When you’re on tour, you never know what you’re going to wind up in. Many European artists who come through Victoria are very surprised to find out there is such a wonderful hall here in Victoria.”

The Romanesque revival, late-19th Century Methodist church was specifically designed for the congregation who commissioned the building, who had a strong music program as a foundational part of their services. Young says no matter what the intention, every space has its own unique character of sound reverberation, just as seemingly identical violins or guitars can have very different “voices.” “Even today, with modern science, it’s a bit of a crapshoot what the acoustics of a building will sound like once it’s built,” he says. “But this hall is absolutely ideal for early music.”

 

Early Music Society of the Islands presents Dialogos, performing “Swithun! Music from Winchester c.1000” on Saturday, Nov 14, 8pm Alix Goolden Hall. Doors open at 6:45 pm, pre-concert talk 7:10 pm. Tickets $30, at rmts.bc.ca or by calling 250-386-6121.

Mollie Kaye remembers her own magical a capella experience, hearing the Tallis Scholars perform Byrd’s Three Masses in a Gothic church in Rome during the summer of 1987.