Features / News

February 10, 2015

Anonymous 4: The Exit Interview (Sort of)

Anonymous 4 (from left): Marsha Genensky, Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek, Susan Hellauer, Ruth Cunningham. ‘To touch a life—what else is there?,’ asks Susan Hellauer. ‘It’s hard to resist the temptation to do that. We don’t make a million dollars, don’t always stay at first-class hotels, don’t fly first class, but we’re fine, it’s fine. There are really no complaints and the reward to me is incalculable.’

Anonymous 4 (from left): Marsha Genensky, Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek, Susan Hellauer, Ruth Cunningham. ‘To touch a life—what else is there?,’ asks Susan Hellauer. ‘It’s hard to resist the temptation to do that. We don’t make a million dollars, don’t always stay at first-class hotels, don’t fly first class, but we’re fine, it’s fine. There are really no complaints and the reward to me is incalculable.’


In 2004 Anonymous 4 announced—or hinted–it would be disbanding. The ensuing years have proven to be among the most fruitful of the groundbreaking early music quartet’s near-30-year career, leading your faithful friend and correspondent to suggest to the group’s Marsha Genensky, in a 2010 interview in this publication’s original incarnation as TheBluegrassSpecial.com, that A4 was akin to the musical version of Michael Jordan—retiring and then unretiring to win a couple more championships. She in turn suggested things were not what they seemed back then, or as they were reported.

Marsha Genensky: ‘The whole retirement thing, there’s a little bit of confusion about that.’

Marsha Genensky: ‘The whole retirement thing, there’s a little bit of confusion about that.’

“The whole retirement thing, there’s a little bit of confusion about that,” Ms. Genensky said. “We had decided to take a hiatus, it is true. And we had decided we would take a hiatus and do special projects. We didn’t actually say we were going to retire nor did we say we were going to break up. But that was the interpretation that was put upon it by the outside world. We really did intend to take a break, but we actually never did take a break. After we made our pre-planned announcement and went through our final year of touring, our American Angels CD came out. It hit number one on the classical chart, which is where our CDs go if they’re going on a chart. It hit number one and people loved it, and we loved it, and the last year of touring we spent touring that music. We were just so in love with it that we hated the idea of stopping doing it. So while we were very quiet for about a year, I was researching the music for Gloryland. Then we just couldn’t stand it. We didn’t want to be on special projects only, so our special projects have taken more time than we thought, and we’re still enjoying recording and touring and we’re actually planning more programs of medieval music and a third program of American music. We have a new music commission for next year, to be performed during our 25th anniversary season.”

Well, that was then and this is now, 2015, which A4 has announced will positively, absolutely mark the beginning of the group’s final season of touring and recording. The concert schedule takes them into 2016, but their final album, the extraordinary 1865: Songs of Hope and Home From the American Civil War (this week’s Deep Roots Album of the Week) is presumably their final will and testament on disc. As Ms. Genensky told NPR’s Tom Huizenga, “A couple of us have projects that have become large enough that they are taking over, in a happy way. And a couple of us are ready to move into a different lifestyle.” To that end, Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek is entering Juilliard’s doctoral voice program, whereas resident historian Susan Hellauer is overseeing the website ChantVillage.com, “a website for those who love chant—singing chant, listening to chant and learning about chant”; Ruth Cunningham is pursuing her work with private clients as a sound healer; and Ms. Genensky is looking forward to teaching more workshops in forming music communities.

Susan Hellauer

Susan Hellauer

To mark the final chapter of A4’s glorious journey we’ve gone back into TheBluegrassSpecial.com archives and reviewed two cover story interviews, one with Ms. Genensky from the December 2010 Christmas issue, the other with Ms. Hellauer from the November 2011 issue, the latter keyed to the release of the group’s Secret Voices: Chant & Polyphony from the Las Huelgas Codex C1300 CD and its 25th anniversary to boot. In both interviews the women of A4 discuss not only the quartet’s current albums but also look back over their achievements and guiding philosophy. Pulling out only those latter questions and answers provides a faux “exit interview,” if you will, in which the principals most deeply involved in the historical research informing every A4 project reflect on what was, at the time, a most remarkable quarter-century of making medieval music and early American popular and gospel music accessible to 20th and 21st century ears.






‘To do the kind of work Anonymous 4 does, I think it’s just Heaven on Earth’


Anonymous 4, ‘Shining Shore,’ from Gloryland (2006), with Darol Anger (guitar)


Twenty-five years ago Anonymous 4 got together in the wake of Johanna’s work with a musical ensemble participating in a medieval culture workshop at a monastery. Where did the other three of you come from to form the original Anonymous 4? Were you also at the workshop? Were you all friends? How did the original core four come together?

Susan Hellauer (SH): Friends and colleagues. The world of early music was and still is a small world. So everybody sort of knew each other from freelancing in the same Renaissance choirs and churches that concentrated on Early Music. So people just ran into each other and you ended up singing on the same jobs and all that. I think the impulse was partly from that, but also, I have to say, as you get older, as you mature in the field of Early Music, there’s a real tendency, the longer you work with conductors, to start to think about interpretation; to start to think about contextualizing things or how to put a show together rather than “a string of my favorite pieces about springtime.” There’s a better way to present music. I think all of us at the beginning, independently, had those two feelings—independence from a single conductor and more of a collegial way of working; and also toward a different kind of presentation of the music. Same songs that somebody else might present, but creating some kind of context, to take people someplace else during our shows instead of just presenting one song after another as a beautiful song. That’s good; there’s nothing wrong with that, but there’s a better way. That’s not something somebody had to tell us we should think; it sort of came with it. And I’m sure lots of other musicians who start little groups have the same kind of feeling. How many groups start every year? Thousands and thousands and thousands. And how many take root, where the roots really go down and something grows? Maybe a dozen out of those thousands, every year. So there has to be a real shared passion.

Anonymous 4, Gloria: Spiritus et alme, from the Mass section of Secret Voices: Chant & Polyphony from the Las Huelgas Codex C1300

I know all the individual members have come to this having worked in other styles before, but going back to when you formed the group, was there a model for what became Anonymous 4?

Marsha Genensky (MG): We didn’t actually follow a model. At the time there were some really lovely groups out there that we enjoyed. There was Sequentia http://www.sequentia.org/, based in Germany, that had both a men’s and a women’s ensemble—the Sequentia women’s ensemble may have been the only women’s ensemble active that focused on medieval music. There was also the Hilliard Ensemble http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hilliard_Ensemble, a male vocal ensemble that is still active today. And there is Gothic Voices http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gothic_Voices, a small group of men and women still active that has a quite famous recording of the music of Hildegard of Bingam [Ed. Note: A Feather On the Breath of God, available at www.amazon.com http://www.amazon.com/Feather-Breath-God-Hildegard-Bingen/dp/B000002ZGD). They were all out there, and we loved them all, but each of these groups was seeking its own interpretations of a variety of medieval repertoires that we were interested in, and were finding their own thing that we came to call “unity of intent.” It didn’t necessarily turn out to be the same way of performing a particular repertoire that we ended up with, but that we appreciated and respected; we liked the fact that each of these ensembles could come up with a different solution. And more groups have come up since, and there are more women’s ensembles than there were at that time. When we first started, there was a misapprehension that female voices couldn’t sing medieval music, because in the Middle Ages women were not allowed to sing. That was only partly true: women were not allowed to sing professionally in the public cathedrals, but women would have sung in the privacy of the convents, the sacred music, and there are manuscripts containing both chants and part music that live in convents that are equally singable by equal voices whether male or female. So we’re pretty sure women did sing this music, so that 20th Century misapprehension about women not singing this music was probably not accurate. It was nice to be able to go ahead and show people that it sounds beautiful in higher voices as well as lower, and that, yes, women could and probably did sing that music in the Middle Ages.

Promotional video for Anonymous 4’s 2014 album, Marie et Marion, Montpellier Codex, c. 1300

In her liner notes to another A4 album, Susan notes that no one really knows what medieval singing sounded like, since even surviving sheet music indicates nothing in the way of directions for singers. Can you define what you’ve arrived at as a group as a “medieval” sound? What are its defining elements?

MG: The most important thing for us, no matter what repertoire we’re singing, is to come up with what we’ve come to call a “unity of intent.” Music in unison, or whether we’re singing in two parts, three parts, we all need to agree on where a phrase is going, where’s the important part of the phrase, where’s the important part of the stanza or the section of the piece, and where’s the high point of the piece, and we need to all travel there musically and find technical ways to make that express itself. So if we’re singing chant, of course, we’re all singing it together and we have to sound like we all mean the same thing. That’s where it’s really most important, when we’re actually all singing together the same thing at the same time, without a beat or a measure. To find a way to do that together is really a challenge and a really transformative experience to come up with unity of intent. It’s a little easier, actually, when you have more than one part and when you’ve got rhythm.

Is it more difficult singing the medieval songs as opposed to more contemporary, country-flavored material of the type you did on American Angels and Gloryland, or the 1917 Kentucky arrangement of “Cherry Tree Carol”?

MG: Well, when you refer to “Cherry Tree Carol,” that’s something I sing on my own, so that’s my challenge to myself (laughs). But for us to sing a gospel song, a contemporary or near-contemporary gospel song, there’s something easy about that, and there’s something less easy about it too. The easier thing is that we do have other people we can listen to, but that also means we also have to find our own “corporate” voice, or own group voice that sets us apart while singing something that many others have sung before. Take the gospel song “I’ll Fly Away.” That’s been recorded about 17 million times. We want to find our own way of doing it that represents the song yet represents us. So we have the favor of having heard it, but we have the challenge of having heard it sung by others.

From 2003’s Wolcum Yule (Celtic and British Songs and Carols), Anonymous 4 performs ‘The Cherry Tree Carol’

In the case of medieval music, sometimes it’s really a challenge. Some of it, especially 12th Century and earlier, has not only no indication of how loud, how soft, how high, how low, to start the piece, but not any indication of what the rhythm is, although it’s clear there has to be some rhythm. We have to guesstimate, and our guesstimation may be different from the guesstimation another group looking at the same repertoire might make. That’s a huge challenge, but on the other hand, if we think it works and we’re convinced by it, and we can convince our audience of it, that’s a fun thing. It almost allows us to co-create, in a certain way. So in a sense, it gives us a certain freedom that we don’t have when we sing something that’s in a living tradition.

Legends of Saint Nicholas was the first live project you did together. Were you considering yourselves a dedicated group at that point and looking to move forward into other projects, or did you think Legends of St. Nicholas might be it and everyone would go on and do what they would do?

SH: You know, that’s funny. I think we did consider ourselves a group. That came really fast. The first thing we did was a church service on August 3, 1986. I still have a little manila folder with the music in it. It’s a variety of medieval pieces that would fit in with that church service. I guess it was summertime and the choir was off, but a couple of us sang in the choir, so we said we would do something for that day. We did, and it really caught fire. The feeling was one of independently taking the music, deciding how it goes, deciding how to present it, how it’s going to sound, how our voices are going to interact, as a collegial project, without one person saying, “Okay, you sing this, you sing that, not too fast, not too slow.” Nobody was squelched. Nobody had to defer to anybody. The only deferring that might happen is if somebody has a special expertise in the repertoire. Then you might defer to that person for contextual information or other things about the text or about the use of it. But in terms of how it goes, how we sing it, that’s up to all of us.

Anonymous 4, ‘Veni Spiritus Etermorum,’ from The Origin of Fire: Music and Visions of Hildegard von Bingen (2005)

No other group or artist has done more than A4 to resurrect the work of Hildegard of Bingam—you’re almost solely responsible for her even being remembered today. Was she not the first female singer of note recorded in history, in the sense of showing up in the history books, not, obviously, on records?

MG: She’s the first one whose name we have. But in the Middle Ages nobody signed their musical works. We have almost no names at all, male or female, from the Middle Ages. Because in that time it was thought to be hubris to sign your own musical work. You were supposed to give up your musical work, your artistic work, to the glory of God, and anything else was considered to be hubris. The only reason we have Hildegard’s name is that she was very famous as a politician, as a mystic and as an herbal medical person. Her musical works are not signed. We only have a few other names from the Middle Ages, and that’s because somebody else wrote about those people, not because they signed their own musical works. There are so few names from Hildegard’s time and sooner, that the fact that she is the first female name we have may or may not be significant. There’s no way to know.

Most of the musical works are anonymous.

MG: Yes.

Hence, Anonymous 4.

MG: That’s part of the joke. There’s another part. The other part of the joke is that even as composers of the Middle Ages didn’t sign their work, people who wrote treatises about music did not sign their work for the same reason. So there are these various anonymous treatises from the Middle Ages describing music as it was composed and performed in the Middle Ages, and a musicologist in the 19th Century put them in what he believe to be chronological order, these treatises, and named them Anonymous 1, 2, 3, 4, etcetera. And Anonymous 4 is the designation for the treatise in which some names are named, including Léonin and Pérotin, the most famous of the Parisian composers from the golden age of polyphony at Notre Dame. So it basically was a treatise about music, musicians and music theory describing music around 1200. That designation is used to talk about the treatise itself, and the maker of the treatise. So we’re named after that person/that treatise. And most of the music is anonymous, and there are four of us. So there you go.

Anonymous 4, ‘Sweet Hour of Prayer,’ from the chart topping American Angels (2004)

Talk about contextualization! Your liner booklets are critical to helping people understand where the music came from and the society it came out of. Each time I read one I wonder were you studying this history before the group even got together? Or did you take it up after the group formed?

SH: Yes, it’s very important. I have a Master’s in music history from Queens College, City University of New York, and I also have an MPhil, which is how Columbia University politely says, “didn’t quite write the dissertation” (laughs), in Medieval Musicology. In fact, when I was at Columbia I made a big hoo-ha about the fact that the Medieval Ph.D. courses you had to take did not include anything about literature, about Latin palaeography, about Provençal poetry, art history, all of these things that are and were back then so crucial to a musicologist. A musicologist studying a manuscript has to know about the illumination. Some of the most famous research articles and works and dissertations in musicology have dealt with things that are completely extra-musical, like the quality or type of paper, the type of illumination, the liturgical context, the language that those little notes in the margin are written in. So there’s so many extra-musical things that I militated for—I was very strong in saying, “You have to allow people to do this.” They finally let me out and said, “Shut up already and take the course. We’ll count it.” Now, I was just speaking to someone from Columbia who said, “Columbia has this really amazing program and really hard because you have to take art history, you have to take Medieval poetry, Latin palaeography, they don’t make you just take music courses all day.” I said, “Oh, very interesting.”

Countless students have followed in your wake, and look what you’ve done to them.

And good for them, because they’ll have more weapons at their command when they go out there to deal with the actual source material. It really broadens you. I know I should finish the Ph.D., and my 89-year-old mother, bless her heart, says, “You’re never going to be Dr. Hellauer, are you?” And I say, “Well, mom, I think it’s a little too late.” But I never regretted anything. I had a family, I had to go to work—I was a computer programmer for twelve years in the telecom industry, I’ve been around the block in that way in work and in life and I really know what a privilege it is to go to the library. To do the research. To do the kind of work Anonymous 4 does, I think it’s just Heaven on Earth. For me, anyway, for how I was trained and my inclinations. I love to be in the library, but it means nothing to me if it’s not brought to life.

From 1994’s Love’s Illusion, Anonymous 4 perform Plus bele que flor/Quant revient/L’autrier joer [Flos Filius] (Mo 21). Filmed and recorded at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin on West 46th Street in Manhattan

Using Secret Voices as an example, how does a recording project start? Did you do the research that we read about in the liner notes thoroughly before you presented it to the other three? What’s the timeline on your finding this material, researching it and presenting it to the rest of the group and actually starting to rehearse and getting into recording?

SH: Some of our projects are a single manuscript project, where we focus in on a single manuscript. This one’s very famous and I’ve known about it since graduate school days. It was discovered accidentally in the early 1900s by the Cielos monks over in Spain, who were looking for chant manuscripts and came upon this thing with a mixture of one-, two-, three- and four-part music. But why did the nuns have it? Were they singing polyphony? So it always had that intrigue about it, and I knew about it. In fact, we did some pieces from it when we were just starting out. There’s some great music in there—it’s like a compendium of the best thirteenth century music, like an anthology. So we did pieces from it but I never wanted to do a program from it because I didn’t want us to get typecast as a women’s music group. Very early on we avoided Hildegard and we avoided this Las Huelgas manuscript, which is associated with a convent and women singing polyphony. Now it wouldn’t be such a big deal, but back then, in the mid-‘80s, we might have heard, “Oh, it’s women’s liberation choir!” Nothing wrong with that; it’s fine—ask my husband! But it’s not what I wanted to do with the group—I had that feeling very strongly and the others did too. But I just didn’t want to get pigeonholed, didn’t want to be “they’re the women who sing women’s music.” We started deliberately by avoiding it. But it was always in the back of my mind and the rest of them always knew that one day, at one time, we would do a program of it. It’s such an unusual and well-known manuscript source in medieval circles, it’s been recorded a lot, by all sorts of fabulous groups. We really had to do something different. I actually used a discography, when there was a choice, to try to pick the pieces that had not been recorded. So I picked the theme of Mary and life in the convent before I actually looked at the discography—those two threads really hold it together, it’s like a liturgical day in the musical framework, then pieces in honor of the Virgin Mary is the thematic frame. So they work together like that. There’s a natural progression, which is always important to us in our programs, that you start somewhere and you go someplace. People should feel like they’ve been on a journey with us.

Anonymous 4, with Darol Anger, ‘Wayfaring Stranger,’ from Gloryland (2008)

So we all really knew about this for many, many years, right back to the beginning, but it kept taking a back seat, partly because it’s been recorded a lot, partly because it’s so woman connected. But a new facsimile came out in 1999 or the early 2000s, and it was so beautiful. I was more or less pretty much dissatisfied with the rhythmic transcriptions that existed already in the scholarly literature and editions. The rhythmic way of transcribing struck me as wrong and I knew I would have to put my head down and re-transcribe everything. I was fortunate enough to correspond with a musicologist who wrote a companion edition to that Spanish facsimile, an English scholar named Nicholas Bell. I just wanted to run my ideas of the rhythmic meaning of the notation by him, and lo and behold, thank goodness, he had the same idea. Though he didn’t do any transcriptions, he had the same idea, that the notation is late, around 1300, and when they’re writing down pieces from 1210 or 1225, or when they’re writing down monophonic music, the notation doesn’t have the same meaning as it does for later pieces. With that, because I’m not a full-time musicologist—I know where to go, I know how to do this stuff, I know how to transcribe—when there’s a question like that, a fly in the ointment, I’ll consult with somebody. Musicologists now, as opposed to 25, 30 years ago, are way more generous with their time, their thoughts, their ideas. They want to hear this stuff played, whereas a long time ago musicologists, if it wasn’t published yet, would be very keechy about what they thought. They just wouldn’t tell you what they really thought because they didn’t want us to say, “We want to thank Nicholas Bell for his advice and help,” only to have some other musicologist say, “You told them what?! You idiot!” They get very worked up over what I would call—I won’t say nothing—but very small details. Of course it’s a small world, a closed system, a tight community of people who study and think for a living. I do that partly for a living, but the other part is I try to make it come to life as if it could not have gone any other way. People should have the feeling while we’re singing that this is the way the music went and it could not have gone any other way, even though I and we all know that we have no idea. There’s fragmentary information about vocal style, tempo, ornamentation, vocal tone. There are scraps of information in treatises about that but not much. It’s not all from one place, either—this guy in Spain said this, this guy in England said that. And also, if you’ve never heard western music and you read a review of a concert of western music, you would have no idea what that sound was that the person’s talking about. You have to have a sonic reference point to unlock a verbal discussion of musical sound.

This fragmentary evidence, is it in the form of musical notation? 

SH: These are statements in musical treatises. Sometimes it’s poetry, sometimes it’s a traveler’s description of what she or he heard some place, things like that, so that it goes from technical in a treatise to using words like “a pure, clear sound should be used” and things like “you can slow down a little at the end.” There was a big fad in I think it was the ‘70s or ‘80s in Renaissance and Baroque music of having no ritards, so everything just sort of hit the wall! (laughs) Because there are fads and fashions in performance practice. We’re too close to really see it, but there are fads and fashions in performance practice itself. So people think, I know how Bach wanted this to go: it should be this many people playing at this really fast tempo and whatever. And yet there are all these technical elements, but what about the spirit? What about the love and the emotion behind it? There’s sooo much we don’t know. I’ve read a lot of what people have had to say about how to sing, or how singing sounds, and it adds up to a big, fat goose egg. The only thing consistent is that your words should be clear for the various repertoires of medieval music done in public. Let your words be clear! And that’s why we don’t sing that high. We don’t go up into the high register that often when there’s enunciation to do, because then you start noticing the pear-shaped tones or whatever and not what we’re trying to tell you.

From Anonymous 4’s second album (and first Christmas album), 1993’s On Yoolis Night: Medieval Carols & Motets, ‘Peperit virgo.’ The album is a “programme of plainchant, songs, motets and carols for Christmas from English sources of the 13th through 15th centuries.

And how do you find the spirit or the soul of the song? So many people I know who like Anonymous 4 remark about how soulful the group sounds. Obviously you get there.

SH: Partly you have to discover both the personality of the program you’re putting together, the personality of each individual piece, and what role that plays within the larger dramatic musical “thing” you’re presenting. It’s like a family with all different people in it: they all contribute, and they have genetic similarities, but they also have different quirks and meanings and uses and ways of doing things. So with each piece, you unearth its personality. Now, we don’t know how it went, so the text is our main guide, and then certain aspects of the internal speed of the notation. How small are the smallest notes? How fast can you sing those small notes? Are they ornamental small notes or are they meaningful small notes? Are they decorative filigree, or are they actually structural? There’s a lot of analysis that goes on—chord harmonic analysis, although you don’t really say that in medieval music but, you know, the speed of the chord changes, as we would call them in modern parlance. The harmonic speed; the melodic surface texture has a lot to do with it; and the text. Then its place in the program. And then, when you find that personality—you mentioned Frank Sinatra. When he got a brand-new song, he would not allow himself to hear the tune until he had lived with the lyrics for a long time, maybe a week or two, and learned it as poetry, learned it as a completely verbal expression of something—some emotion, some need, some feeling, some event—and then put the music to it. That’s a lot of how we work.

But remember, we have recordings of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra playing “Rhapsody In Blue” before Gershwin wrote it. In fact, it even occurs in a movie called The King of Jazz. And if you watch and listen to them play, it has this slanted 1920s jazzy tempo, really bouncy, really fast, not a lot of loose-limbed blues like we have now—totally different. But here we have a recording of what was actually in the composer’s mind. Why don’t we always play it like that? Because the audience is part of your performance. You can’t discount them, can’t put them behind a soundproof glass so they watch you like museum pieces. They’re in it; they’re in it with you. And if you don’t bring them toward you, it’s just a museum artifact. So we use our modern intuition. We use tuning things, where we try to use just intonation as we can, but you know, the thirds and sixths, maybe they’re tempered, I don’t know. We try not to get insane about that. We’re very insane about our fourths, fifths and octaves but less insane about the imperfect controls. We don’t want people to notice that we’re doing something, except communicating the text and the spirit of the particular piece that they’re hearing now.

‘O Maria O Felix Puerpera (Conductus),’ Anonymous 4, from the 2002 album Le bele Marie: Songs to the Virgin from 13th Century France

Anonymous 4 has recorded so many of the songs from ancient times, and I’m sure studied even more than you’ve recorded. What have the songs taught you about the people of those early times?

MG: Well the one thing we know is that we like the 21st Century because we like our bathrooms, we like our showers, and all of that. But really, more seriously, one of the things we have learned we have to take from what was written down; and of course most of what was written down in the Middle Ages was the sacred stuff because the people who knew how to read and write tended to be clerics. They had kind of an exclusive right, other than nobility, on that learning option. So most of what we sing is therefore sacred. One of the things we have learned is, no matter what our religious or ethnic background, or religious choice or belief, we have to be persuaded by the power of the faith of the people who wrote these texts and this music. It’s just so worldly and yet otherworldly and so persuasive that we have to be persuaded by the faith. Whatever we choose to believe we have to believe in that faith. Which is a different thing from belonging to a religion.

From American Angels (2004), A4’s first recording of Robert Lowry’s ‘Shall We Gather at the River.’ A new version of the song is featured on A4’s final album, 1865: Songs of Hope and Home from the American Civil War.

There is always a storyline accompanying an Anonymous 4 album. Each one of your Christmas albums has explored a different facet of seasonal music. The Cherry Tree repertoire ranges from 14th-15th Century British and Irish works into the 20th Century, with your 1917 arrangement of the title song. What was the process by which you arrived at this selection of material?

MG: This one is a really different one for us, as you’ve already mentioned. We usually have a theme, and we usually got a time and a place, or to a particular manuscript in the case of our medieval programs, to tie together our programs. But this one, we decided to make as a bridge between two of our interests. One of those interests is 15th Century English carols—we just love English medieval music; we think it’s the best. But then we think everything else is the best, too, but we just love that music! And then, in recent years, as a group we’ve come to love American music. And there is a bridge between England and America, so that was the original concept for The Cherry Tree.

The way we started was by looking at “The Cherry Tree Carol,” which is the source of the CD’s title. “The Cherry Tree Carol” is a very, very old English ballad. In fact it’s so old they’re not sure if it was first spoken or sung when it was first performed. It was first performed as part of the Coventry Plays in England around 1400. It was an oral tradition, it was sung in England, it was brought over to the colonies along with other ballads and fiddle tunes and such. Many, many American versions of “The Cherry Tree Carol” arose, and I sing one that was made after it was collected, in Kentucky in 1917.

So that carol basically makes the bridge—you can literally watch it travel from 15th Century England to early America and continue to have a life in America as well as in England. So that’s the basis, and in that carol is told this wonderful, miraculous story in which Mary sees a cherry tree and wants some cherries. She’s pregnant and can’t get them, and asks Joseph to get them for her. And he says, “Let the father of the baby get some cherries”—clearly he’s not on the plan yet. So up speaks the baby from inside Mary’s womb, down bends the cherry tree, and doubting Joseph doubts no more. That’s the original story from the Middle Ages, and it comes to America in the same way in our various American versions. It has certain counterparts in 15th Century English carols. The story’s not told exactly like that, but there are stories of doubting Joseph advised to doubt no more. And we have some of those stories as told in medieval English carols. So the story happens in both ways in the program, and then we have this wonderful variety of textures between the 15th Century English carols and the various American tunes that we intersperse with them, each of which has some kind of English roots. Obviously “The Cherry Tree Carol” has very direct roots; in the case of the other pieces, there is either an English sound being imitated or there’s actually music that comes from England, and I believe all the texts for all the American songs are English.

‘Gabriel: Fram Heven King,’ Anonymous 4 from the 1993 album On Yoolis Night: Medieval Carols & Motets

To veer away from The Cherry Tree for an instant, your Christmas albums are heavily weighted towards the English carols as you mentioned but you also have explored Christmas music from medieval Hungary, on your 1996 album, A Star In the East. How did that interest develop?

MG: That actually was literally an accident. My colleague Susan Hellauer was the library and she was looking for a volume of music by Hildegard of Bingen and as she was trying to pull the book out of the tightly packed shelf, another book fell out on her foot. And it was the only existing volume of medieval Hungarian music. Hungarian polyphony, or music in parts, has mostly been lost because of the various invasions, during which all cultural artifacts were destroyed—visual arts, musical arts, etcetera, everything was destroyed. The only part music from Hungary that survived is music that was smuggled out to other countries. This was a volume of that music, and it fell on her feet.

A “Eureka!” moment!

MG: Yes! From there we went on to contact a couple of the major specialists in Hungarian music who are still in Hungary and got a little bit of input from there, and we were able to put together a really fabulous program of really strange music from Hungary, some of which resembles western European music, and some of which sort of does but has its own little musical dialect. There are all these fabulous little things that make the music very different from western European music, even though the basic skeleton of the music is the same.

How important was the lyrical content to your choice of material for The Cherry Tree? I ask this understanding that a lot of this had to be translated. But were you looking for hymns and carols with a specific message to impart?

MG: We were definitely looking for the story of Mary and Joseph and the baby and definitely pieces that involved Mary as much as possible. That’s a little less possible with American tunes, because American texts tend not to be so Mary-oriented. But at least for the medieval carols and for “The Cherry Tree Carol” itself we really wanted to focus on the Mary side of the story. And we wanted to be able to tell as much of that story of Mary and Joseph and the baby as possible. Not every piece actually does that. But those that don’t do say happy things around it in a lyrical fashion rather than in a narrative fashion. So yes, the texts were very important. Speaking of language, of course the American pieces are in modern English, but the medieval English carols are in Middle English, which is an earlier form of English, and you can almost but not quite understand it if you are a modern English speaker. It does require translation, but you kind of get the point (laughs), so we were able to select the pieces based on getting the point, then we were able to translate them more accurately later on.

Glad tidings! From 2010’s The Cherry Tree, Anonymous 4 perform William Billings’s fuging tune, ‘Bethlehem’

Unless there’s some minor classical artist that I have yet to uncover, it appears the only other artist whose Christmas catalogue rivals the Anonymous 4’s, both in quantity and quality, is Frank Sinatra’s. That’s the league you’re in.

MG: Oooohhhhh, Frank Sinatra! There is one thing about touring in the U.S. and the thing is every year we’re asked, “What are you going to do at Christmas?” No matter what other new for us stuff we’re planning, they say, “What are you going to do at Christmas?” We can’t do the same Christmas stuff every year, and Christmas is such a fabulous time to be on the road and doing concerts—people are in such a festive mood. And so we’ve just needed more of them, and there’s a lot of really great stuff out there. I agree with you—it’s really one of the most fun sets of really diverse repertoire from everywhere and every time. It’s just a fun time to be singing music and to be hearing music. It’s a favorite time for me too.

SH: That’s so funny! My goodness. Because we tend to concentrate on English music very often, we fell in love with the sound, first. The English loved Christmas; they really adored the whole concept of Christmas. So we’ve got three English Christmas records. Christmas was sort of a feast day all over Europe, but it’s really in the British Isles that Christmas became almost as big as Easter. Probably, early Christianity, the people who promulgated it, were very, very smart and put feasts on top of existing Pagan feasts. Not just in the years two, or 20, or 40, or 200, but ongoing, into the Middle Ages, feasts were moved around. The Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary in the early Middle Ages was in the wintertime and it was moved to August 15, which was fabulous because it’s a harvest feast called Lamas in England. So you have these things, wherever that Feast might have been a higher or a more important Pagan feast, the Christian feast that gets pasted on it will definitely take on some of that importance. I’m not an anthropologist so I can’t tell you exactly but you can feel the excitement in the music in the British Isles that you don’t quite get as much of—or not as much repertoire—on the Continent.

So Nicholas was the first real program that we put together where people would come and hear us sing. We would print programs and we had little stories in it, we did narrative readings, even acted out a little play—I can’t even believe we did that—but it was part of our exploration of how we were different, how we could be different from everybody else. Contextualizing was always our ace in the hole that set us apart from other people. We didn’t record Nicholas right away. [Ed. Note: Legends of St. Nicholas was released in 1999.] We actually waited awhile. The very earliest programs we tended to change a lot as we went along, as we figured out what worked better, what didn’t work as well, where we wanted to focus. The earlier programs we tended to record a little bit later. The first two we didn’t record right away. I think it was the third program, An English Ladymass (1993), which we recorded first.

From 1993’s On Yoolis Night: Medieval Carols & Motets, Anonymous 4 perform ‘Lullay, lullay, Als I lay on Yoolis night’

When you look back over the past quarter-century, can you say you’ve achieved what you had hoped for the group? What’s your take on 25 years of Anonymous 4 history?

SH: You know, I’m very grateful to have made a modern, middle class living out of it. First of all, that’s amazing, just in terms of Early Music performance. We all do other things, too. We teach privately and in schools and Ruth does music and healing, so we’re not one hundred percent full time. Back in 2003 we decided to stop being full time and to stop developing programs at the rate we were developing them. We sort of took a break from that. On the other hand, then, right then, unbeknownst to us, American Angels came around. The recording company said, “You want to do what?” I said, “I want to take a break from making recordings. We have an expert, Marsha, in American traditional music, I heard some [William] Billings and some shape note music on a radio program and said, “I think we could do that. I think we’d sound good doing that, actually.” But I had no knowledge. I came up with the name of the program and the idea–that was it—and then handed it over to Marsha. The recording company goes, “Ohhh, oh, okay, if you insist.” So in 2002 we made that recording, didn’t think that much about it, hoped somebody would buy it, and it’s our only recording to have gone to Number One on the Billboard chart. Still, whenever we sing some music from it, I get this big, happy smile on my face, and I hope we can do another one in the future, a third in a series of American projects. And then, because that went to Number One, we had to support it. People really wanted it. We were happy to go out on tour and sing it, and then do another American project [Gloryland, 2006]. So our original plan was upended by the unexpected success of American Angels. We couldn’t say, “We’d rather stay home,” because our original plan, what we originally set out to do, was to bring little known or unknown repertoires to a large number of people.

Now, our first concert had twelve, maybe fifteen people, but you still had the feeling that you wanted people to hear things they hadn’t heard or some things that they had heard but in a new way, a new sound, a new context, and to take our always very individual, very different sounding voices and put them together and make them blend not by forcing ourselves to sing the same vowels or all that kind of barbershop stuff, but to have a unity. I shouldn’t disparage barbershop because, honestly, I can’t believe what they do! A good barbershop group actually floors me. But you know, I mean in terms of making sure every vowel is exactly the same and the declamation being identical. To us the blend comes more from a flow, a unity of intent, that we all feel the same about the musical lines and where they’re going. So that’s what creates the blend, not the sound of our voices. And you know, that’s something that maybe people don’t hear that often, in terms of a blend.

We were in Guadalajara a couple of days ago. There was a travel advisory and not all of us were doing cartwheels of happiness about going to some place where things are being blown up. But we went. There was a big fiesta out in the square for the end of the Pan American Games, a big mariachi band, but they sort of quieted down when we started singing in this beautiful theater. It wasn’t packed—because there was this huge festival going on at the same time–but there were a lot of people there and there was a family in the front row with two little kids who were just beaming from ear to ear through the whole show. I looked at them and said, “That’s it. That’s why I’m here.” That’s a reason to get on the plane and make sure nobody’s shooting at you. To touch a life—what else is there? It’s hard to resist the temptation to do that. We don’t make a million dollars, don’t always stay at first-class hotels, don’t fly first class, but we’re fine, it’s fine. There are really no complaints and the reward to me is incalculable.