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November 8, 2023

A-Caroling They Go

Anonymous 4 (from left): Ruth Cunningham, Marsha Genensky, Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek, Susan Hellauer. Of the ancient sacred songs in A4’s repertoire, Marsha Genensky explains: ‘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. We have to be persuaded by the faith. Whatever we choose to believe we have to believe in that faith.’


Adding to their formidable Christmas catalogue of medieval carols, the women of Anonymous 4 add an Appalachian twist to their album of ancient English and Irish texts, The Cherry Tree. An interview with Marsha Genensky.


By David McGee

(From the archive of, December 2011)


The American a cappella quartet Anonymous 4 is hardly the only practitioner of medieval music, but thanks to their chart busting explorations of 18th and 19th Century American folk and gospel music, American Angels: Songs of Hope, Redemption & Glory (2004) and Gloryland (with fiddle, mandolin and guitar accompaniment by Mike Marshall and Darol Anger, 2006) Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellauer, Ruth Cunningham and Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek have achieved a prominence outside the classical realm unrivaled by any of its classical contemporaries. (The original lineup included Johanna Marie Rose rather than Horner-Kwiatek. In 1998, Cunningham left and was replaced by Horner-Kwiatek. In 2008, Cunningham returned to the group in place of Johanna Marie Rose.) Moreover, A4 does not merely sing its chants, motets, antiphons, and hymns with impeccable integrity–observing the form and structure of the compositions as can best be determined from the ofttimes minimal instructions left by the mostly anonymous early music composers–but with a deep sense of each piece’s origins, and the history of the period informing it. Ms. Hellauer has taken on the role of chief historical researcher, as evidenced by her erudite program notes accompanying most every A4 release, explaining the stories and indeed the period perspective informing the sentiments expressed in each selection. Ms. Genensky’s expertise in Middle English has been an invaluable asset to the group in translating some of the material A4 is considering for a particular album project.

As much as Anonymous 4 contributed to our understanding of early music, the quartet may well have provided its most valuable service in advancing our understanding of the earliest documented musical pieces honoring the Christmas celebration. Five albums’ worth of such explorations now grace the A4 catalogue, beginning with 1993’s acclaimed On Yoolis Night: Medieval Carols & Motets, followed by A Star In the East: Medieval Hungarian Christmas Music (1996), Legends of St. Nicholas: Medieval Chant & Polyphony (1999), Wolcum Yule: Celtic and British Songs and Carols (2003) and their 2010 gem, The Cherry Tree: Songs, Carols & Ballads for Christmas. (A Star In the East is an achievement of note, in that most Hungarian polyphony has been lost forever, destroyed by various invading armies along with much of the country’s other cultural artifacts. A volume smuggled out of the country, the lone remaining source of medieval Hungarian music, provided the texts for the A4 album.)

‘I Saw a Swete Semly Syght,’ from Anonymous 4’s first Christmas album, On Yoolis Night: Medieval Carols & Motets

The Cherry Tree has a different storyline, if you will, than previous A4 Christmas albums, in that its repertoire is drawn from 15th Century English sources and 19th Century American works alike–Wolcum Yule meets Gloryland, in a sense. By and large, the narratives of these songs are centered on the story of Mary, Joseph and the Christ child. In an authoritative article in the current issue of Listen Magazine, “From Christemasse to Carole: The Birth of Christmas In Medieval England,” David Vernier notes: “No subject related to Christmas gets more attention than the adoration of the Virgin Mary. According to Anonymous 4’s Susan Hellauer, ‘Nowhere was her cult stronger than in the British Isles.’ Hellauer observes that so much of medieval English song and poetry is devoted to Mary, the incarnation and the virgin birth that ‘it sometimes seems as if it were the English who gave form and substance to the celebration of Christmas.’”

In addition to 15th century polyphonic and monophonic ballad-carols such as “Nowel syng we both al and som” and “Newell–tydings trew” (as well as a pair of 14th Century Irish carols, “Prophetarum presignata” and “Salve mater misericodie”), The Cherry Tree incorporates a trio of 19th Century American carols of southern extraction. As Ms. Genensky writes in her portion of the program notes, “’The Shepherd’s Star’ (1835) and ‘A Star in the East,’ both using the same texts by the English clergyman and hymnodist, Reginald Heber, were either adapted from oral tradition or newly composed, and arranged in spare, archaic sounding three-part settings typical of their time, yet vaguely reminiscent of medieval harmony.” Of the other American tune, “A Virgin Unspotted,” Ms. Genensky observes that it was “imported to American in the second quarter of the 18th century as part of a movement to ‘improve singing’ in the Colonies. William Knapp’s four-part setting the anonymous 17th-century English text was published in London in 1743, and first appeared in an American publication just before the American Revolution.” Of the title song, a much beloved carol, Ms. Hellauer writes: “This ballad originates in medieval England; we know that it was spoken or sung during the Coventry Plays for the Feast of Corpus Christi, around 1400. ‘The Cherry Tree Carol’ was passed on from singer to singer in the British Isles for hundreds of years, and eventually established roots in America, as well. ‘The Cherry Tree Carol’ also made its way into medieval British carols of the mid-fifteenth century.” Yet, on this recording, “The Cherry Tree Carol” is not presented in its 15th Century iteration, but rather in a solo performance by Ms. Genensky based on a 1917 arrangement from Kentucky’s Appalachian region. The other American tunes are performed according to arrangements published in the 19th Century Southern songbook, The Southern Harmony (1835).

Anonymous 4’s The Cherry Tree: Songs, Carols & Ballads for Christmas

So indeed, the past–European and American both–comes alive again in the passions, spirit and scholarship of these women who call themselves Anonymous 4, who reach not for a rote interpretation of ancient texts, but instead seek the spiritual center of their stories. To the question Charles Dickens poses in his essay reprinted in this issue, “What Christmas Is As We Grow Older,” to wit, “…must we come to the conclusion that life is little better than a dream, and little worth the loves and strivings that we crowd into it?” Anonymous 4 assert the same response: “No!” The call to worship in the Marian hymns of A4’s repertoire is a summons to a more fruitful life; the ancients cast it in purely religious terms, but in the practical application of our modern world this life is one embracing, in Dickens’s words again, “the spirit of active usefulness, perseverance, cheerful discharge of duty, kindness, and forbearance!” Thus The Cherry Tree Carol, in text and subtext, and in the sublime, majestic, holy harmonies of Anonymous 4.


“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,” Ms. Genensky says in a revealing comment in the following interview. “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.”

Speaking from her home in California (the other A4 members are based in and around New York City), Marsha Genensky discussed the process by which Anonymous 4 studied and assembled the music for The Cherry Tree Carol, as well as other aspects of its exploration of medieval music and culture, and what she calls A4’s “unity of intent” in arriving at its vocal arrangements of early music.


On tour in support of their Gloryland album in 2006, Anonymous 4 was accompanied by Darol Anger (mandolin, far left) and Scott Nygaard (guitar, far right). A4, from left: Susan Hellauer, Marsha Genensky, Ruth Cunningham, Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek.


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?

Marsha Genensky: 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.

‘The Cherry Tree Carol,’ the 1917 Kentucky arrangement, vocal solo by Marsha Genensky, from The Cherry Tree: Songs, Carols & Ballads for Christmas

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.

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?

Genensky: 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!

Genensky: 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.

‘The Holly and The Ivy,’ Anonymous 4, from Wolcum Yule: Celtic and British Songs and Carols

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

Genensky: 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.

Anonymous 4, ‘Noel syng we bothe al and som,’ from The Cherry Tree album, is described in the program notes by Susan Hellauer (far left) as ‘simple, straightforward, and sonorous, with rich triadic English harmonies.’

With many of these translations that Anonymous 4 has sung over the years, the actual translation work seems to be your responsibility within the group.

Genensky: It depends on the language. I do try to do the Middle English-to-modern-English translations myself. Susan Hellauer does the bulk, but not all, of the Latin-to-English translations. Every once in awhile a piece is just too crazy in terms of its text, and she’ll go to another person. And sometimes a piece has already been translated, and if those are good translations we will use and credit those. Somebody else, not us, does translations from other languages from Italian, Spanish, etcetera. So it’s a mix.

On Yoolis Night: Medieval Carols and Motets

On that matter of the virgin birth, which figures prominently in some of the songs on The Cherry Tree, it’s interesting to me that some songs attempt to explain the mystery of it, but ultimately come down to telling us to accept it on faith. I’m thinking specifically of “Nowell syng we both al and som,” “Come, redeemer of the peoples”–“the entire world wonders, of all things, a virgin conceived a king…” is one lyric–and goes on to cite the songs of Saint Ambrose and the psalm of David as proof that it happened; in “Nowell/Tydings trew,” Mary herself, a virgin, wonders how this is going to happen, and the answer she is given is, basically, God himself is putting the child in your womb, and besides, look at your cousin Elizabeth—she was barren and was able to conceive a child. And there the song ends, with no further response from Mary. And Joseph, in “Mervele noght Josep” (“Do Not Marvel Joseph”) wonders how his wife’s pregnancy is possible, since they have been chaste in marriage, and is told, when this child is born he will absolve your forefathers of all their sins so “do not ponder about this matter in your mind.”

Genensky: So basically you refer to the Bible.

Right. Were they intolerant of skeptics, would you say?

Genensky: Well, this is not long after the Inquisition, so perhaps yes. But some of these are actual Biblical quotes, so they’re just referring you back to the central text of Christianity, and I’m not sure that it’s necessarily spoken of in terms of threat (laughs), but rather in terms of reassurance. I mean I hope it’s not spoken of in terms of threat, but in the Middle Ages and beyond there has been a lot of threat around heresy and non-belief and other belief. So I can’t promise that it wasn’t a threat, but I believe it was meant as reassurance.

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

The baby Jesus speaks in two songs: from the womb in “The Cherry Tree Carol,” and in the manger in “Lullay my child/This ender nithgt,” and in the latter he’s asking “What am I doing here/Why am I in a manger” and speaks of how “Adam’s transgression” is weighing on his conscience for what it did to humanity—

Genensky: And he’s cold! He’s really cold!

It’s an interesting take on the Christ child as being proactive even before birth.

Genensky: Yes. Yes. So some of the text that you’re quoting is not Biblical, it’s more, for lack of a better word, legend. By that I don’t mean “false”; I mean it’s not set down in a text that’s meant to be authoritative. Some of it is legend-like and some of it is from the Bible, which some people consider to be legend, but a written legend. I don’t mean to offend anybody by saying that, but some people do think of it that way. So it really comes from a variety of sources, some written down, some from oral tradition.

Anonymous 4 has recorded so many of the songs from these 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?

Anonymous 4’s A Star in the East: Medieval Hungarian Christmas Music

Genensky: 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.

I’ve been trying to formulate a question about the evolution of spiritual music from the ancient times to modern times, based on Anonymous 4’s own experience with this music. Generally speaking, the composers of the 14th, 15th and earlier centuries were more focused on understanding the meaning and everyday import of Christ’s presence on earth, whereas in Appalachian gospel songs, in country gospel, in bluegrass gospel, the virgin birth and the nature of Christ are unquestioned, accepted as fact. Those songs focus more on the rewards awaiting us in the afterlife, meeting up with family and friends in Heaven, where peace reigns, and so forth, or conversely, the wages of sin and a cry for redemption.

‘Speciosus forma (A Star in the East),’ Anonymous 4, from A Star in The East: Medieval Hungarian Christmas Music

Genensky: Right. And of course you’re talking about differences in theology and in the Middle Ages Catholicism was the theology, and everything else in Western Europe was considered to be heresy. By the time you get to 19th Century America you’ve got religion that was post-Catholic, even though Catholicism certainly existed then, and the focus theologically is different and therefore the text, and the focus of the text, is very different. With that in mind, you’ve hit the nail on the head.

So the founding fathers making a point of freedom of religion, the first immigrant arrivals on these shores coming here so that they could worship freely, turns out to have enabled this diversity of gospel and spiritual music of a different focus than what they heard in their native land.

Genensky: That’s true but you have to remember that well into the 19th Century not all but many of the texts that were set to music came from England. So some of this change was already happening on the other side of the pond; it was brought over here and loved and adopted and made into American musical styles. But the text of many, many of what we think of as purely American songs are not from America. So there’s a bit of both. If you follow shape note music and early American gospel from the mid-19th Century, a lot of those texts come from England, from Isaac Watts, and Charles Wesley, and John Newton, who composed “Amazing Grace,” etcetera, etcetera. Purely American hymn writers eventually mix that in with newer texts.

Why did you decide to go with the 1917 Kentucky arrangement of “Cherry Tree Carol”?

Genensky: I liked it! I just loved the way…the tune is beautiful; I love that Joseph becomes non-doubting Joseph and he actually apologizes to Mary—it’s just so lovely. There are a lot of really beautiful tunes, but I really like the kind of pre-bluegrass sound of the shape of this melody.

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?

Genensky: 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”?

Legend of St. Nicholas: Medieval Chant and Polyphony

Genensky: 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.

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.

‘Hymn: Intonent hoodie,’ Anonymous 4, from Legends of St. Nicholas: Medieval Chant and Polyphony

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?

Genensky: We didn’t actually follow a model. At the time there were some really lovely groups out there that we enjoyed. There was Sequentia, 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, a male vocal ensemble that is still active today. (Ed. Note: Hilliard Ensemble disbanded in 2014, three years after this interview with Marsha Genensky.) And there is Gothic Voices, a small group of men and women still active that has a quite famous recording of the music of Hildegard of Bingen [Ed. Note: A Feather On the Breath of God,] 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.

Was Hildegard of Bingen indeed the first female singer of note recorded in history, in the sense of showing up in the history books, not, obviously, on records?

Genensky: 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.

Genensky: Yes.

Hence, Anonymous 4.

Genensky: 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 Perotin, 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.

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