I took a few hours off the other day (off from what?) to drive across town to the downtown Saint Paul Public Library, where the Rose Ensemble, perhaps our most distinguished local vocal group, was giving a free concert sponsored by the Friends of the Library.
One architectural historian describes that splendid building on Rice Park, recently renamed in honor of former mayor George Latimer, as the premier Beaux Arts building in the Twin Cities, superior to both the state capitol and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in design. I wouldn't know about that, but I might point out that it's smaller than those other buildings, and its various reading rooms can seem simultaneously classical and intimate.
The performance was held in the magazine room on the third floor. The program was Il Poverello: Medieval and Renaissance Music for St. Francis of Assisi. I arrived early, threw my jacket across a seat on the center aisle in the first row, then wandered over to the magazine rack to pick up a copy of The Atlantic Monthly that contained an article about the early career of Joseph Stalin, who graduated with honors from seminary but developed theories of politics and human nature quite different from the ones St. Francis espoused.
Counting the tiles on the floor, I determined that I was sitting eight feet from the performers. When they struck the first chord of their opening number, tears came to my eyes. The voices are rich, strong, confident, and pitch-perfect. The singers invariably start and stop at the same time. It all sounds so simple...
The program ranged from medieval plainchant to sixteenth-century motets, as I recall. That's quite a spread. Several were by a composer I'd never heard of, Johannes Ciconia. He was described by the woman who introduced the first of his numbers as Franco-Italian, and that reminded me of how impressed I was, visiting Assisi years ago, with the beautiful Romanesque (that is the say, French-inspired) churches in the upper town. We sometimes think of the Italian Renaissance as bursting out of nothing, but of course there are medieval French antecedents everywhere.
For that matter, the name Francis basically means "Frenchy."
Ciconia himself, I later learned, was born in Liege. His father, however, lived for many years in Avignon, where he was a clerk for Pope Clement VI's nephew's wife. Perhaps he knew Petrarch?
All of this doesn't matter much. What does matter is that musical forms at the time were very strange and interesting—far more interesting than the sonata form. The members of the ensemble sang one song in which two vocal lines move forward, not only out of synch with one another rhythmically but also with different lyrics.
Jordan Sramek, the ensemble's founder and director, did a good job of introducing the numbers, explaining why they had been composed, and what the odd musical instruments involved were--the rebec, the vielle, and the hurdy-gurdy. His patter would have been suitable for children, but contained nuggets of interest for adults, too.
For example, I once told a woman on a plane that I preferred Machaut to Dufay. "Oh, then you must love the hocket," she replied. I have been wondering for the last quarter-century what a hocket is. I found out that afternoon.
But the music itself is the main thing, and it was rich and varied. It might have been my imagination, but it seemed to me that even some of the monophonic chants bifurcated into harmonic passages from time to time. And at just the right moment, when the power of the clear, strong, male voices--incuding the astonishingly rich and yet warm and friendly bass of Mark Dietrich--almost seemed to encroach a little, soprano Kim Sueoka appeared to execute a fluttering solo soprano number accompanied by Ginna Watson on a miniature harp.
Radiant light, strong and vigorous in love,
Saint Francis, you always had a noble manner.
Such was your angelic manner in contemplation
That you were lifted bodily into the air by willing it.
As I listened, I looked up at the terracotta ceilings of the Magazine Room, colorfully glazed in imitation of Renaissance patterns that were based, no doubt, on antique models. An entire history of beauty and love and nobility and sacrifice had come alive—or little parts of it, at any rate—in the rich sounds coming from the performers standing just a few feet in front of me.
St. Francis was right. Stalin was wrong. Let's all relax and sing, or at the very least enjoy the music all around us ...
I was eager to rush home and sustain the mood by taking another look at Dante or Petrarch, or the Little Flowers of St. Francis himself. And after a brief interlude pondering who deflated the footballs during the AFC title game, I did just that.
When Hilary got home we slid a frozen pizza into the oven (very Italian!) cracked open a bottle of wine, and settled into Dante's Paradiso. We made it to Canto Four before losing our way in all the wonderment as Beatrice attempts to explain to Dante what he is seeing as he "flies" toward outer space:
She sighed with pity when she heard my question
and looked at me the way a mother might
hearing her child in his delirium:
"Among all things, however disparate,
there reigns an order, and this gives the form
that makes the universe resemble God...
You should, in all truth, be no more amazed
at your flight up than at the sight of water
that rushes down a mountain to its base."