Music theory in the 12th and 13th centuries was a wonderful mishmash of aesthetics, mysticism, numerology and science. Octaves, fourths and fifths were held to be the preferred intervals because Pythagoras had determined that their frequencies could be represented by the "perfect" ratios of 1:2, 2:3 and 3:4. The "perfect" time signature was considered to be 9/8 because it was made up of three groups of three (the number 3, of course, representing the Trinity). Out of all this emerged an astonishing body of gorgeous music written by people, mostly anonymous, whose lives were in the church and whose creativity still speaks eloquently.
The Folger Consort brought an evening of this music, most of it composed for a newly built Notre Dame Cathedral, to Washington National Cathedral on Friday and Saturday in a program that seemed, at times, timeless and ethereal and, at other times, brisk and worldly.
The Trio Mediaeval sang with the Folger Consort Friday and Saturday night.
(Courtesy Of The Folger Consort)
The Consort's guest artists were fiddle and recorder player Margriet Tindemans, recorder and bagpipe player Tom Zajac, and Trio Mediaeval, a splendid group of three sopranos from Norway. Together with Robert Eisenstein and Christopher Kendall on an assortment of fiddles, harps and recorders, they played and sang their way through groups of motets, conducti and estampies with almost angelic serenity.
The conductus "Dum Sigillum" by Perotin, one of the few identifiable composers of the period, got a lovely reading by two of the singers, whose rhythmic coordination and light-but-lyrical touch allowed the lines to weave around each other weightlessly and seamlessly. For Leonin's "Alleluia Pascha nostrum," the plainsong melody was sung in long notes by the instrumentalists while the Trio Mediaeval danced through its more intricate textures, the whole ensemble sounding peaceful and otherworldly.
The purely instrumental pieces had a more secular charm. There was a hoedown-like quality about the anonymous "Lai de la Pastourelle," and the final estampies, a set of more familiar pieces, featured a lot of very rhythmic and energetic musicmaking. with Zajac playing a whistle and a struck stringed instrument simultaneously.
The performances were uniformly outstanding and the cathedral's acoustical excesses were never more welcome.