The mystery remains as to how the name is supposed to be pronounced. I’ll spare you the postgraduate work in medieval musicology, or the trip to Wikipedia, and report that it is the standard medieval shorthand for “saeculorum, amen,” which is part of the phrase meaning “forever and ever, amen” that concludes the doxology that concludes the chants. I thought there might be some standard pronunciation familiar to medievalists, but apparently there isn’t, since Olbash confessed he wasn’t sure how to pronounce it. There’s a higher marketing wisdom here – there’s been a lot of discussion about the name, its source, meaning, and pronunciation, that probably helped spread the word about the concert, since the church was quite full (though I’m not sure how crowded these Friday night concerts usually are). Sure, it’s embarrassing to buy a ticket if you don’t know how to pronounce it, but that’s why there are on-line ticket sales. It is a word (a real word – I’m told you can use it in Scrabble) that telegraphs a sound and style; so it expresses many things that cannot really be expressed without many many other words, which is true actually of so many words, and not just those about music.
Perhaps they will have to come up with some sort of pronunciation, because I really hope they continue to perform. What a wonderful end to a less than wonderful day. First I’m going to complain, though, because that is what I do. Olbash spoke to the audience at some length twice during the performance, completely breaking the mood. Since there was a Q&A afterwards, I think commentary could have been saved until then. I ended up not staying for that, because of time, which was too bad, because I think he probably had lots of interesting points about how the music was performed. But during the performance you’re really there for why the music is still performed, not how; you're there for the sonic thing in itself. But then I generally see no point in comments from the stage.
It was a shame to break the mood because medieval music establishes such a strange spell, so evocative of its time and yet so modern-sounding, so timeless in its sense of ethereal eternity. The voices of the group blended very nicely, with enough individual tang so that it didn’t all sound indistinguishably chantish. I’m not really in a position to comment on the musicology involved, but I’ll just note that the interspersed Gregorian chants contrasted nicely with the polyphonic sections of the Mass, and the concluding Salve Regina ended everything on a fantastic note (or notes, I should say).
I wonder how this sounded to medieval ears, who only heard music when someone occasionally made it; coming into the lacy stone of a cathedral under sunlight fragmented and colored by stained-glass windows, or lit only by flickering candles, with the voices blending among the vaults, it all must have seemed heady in a way that it can’t in our amplified overlit world, where instead it sounds oddly serene. The man next to me naturally was playing with his program the entire length of the concert, and I realized he was part of the authenticity of the experience, like some snuffling old monk who resists, through intention or indifference, the sensuous salvation of the human voice.
(The upper photo of the Virgin and Child is from The Cloisters, and the lower is from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.)