Medieval Washington, DC

Anonymous 4 and the Folger Consort appeared at the Washington National Cathedral last Friday night performing some of the sacred songs of 12th century mystic Hildegard von Bingen (and some 13th century French court music for variety) in a program they call Heavenly Revelations, and altogether it was a solid evening of twelfth-century Christian mystical praise and longing for something that we don’t have much of anymore, in church or out of it, celestial love and secular both. In or out of court, for that matter. The mere fact of the performance was almost ironic, in DC.

Anonymous 4 is well known and there’s no need for me to evaluate them. Technically, the performances were excellent, though a little hard to hear as the performers didn’t appear to be using any amplification. That’s fine-it’s more medieval that way, and it scarcely affected the vocals at all, which, surrounded by the glorious stone walls of the only thing like a medieval cathedral anywhere around here, sounded exactly the way they were supposed to sound, the long, sustained notes regenerating off the tan limestone wonderfully. The acoustics were a little less kind to the instrumentals, which tended to wash out on their way down the nave and the noticeable echo from the walls tended to blur, rather than sustain, things there. However, O virga ac diadema stood out, perhaps because it started the show.

DC isn’t known for medieval stuff, unless you count the drivers and the traffic. Most of the galleries and pretty much all of the museums are rightly focused on America, although the National Gallery has some good older pieces. That’s the way it should be.

The Anonymous 4 have moved on to Israel. But there’s a little more medieval in DC still, until March at least. Down at the National Geographic Explorer’s Hall just south of M Street on 17th NW, you can see some of the better pieces collected from the Staffordshire Hoard, described as the largest hoard of gold from Anglo-Saxon England yet found. This is the most remarkable work in gold and garnet you will ever see, though everything was cut up before being hidden away. One of the few works still intact is a cross of gold and garnet, a bit bent up, but still in one piece. The general effect reminds me of a hoard of Viking hacksilver, several troves of which have been found in British hoards, though this is English work, and gold. The pieces they have on display are large enough to show you the quality of the work, and it’s astonishing. I can scarcely imagine what it was to lean over a bench, wooden walls lit only by a fire or a beeswax candle, using whatever rude tools you could put together, drawing and twisting fine wires of gold and inlaying them with thinly sliced, precisely carved slivers of garnet, all without a magnifying glass. This happened well before Hildegard von Bingen; the craftsmen who worked this material were long dead before she was born. But things didn’t move too fast in those days. The impulse behind them both was the same, whether in gold or song, the bent cross of the hoard or the rising arch of sound, both to the glory of God.

They built cathedrals in those days, too, and just imagine what they filled them with.


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