Anderson to lead chant and polyphony workshop in June
by Andrea Schuler for Vocal Area Network
Posted May 15, 2019

Chant workshop--AndersonThis June, early music guru Michael Alan Anderson convenes his fourth annual institute “Singing Gregorian Chant and Renaissance Polyphony” through the Eastman School of Music. This is the first year the workshop will take place in New York City. Michael spoke with Andrea Schuler, Summer@Eastman Program Coordinator.

Andrea Schuler: How did you come to early music, specifically Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony?

Michael Alan Anderson: As an undergraduate at Notre Dame, I was exposed to some Renaissance polyphony in men’s glee club. And, as a music student, I was—like many—transported by the sound when I first heard the Hilliard Ensemble’s iconic Perotin recording. I had to have more! After graduating, I reconnected with a teacher of mine from Notre Dame, Calvin Bower, who lived in Chicago. He proposed starting an ensemble as a kind of laboratory for his work on liturgical sequences. We founded Schola Antiqua of Chicago in 2000. The experience of singing for Calvin was one of discovery and inquiry. Soon I was in graduate school studying this stuff, and I haven’t looked back or been lured to other periods of music history. There is too much richness sitting in medieval and Renaissance sources!

AS: Where did you get the idea for the summer institute on singing Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony?

MAA: I have taught introductory courses in medieval and Renaissance music at the Eastman School of Music since 2008. The students are wonderful and inquisitive, but they all don’t arrive with a shared love of early music. While I can try to produce converts, it is, for many, a requirement en route to a degree in their instrument. The summer institute in chant and polyphony is a chance for people around the country and world to come together with the shared goal of increasing their understanding of these especially pervasive styles within the broad category of pre-modern music. I might add that the famous Tallis Scholars hosted a similar summer “camp” at different sites in the United States. When that dissolved some years ago, I thought there would be even more reason to offer a workshop of this type.

AS: What is the goal of the course?

MAA: My aim to expose students to different genres and styles that one might encounter under the heading of traditional Western plainchant and have them develop a stronger stylistic sense of Renaissance vocal polyphony. I hope that the exposure in turn inspires confidence with this vast body of music. Learning through practice is our main emphasis, but one cannot sing for seven hours per day! Therefore, our time together also weaves historical background, ancient notation and contemporary theory and practice into the mix.

AS: Tell us about the kinds of students that come to this workshop.

MAA: This course has attracted people from different walks and stages of life. We certainly have our share of church music directors and church organists, but we also have seen singers of all kinds--young and old, amateur and professional--register. What unites the participants in the institute seems to be a genuine interest in this music and eagerness to build a strong foundation.

AS: How did you decide to host this institute in New York City?

MAA: Because of the specialized nature of this topic, the Eastman School of Music has been supportive about allowing the institute to travel to major cities. We have offered the workshop in Chicago and San Francisco, in addition to Rochester, New York for our inaugural year. New York seemed like the next logical place. I’m eager to see who registers! The Church of Notre Dame, near Columbia University, will be our venue. It is a magnificent space in the nave for our final concert, and the clergy and staff have been very accommodating.

AS: How does the institute work day to day?

MAA: Each day begins with some light singing of chant to warm up, but the morning is dominated by lecture and discovery of the repertory. There is singing of passages, but a classroom environment is maintained. Topics include notation, theory, performance practice, and sometimes close study of individual works in manuscript or print. After a lunch break, we continue with new bite-size topics, but we reserve the last part of the day for a formal rehearsal. We rehearse a good deal of music all week in preparation for a concert on Friday.

AS: What do the participants prepare for the final concert?

MAA: Beginning on Monday afternoon, student are gearing up for a final concert on Friday evening in which they will present – as an SATB choir – an unpublished sixteenth-century polyphonic Vespers. The liturgical “service” incorporates both chant and polyphony, which I have transcribed from a manuscript choirbook that sits in the university library of Jena in east-central Germany, not far from Leipzig where Bach spent most of his life. This music demands a good deal of vocal fortitude, reflective of a centuries-old mindset as this kind of singing being a kind of work or service. I round out the program by giving the singers some fun motets to sing, which I choose based on the expected makeup of the choir.

AS: What have students said about this workshop?

MAA: We do track student feedback, and there is not only general excitement for the topic, but also real learning that I can discern. One student said she was “walking away with information that will really stick.” Another described the workshop as a “perfect mixture of delight and challenge. The joy of music came through and we learned to do things we thought we couldn’t do.

AS: Fantastic! How do students sign up?

MAA: Visit the Summer@Eastman website for more information and registration instructions. The workshop runs from June 10 to June 14. The course page is here: summer.esm.rochester.edu/course/singing-gregorian-chant-and-renaissance-polyphony-new-york-city/.

Andrea Schuler is the coordinator of the Summer@Eastman Program.