Mahrt Conducts (photo by Brand Ward)

Mem Chu music gets medieval

Professor William Mahrt, a medieval musicologist with the Stanford Music Department, establishes the Early Music Singers. Though a group with the same name pre-existed Mahrt’s directorship, Mahrt is known for instituting its professional and permanent presence on campus. The Early Music Singers’ repertoire ranges from late medieval to baroque choral music (c. 1350-1750), with a focus on Gregorian chant and Renaissance compositions. The ensemble has performed the St. Matthew’s Passion by Bach (late 1990s), the complete cycle of masses by early composer Josquin Desprez (between 2002 and 2004), a cycle of medieval vespers – including those of Hildegard of Bingen – (between 1997 and 1998), and the vespers of Monteverdi (2009). Stanford students, alumni, staff, and people from the community constitute the choral group’s membership.

Mahrt holds the Memorial Church in high regard as a special performing space. When his singers go from their rehearsal room to the Memorial Church, they notice right away that “the acoustic is more live.” The group must face the challenges entailed in performing early music. Given the obscurity of their repertoire and sung languages (most of which are in Latin or Old French), performers experience initial difficulty in adapting to different pronunciations. For example, Mahrt explains how the articulation of Latin, although a universal written language in the medieval west, could vary depending on its spoken regional context. The extra effort in medieval diction is well worth the effort, however, as, according to Mahrt, singing Dufay with a French inflection of Latin “makes the piece sparkle.” (And this alone is worth the occasional post-performance criticism: “Who taught you bad Latin?”) While some patrons prefer to listen to the concert straight through, Mahrt emphasizes that “I’d rather give it straight,” and thereby has traditionally provided spoken context before the performance of each individual piece.

Molding the Memorial Church acoustic Mahrt has developed spatial techniques to further refine the sound. Secular music demands a crisper sound, hence Mahrt arranges his singers on the church’s steps to achieve this effect. Sacred music calls for a resonant quality; here singers form a semi-circle behind the steps, or, to especially magnify this resonance, they stand close to the altar. Accentuating this sacrality is of utmost importance to Mahrt. In an essay entitled “The Future of Chant,” Mahrt writes that “the greatest need of liturgy today is the restoration of the sense of the sacred. Music has a principal role, since it expresses that sense of the sacred and sustains it through time. Already over a hundred years ago, St. Pius X in his Motu proprio articulated the principle that Gregorian chant is the norm against which sacred music should be judged: the intimate relation of chant to the sacred action means that it is the paradigm of liturgical music,” (Sacred Music, 2006). Mahrt’s musical activity exceeds campus boundaries – since 1964 he has directed the St. Ann Choir (St. Thomas Aquinas Church, Palo Alto). Mahrt’s musicological publications include articles on Gregorian chant, the music of Dante’s Purgatorio, and medieval dance music.

Since the establishment of the Early Music Singers, Stanford has expanded its performance, study, and reimagining of medieval music.  The Stanford Chamber Chorale’s programs often include early music selections, whereas Chanticleer, a San Francisco-based choral ensemble specializing in renaissance music, performs at the church every December.  Professor of Music Jesse Rodin performs medieval and renaissance music with his early music history students.  Rodin is also heading the Josquin Research Project, a database that offers digital resources for examining and analyzing fifteenth and sixteenth century western music.  In 2010, Professor of French Literature Marisa Galvez organized Performing Trobar: An Interdisciplinary Colloquium.  Comprised of a seminar, workshops, and a concert, Performing Trobar reconstructed the live experience of troubadour songs.  Galvez invited the Troubadours Arts Ensemble, a performing group from France devoted to adaptations of Occitan lyric, to give a concert at Memorial Church. 

Bio: Dr. William Mahrt – Professor of Musicology at Stanford, specializing in western medieval and early renaissance music. Prof. Mahrt has been directing the Early Music Singers since 1972.

Josquin Desprez’s Gaude Virgo Early Music Singers at the Choral Invitational, April 30, 2010. Recorded by Mark Dalrymple "Josquin Desprez’s Gaude Virgo"

Featured image: Professor William Mahrt conducts a Gregorian chant.  Photograph by Brant Ward