According to Reuters, one in 10 people worldwide believe the end of the world could happen in 2012, as signified by the end of the Mayan calendar. With that in mind, it’s fascinating to read the images of Armageddon and apocalypse that were written at the turn of the year 1000, and to think about how similar they are, in some ways, to our 21st century visions of the end of the world…and to think about the fact that many conflagrations that trouble our imaginations now are created by the hand of humanity–global warming, for example–rather than divine intervention, although that plays into our Millennial visions as well.
People in medieval Europe lived in anticipation of the apocalypse, and on this edition of Harmonia we’ll explore some medieval music on this theme from two separate recordings. Back in 2000 (Remember Y2K?), Anonymous 4 released the recording 1000: A Mass for the End of Time, a collection of medieval music for the Ascension.
Sometimes music can really take you to another place. The “place” is actually a time: the turn of the previous millennium. Imagine first of all how incredibly quiet it would be. Take away the traffic noise, the background hum of a billion appliances, and the ever-present music coming at us in every store and office. Imagine what it would be like to hear music if you heard it very infrequently, and then, always unamplified, and LIVE, coming out of that immense quiet.
Imagine also, then, that you don’t know the earth is round. You don’t know how disease is spread. Thunder and lightning are magical, the woods are full of spirits, the nights are as black as pitch, and you’re worried about the fact that the year 1000 might bring the end of the world. This chant, called Judicii Signum, gives a graphic description of the end of the world, foretold by the prophetic oracles known as Sybils.
End time scenarios exist in writings from most of the major world religions and many mythologies, as well as epic poetry. In 2007, the ensemble Sequentia developed a program of medieval music drawing from stories – or fragments of stories – in sources as wide ranging as early Christian texts, the eddas of Old Iceland, Beowulf, and more.
One particular 9th-century Frankish sequence, Fortis atque amara, speaks to man’s terror of eternal damnation. Beginning with prophecy: “Full of might and bitter that day shall be, on which all things shall perish,” the sequence’s prediction of a Judgment Day joins with a fervent prayer for heavenly salvation, pleading: “…do not let us go into Hell’s loathsome places, the dwellings of the devils—no, lead us to the angels’ realms!”
Be it in the year 1000 or 2000, many “end of the world” visions, no matter how apocalyptic, ended with some kind of paradise or New World Order following Armageddon. Here, the members of Anonymous 4 intone a reading from Revelations, or Apocalypse as it is also called. This is the passage that begins: And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away, and there was no more sea. And I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven.
Stories about the end of the world weren’t the only things emerging as the first millennium grew near. Musicians began ornamenting plainchant. They did so by improvising new melodies to fit with the old. Such a melody could be a member of the plainchant repertoire, a secular tune, or something made up on the spot! The pre-existing melody and the new voice moved either at the same or different speeds. This resulted in some of the earliest polyphony known to us today. Now, present day early music performers explore these same improvisatory practices to create new polyphony, just as their predecessors did in the middle ages.
On our featured release, Ensemble Organum sings a Requiem Mass attributed to both Antoine de Févin and Antonius Divitis. As is often true in renaissance music, it is difficult to make a definite attribution. In this case, Févin’s name accompanies the Mass in two of its five surviving sources; Divitis’s name appears alongside it in one. Some believe that the Mass was composed for Anne of Brittany’s funeral in 1514. If so, Antonius Divitis is more likely its composer because Févin died in 1512, while Divitis lived until 1530.