Ever have one of those periods when Jungian synchronicity really seems to be operating in your life? When everything seems to “relate” and fit together as if preordained? While writing a blog post a few weeks ago (“Triangle, Right?”), I flashed back to 1977, the year in which a faculty member of my former undergraduate conservatory, Westminster Choir College, had prepared a new realization/edition of Guillaume de Machaut’s “Messe de Nostre Dame.” The Mass is considered by many to be the first surviving complete polyphonic setting of the “Ordinary” of the Catholic Mass.
Machaut lived from 1300 to 1377, and the Mass was composed sometime in the 1360s.
“Ordinary” means the five sections that remain the same (or “ordinary”) every single week: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. Sometimes the “Ite missa est” (Go, the mass is over) is included. (The “Proper” consists of specific prayers for special occasions, seasons, saints, or funerals, weddings, etc.).
The editor’s name was William Dalglish. He was auditioning for a choir to perform his new edition in the context of the “Machaut’s World: Science and Art in the Fourteenth Century” conference at the New York Academy of Sciences, cosponsored by the Institute for Medieval Studies.
Somehow, I was given a coveted spot in the small ensemble, I think largely because I could sing well without vibrato, not usually a great quality for a classical singer, but optimal for the imagined pure sounds of medieval choral music. Besides, I was a piano major! We were all very excited as the ancient sounds came to new life. We worked on our isorhythms and hockets tirelessly, then traveled to NYC to present the Mass to the august body of scientists, literary and art historians and musicians, some with decades of attainment, some still students.
Imagine my synchronistic surprise, when this week I came across the “proceedings” of the same conference, published in book form in 1978, at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. The overall editor of the volume, Madeleine Pelner Cosman, a physician/researcher with a passion for “the glorious order of the past” wrote the most amazing preface. It was as though she had read, 32 years prior, “Triangle, Right?” And I regret not being able to meet her at our small performance then. She died at age 68 in 2006, the year I was diagnosed with leukemia. Her words follow:
“Music pervaded medieval medical practice and theory in astounding manner. Not only was music prescribed for good digestion and for bodily preparation before surgery, but also as a stimulus to wound healing, a mood changer, and as critical accompaniment to bloodletting. Specially composed medical music (the shivaree) graced the wedding chamber to assure erotic coupling at the astrologically auspicious moment. Music of the heavenly sphere was thought closely integrated with all human harmonies definable in a human being’s horoscope (thus the significance of birth time and conception time) and was expressed rhythmically by bodily pulses. Pulse music was predictive in diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment by medicine and surgery. Such practical medical music expressed magnificently the harmonious medieval world order. Closely allied with astrology and ideas of time, medical music may have influenced the development of the mechanical clock.”
© 2010 by Frank Daykin, for Innovative Music Programs