Ensemble Peregrina performs sacred and secular European music from the 12th-16th centuries. At their concert on October 6 at the Corpus Christi Church, the group performed a collection of songs that were originally composed in different cities at different times—spanning across countries and centuries. Surprisingly, the performance created a seamless musical progression, resulting in the impression that these pieces from diverse cities and dates were fated to be heard together. Ensemble Peregrina’s concert aimed to connect these differing musical works into one holy and all-embracing experience. Through a focus around a fundamental pitch and with specific techniques in harmonies and polyphony, the ensemble’s music radiated a sanctified sensation of tone and flow that amounted to the stunning success of the performance.
A unifying element throughout these diverse pieces was the evident “ring” of a consistent primary pitch that resonated during the whole performance. In many pieces, the four female singers were accompanied by a vielle. The vielle mostly played an underlying rhythm while emphasizing the fundamental pitch, over which the voices sang the melody. The audience received the melodies as a varying relationship to the underlying principle pitch. As a listener, I could sense the tension toward a final resolution on this pitch throughout each piece. The steady enunciation of the fundamental tone continued as a pattern during the performance. Even in moments of a cappella singing, this powerful revolution around the fundamental pitch persisted. The listeners learned to rely so heavily on the melody’s relationship toward this principle note that we could sense its presence within the piece even when it was unannounced.
Due to the instructions given by the concert host before the performance, the audience never clapped between songs. As a result, the echo of this fundamental pitch rang in our ears during the short periods of silence. This echo created a seamless connection between every musical piece, despite the differences of lyrical content and varying dates of composition. In addition to its unifying effect, the constant ringing of the fundamental tone shaped a meaningful, participatory experience as a listener. While feeling the tension before resolution and sensing this reverberating pitch between pieces, I formed a relationship with the music in my expectations for and reactions to the melodic correlations.
Ensemble Peregrina’s harmonic relationships finalized the unification of their distinct songs while sculpting an involved listening experience. A lack of dissonance persisted throughout all of the performance, as the harmonies were very open, clear and consonant. This quality radiated a feeling of holiness and encouraged the “ring” of the fundamental pitch that soared over the performance. There was significant tension in these pieces even without dissonance—the tension toward a resolution with the principle note. The open quality of consonance added consistency to the lasting impression of every separate, but interconnected, song.
The melodies sung by this ensemble were very melismatic. Often, the four women sang in perfect unison, but the complex and fast paced melisma created full harmonies in the echoes of the melody that resounded off the church’s walls and ceiling. The layering of these echoes with the melody caused growth in the music’s intensity, even without dramatic changes in dynamics. The audience had the opportunity to experience the detailed relationships between the notes of the melody, the fulfilling open harmonies, and the holy feeling of being completely surrounded by melismatic, harmonious, yet unified, sound.
The texture of Ensemble Peregrina’s pieces also significantly shaped the listener’s relationship with the music. Many songs, such as “Alme presul et beate” and “Annua recolamus,” were characterized by intricate polyphonies. Often, the separate melodic lines met in unison for a short beat before again splitting apart into high and low pitches of consonant harmonies with polyphonic texture. This fleeting unison, often on the fundamental pitch, created the feeling of waves, with the flow of open harmonies lapping in and out between momentary convergences on the same note. These waves added to the glowing tension around the fundamental pitch that continued to ring in the listener’s ears. We felt the rhythm of this flowing movement between tension and resolution throughout the performance. Through the polyphonic motion of the melodies, the singers of Ensemble Peregrina wove each piece into one interdependent, uninterrupted experience.
The musical movement that this technique produced also affected the audience in a physical way. I found myself, along with my neighboring listeners, rocking my body gently to the pattern of this melodic wave. Our unconscious “dancing” was not guided by the songs’ meter or a distinct rhythmic pulse. Instead, we were invoked to move in a flowing, loose manner, in sync with the waves of harmonies and unisons. Again, this performance empowered the members of the audience to act as participants in our personal listening experiences.
Ensemble Peregrina’s concert linked diverse pieces from various locations and time periods by creating a continuous reverberation of a fundamental pitch that served as a foundation in unifying the whole performance. With open harmonies and overwhelming melisma that shaped the holy atmosphere, the music compelled the listeners to open themselves up to a unique and fulfilling experience. The layered polyphonic textures and waves of brief unison contributed to an innate sense of tension, movement and resolution that drove the audience’s reception of an unending stream of musical complexities and simplicities. In combination with the impressive church setting, a cultured audience and thoughtful musicianship, Ensemble Peregrina performed a unified concert of assorted pieces. The concert inspired the listener, myself included, to relate to this historical music in a participatory fashion, exemplifying the approachable value of musical holiness and the instinctual personal reactions to pitch, flow and melody utilized throughout the performance.
By Lucille Marshall
Written for Masterpieces of Western Music with instructor Beau Bothwell at Columbia University in the City of New York.