Schola Antiqua: Sounds of Jerusalem

Amid a sold-out audience at the Cloisters Museum's Fuentidueña Chapel last weekend, I took my seat just moments before the concert began. I didn’t have time even to open Schola Antiqua’s printed program before the crowd settled.

A lone singer stood up. Allah is the greatest … hasten to prayer, he chanted in his native Arabic, with a tenor of mindfulness rather than performance and a volume less forceful than one expects from a professional vocalist. It was the same tenor and volume of private prayer, as if the audience had not been there at all.

I have heard the adhan before, and this was a traditional rendition of the Muslim call to prayer. But the setting made the experience novel, as we were situated not in a contemporary Middle Eastern village but in a reconstituted medieval Christian chapel in upper Manhattan. The Egyptian-American singer in this remnant of a Christian edifice was from a Muslim background, and the New York audience contained many Jews. For whom then was this call? Were we to join in prayer?

What happened next was an utter surprise. And I’m glad I didn’t have time to see it in the program beforehand. Now another lone voice began, seemingly at a random moment during the recitation of the adhan: this was a female voice, one whose professional performative power was immediately evident, though restrained now for the sake of balance. When Israel went out from Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of strange language…, she intoned in Hebrew, cantillating Psalm 114 according to a melody preserved from medieval Istanbul.

The Israeli chant did seem to emerge out of the Egyptian one, as the psalm says, but my trained ear could not figure out the tonal relationship. Then within seconds, her line of chant intersected with his in stark dissonance. At first, she seemed to be in the same key as him, but now I wasn’t sure. Did they make a mistake? Or was it not a modern key at all, but a medieval musical mode? The two prayers continued to converge and diverge, with moments of harmony but passing tones of undeniable dissonance – two ancient melodies, each with its own integrity, overlayed like waves with both constructive and destructive interference.

Behind these two singers that faced the audience stood two small circles of singers, groups of four men and two women, at the back of the chapel’s apse. They had seemed not to be a part of this opening piece, but now they too joined the call, in sounds familiar to Western ears. Hail, Saint Hilarion…pray that we might be adorned with lilies, they sang in Latin, adding Christian chant, in a familiar mode, to these Muslim and Jewish prayers. The Christian tradition was louder, more formal, and tonally dominant. And though the Muslim and Jewish voices were central on the stage, the Christian voices – marginalized and enclosed on themselves – nonetheless emerged on top.

The three chants continued, and the listener could choose either to focus attention on the self-contained beauty of each one or to relax one’s ears and let the entire soundscape in. Traditions handed down within linear historical successions were now handed off around a circle: unpredictable harmonies and dissonances, unanticipated cadences from one religion’s prayer to the other’s.

When the chants faded back to silence, I opened the printed program. This musical tapestry was titled simply, “The Call.”

When I spoke to Michael Alan Anderson, the director of Schola Antiqua, after the concert, I asked only about this opening idea. How did they plan those harmonies and dissonances to converge as they did? How did they signal the timing, when I could not discern any cues? Why did they open the concert in this way? He replied that there are no cues, and that the interweaving of the lines is not planned. “We’ve done it about fifty times, and every time it’s different,” he said. The group wanted to incarnate the musical, prayerful diversity of medieval Jerusalem, which had moments of harmonious interdependence alongside jarring conflict.

Matthew Dean, one of the singers and the curator of this particular program, described the vision for this performance: “Without narrative – and starting with an overlapping call of sacred sounds as might be heard in some hours at the Dung Gate, or Aleppo of a former decade, or in cities of North Africa, or Mumbai – we introduce some memories preserved in oral or written tradition from the peoples who inhabited or moved through medieval Jerusalem.” He has used this performance style before, as Program Director of the Sounds of Faith initiative in Chicago, where Schola Antiqua is based. These voices “represent echoes – some now forgotten – of practice which came into and out of focus in the richly intertextual, cross-pollinating, seminal ages of Jerusalem.”

The concert continued with Islamic chant, Christian chants in Georgian and Armenian, and a set of Sephardic songs. Like the opening call, the Armenian chant offered a different tonality than that normally heard by Western ears. Armenian Christian music has a tonal structure that pre-dates the modes which developed in Western “Gregorian” chant. Pilgrims to Jerusalem today can still hear this living tradition, during the public Vespers service at the Cathedral of Sts. James in the Armenian Quarter. “Armenayn Zham,” the particular piece performed by Schola Antiqua, at times resembled the cadences of Russian Orthodox choral music, such as Rachmaninoff’s Vespers (“All-Night Vigil”).

The mostly a cappella program had an instrumental interlude, when the tambourine and oud supported upbeat Sephardic songs in Ladino (Judaeo-Spanish). Here the American-Uruguayan soprano Nell Snaidas took the spotlight, with the confidence of a master teacher who owns her heritage. One of the world’s leading interpreters of Sephardic music and culture, she offered three love songs that brought a flexibility to the choir’s timbre and an earthy passion to the austere Fuentidueña Chapel.

A set of Christian polyphony highlighted a little-known composer, Krystof Harant, who was impressed by the religious diversity he experienced when visiting seventeenth-century Jerusalem. Harant wrote a travelogue that described his composition of “Qui confidunt in Domino,” the piece performed, alongside a tale of the esteemed Ottoman sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent. “As Harant puts it, in response to advisors pressuring him to force Christians and Jews to convert to Islam, Suleiman went with them to a window which looked into a garden, and … showing them the various colored flowers, said, ‘As the variety of flowers not only does not spoil the garden, but refreshes and cheers the eyes and mind, so variety of religion and creed does not … injure my lands, but … is of utility, if only they observe peace and are obedient to my orders.’”

At the beginning of the concert, amid “the call,” I had wondered whether we were to join in prayer. At the end of the concert, the lone Arabic voice returned to the center for a one word chant, “Salaam,” a nasheed that prays for peace. After a few iterations, Amro Helmy gestured for us to join in the repetitive chant. We did.

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Michael Peppard is associate professor of theology at Fordham University and on the staff of its Curran Center for American Catholic Studies. He is the author of The World's Oldest Church and The Son of God in the Roman World, and on Twitter @MichaelPeppard. He is a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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