A musicologist’s joyous journey leads home

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Author: John Nagy ’00M.A.

One lesson Michael Alan Anderson ’97 picked up from ND music professor emeritus Calvin Bower is how one often best learns music by performing it. Performance helps you “see” the music, its problems and possible solutions, he says. It’s an insight Anderson keeps in mind today whether he’s teaching at the University of Rochester’s famed Eastman School of Music or conducting his professional ensemble, the Schola Antiqua of Chicago.

Anderson’s life after Notre Dame began with a day job advertising major-label vitamins, mattresses and breakfast cereals from a cushy Wacker Drive office in Chicago’s Loop. Evenings, though, took him down the street to his favorite professional gig, singing in the Chicago Symphony Chorus. That good life lasted five years, and along the way Anderson bumped into his former professor. Together they hatched the idea of rounding up professional vocalists to sing medieval and Renaissance sacred music, especially plainchant. In 2001 they formed their schola (shorthand for schola cantorum or “singing school”), which has been performing ever since.

With Bower’s encouragement, Anderson pursued graduate study and completed his music history doctorate at the University of Chicago in 2008. His dissertation examines music honoring two saints, John the Baptist and Anne, Mary’s mother, over a 400-year period stretching from the 12th century to the closing of the Council of Trent in 1563. Anderson says he found in the pairing a fresh view of the remarkable musical transformations taking place during that period, as successive generations of composers expanded plainchant conventions, experimented by adding voices and began exploring secular themes.

The music honoring John the Baptist emphasized his feast, celebrated each year a few days after the summer solstice as a counterpoint to Christmas. Composers learned over time how to convey the theological implications of seasonal change. (“He must increase,” the Baptist says of Jesus in the Gospel of John, “I must decrease.”)

Music composed for Anne meanwhile is especially interesting for its texts, which illuminate the rise of Marian devotion in the late Middle Ages. Anne is a product of Catholic tradition; scripture says nothing about her. Anderson traces for musicologists a story familiar to art historians: sacred artists crafting a persona and storyline for Anne as matriarch of an extensive “Holy Kinship” that was especially important to European royals. As Christ’s grandmother, Anne represented to these music patrons “a certain majesty that they want to reflect on themselves,” Anderson explains. “She’s like an übersaint.”

Now Anderson is probing into the Divine Office, the intricate, overlapping cycles of structured prayer and readings that originated in monasticism to become the daily prayer of the Church, and into the Hail Mary itself. Catholics may know the prayer’s first half from Luke’s account of the angel Gabriel’s greeting to Mary, but Anderson believes he’s found the origins of its non-scriptural second part, which begins “Holy Mary, Mother of God.” He argues that first drafts, so to speak, appear in music from the 14th century, maybe 100 years earlier than previously known to theologians. “In my world, that’s big news,” he says.

Bower’s retirement from Schola Antiqua in 2008 coincided with the release of Long Joy, Brief Languor, its first CD. Anderson took over as director, and last year the schola released a follow-up CD, West Meets East: Sacred Music from the Torino Codex. Orders come in from around the globe and sales are steady. “There seems to be new interest in chant,” he reflects. “It’s really an important body of music that is quite singable.”

Although some chants and polyphonic pieces may best be left to trained musicians who could sing them during moments of collective reflection, Anderson says “a simple chant can actually bring a community together in quite an effective way.”

This month Anderson has the chance to give back to Notre Dame as the directors of the Master of Sacred Music program convene a “think tank” of scholars who will help them chart their course over the next five years. He’d have applied as a student if the program had been created a decade earlier, but the music historian regrets nothing in his journey from the days when he was singing in the Glee Club and coordinating music for Fisher Hall’s Sunday night Masses in his socks.


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