Going to the Dogs

Susan Hellauer, a singer with the vocal ensemble Anonymous 4, was walking in New York's Riverside Park a few years ago when she was stopped by a fan. The woman told Hellauer that Anonymous 4's recordings had helped calm down a dog who was struggling to give birth to a litter of puppies. Hellauer was taken aback, but managed to say, "How wonderful." The story is amusing, but it's ironic that a pregnant pooch would appreciate what most evangelicals have lost sight of: our Christian musical heritage. Anonymous 4—Susan Hellauer, Ruth Cunningham, Marsha Genensky, and Johanna Maria Rose—specializes in the music of the high Middle Ages—what historians call the Age of Faith. Their recordings and performances have been an unqualified success, both commercially and critically. As BBC Music Magazine described them, "[Anonymous 4] breathe air from another planet." The American Record Guide put it even better: "Surely," the author writes, "this is the sound of Heaven." Why this recent interest in what is, after all, the music of the church? Publicists for Anonymous 4's label, Harmonia Mundi USA, say that "our age is searching for its identity in the earlier age." The result is an unprecedented interest in early music. Anonymous 4's 1993 recording, On Yoolis Night, is a medieval music celebration of Christmas. The carol "Alleluya: A Nywe Werke," sung in Middle English, tells us that "a new work has come on hand, through the might and grace of God's messenger, to save the lost of every land." Anonymous 4's newest release, A Star in the East, surveys Hungarian medieval Christmas music. As Hellauer explains, Christianity replaced Hungary's pagan gods and hymns to the earth but kept sacred song at the heart of Hungarian spiritual life. Close your eyes and imagine yourself in a cathedral in thirteenth-century Hungary during Christmastime. You would hear, in song, the words of the prophet Isaiah foretelling the coming of God's Messiah and affirming the promise that "the people that walked in darkness have seen a great light." Unfortunately, music that once communicated the Gospel is now frequently marketed as "mood music," used to calm everyone from pregnant dogs to people undergoing root canals. While happy for any sales, members of Anonymous 4 hasten to add: "'re supposed to really listen to this stuff." Good advice—especially for Christians. You see, much of today's Christian music is simply watered-down versions of popular music. Musically speaking, we've inherited a collection of gourmet recipes but insist on eating fast food every night. If our cultural heritage has fallen into misuse, the fault lies in part with Christians themselves. For example, if Christians want to sample music from the Age of Faith, they'll have to search for it at secular music stores. Few Christian bookstores carry Anonymous 4 recordings or any other early music ensembles. As you prepare for the holidays, why not take a medieval musical tour—one that will help you understand how the worship of our God led to the creation of a culture envied by the world. If we lose that understanding, we shouldn't be surprised when more than our musical heritage eventually goes to the dogs.   [This commentary discussed CDs recorded by Anonymous 4: On Yoolis Night (Harmonia Mundi HMU 907099) and A Star in the East (Harmonia Mundi HMU 907139).]


Chuck Colson


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