Dimenna Center 2018 Review: The Anchoress

Ludwig & Ford Share a Vision of Beauty with Medieval Monodrama

By Logan Martell

This review is for the performance on Thursday, October 18, 2018.

At The Dimenna Center for Classical Music, composer David Serkin Ludwig and librettist Katie Ford treated the audience to a night of Medieval and Renaissance-era music, all leading to the world premiere of their newest work, “The Anchoress.”

Ludwig describes the work as “a new monodrama set to original texts by Katie Ford for singer Hyunah Yu, the PRISM Quartet, and Pifarro, The Renaissance Wind Band. The anchoress persona, her words, her visions, and her message all come from Katie, and being able to set into music both voices of poet and character has been a provocative and inspiring journey for me as a person and as a composer. To bring these words into musical life with the sounds of a single vocalist, set between a duo of ancient and modern ensembles is both a challenge and a dream.”

Three Song Preview

Following a brief cycle of saxophone pieces by the PRISM Quartet, next on the program was three instrumental numbers from “The Anchoress.”

According to David Ludwig, “This work came about as I was in the process of writing the monodrama about this world with poet Katie Ford, and our anchoress comes from around the time of Machaut. To that end, the strains of Machaut’s music are heard, but from the point of view of the mystic, listening to these distant sounds wafting into her cell from the outside, filtered by the time, space, and vivid places of her isolated imagination.”

The first piece, titled “Virelai,” started off with a flute and saxophone duo walking up the aisle to the front of the venue; they traded notes in a deliberate, almost cautious, walking melody before breaking into a faster rhythm. In this piece, longer, lyrical phrases often erupted into a sputter of sounds, and then silences just as quickly.

The second piece, titled “Ballade,” featured a fast-paced saxophone as the flute swerved about its upper registers almost aimlessly, before a glissando brought it down to unite with the saxophone in shared melodic ideas. Due to the intimate nature of the venue, the sound of the saxophone’s keys striking the body in rapid, almost relentless, succession made for an additional percussive effect.

The third piece, titled “Rondeau,” saw the flute replaced by a tin whistle; this change in sound emphasized the dialogue-like exchanges between instruments. Most notably, it was here that the flautist, and then saxophonist, began a solemn chant as they slowly walked out; the warbling vibrato in their voices carried a sorrowful nuance which tapered into silence as the set concluded.

The Team Tells All  

Following an intermission, David Serkin Ludwig introduced his work with a short talk with librettist Katie Ford, shedding light on the inspiration and process behind “The Anchoress.”

“I want to start,” began Ludgwig, “by asking you: what is an anchoress?”

“Don’t look so unknowing,” replied Ford with a smile towards the audience. “He knows what an anchoress is, he’s read the guidebook for anchoresses, actually. There’s a medieval book that’s written for anchoresses to guide their days as they unfold, but an anchoress is a religious hermit. The anchorite life evolved out of the desert fathers who in the early Christian period of the second to third century, went out into the desert to live out their own monastic calling, but an anchoress is a woman that’s decided to become enclosed in a cell that’s attached to a church and when she is enclosed in a cell she’s given her last rites, there’s a funeral service, and they’re burying her really in the cell. She’s to think of herself as dead to the world’s desires and the world’s concerns. Not to the people of the world, but she then becomes a living saint. And people can come to one of her three windows and consult her. It was one of the only ways in which a woman had any real spiritual authority at the time, and that’s what drew me to her as a figure of spiritual authority. Many anchoresses became theologians inside their cells, and gave us the writings from the medieval period. The window that looks into an anchor hold is very small, so she’s squinting through it to see the mass partaking in the Eucharist, and her servants bring her food; it’s a very spare existence for the duration of her life and her discipline is cause for people to revere her for what she’s given up. Most of the time, there’s a grave that’s dug inside of the anchor hold, and she would meditate upon death so she could bring that wisdom to the people.”

“So people would consult with her, as you said, because she’s a living saint?” asked Ludwig

“Right. So saints in Catholicism, for those who don’t know, they’re only granted sainthood after death; because she has a kind of metaphorical burial, she is then called a living saint, and people would come to her window and ask for all kinds of advice. It also was a choice, when you think of choices at this time, I’m also curious about what this choice is against. So, in her time, a woman’s other choices were to become a wife, a nun, a prostitute, or a servant. These were really her choices at the time, so I do imagine she felt called to be an anchoress to avoid some of those other choices. Being a wife in the medieval period meant constant pregnancy; most women would have 10 to 15 children and usually die in one of the pregnancies towards the end. So she may have been choosing a way from some things – my anchoress is choosing a way from marriage.”

The Anchoress Proper

The work begins, quite fittingly, with a funeral procession. Soprano Hyunah Yu made her way towards the front of the room, playing a dulcimer, and followed by the orchestra chanting a Requiem. With Yu at the center, the orchestra flanked around her and made of themselves the walls of her cell in the anchor hold.

“The Anchoress” is comprised of eight entries from the titular visionary, each reflecting upon her circumstances and interactions. The libretto contains a deluge of invocative language where the natural and divine, as well as the personal and communal, all seem to blend within one another. An early example of this came in the first entry; Yu’s highly introspective tones recalled the anchoress abandoning her lover: “I had promised my body to a man. But in front of the man my soul slid away as the moon fails its own appearing by morning, almost. In face of such a morning, I left one stone-bright burial for another, my other, this cell so dark all of me might make its light.” At the conclusion of this entry, The Anchoress is now dead to the cares of the world and so begins her remaining years of mysticism.

The second number featured an unsteady, almost frantic brass section as the anchoress described an encounter with a woman in need of healing. Yu illuminated the alliterative nature of the text, with phrases such as “her whole body barnacled with what she could not say.” and  “She had heard of the church’s garden of healing almond, aloe, anise, cornsilk…”

This number also introduced the audience to the dissonant blaring of the brass to symbolize a redacted part of the anchoress’ entry. In this case, her words to the woman are struck from the record; receiving no counsel of worth, the woman departs. As Yu relishes in the final word “unhealed,” her voice melts away into the lingering sound of the recorders played in the orchestra. In the third entry, these prior elements are joined together as the anchoress responds to a woman whose sister has been receiving visions during bouts of illness. Halfway through the entry, the number of censoring blares from the brass instruments increases dramatically and there develops a fascinating, if grating, kind of argument between the advising of the anchoress and the control of the church.

In the fifth entry, Yu shifts from her lofty sonority to deliver the opening in a recitative style.

Given the context of the anchoress dreaming she escaped from her cell into the forest, the breaking from the usual style of singing was effectively utilized. This entry featured even more redacted phrases, and so the audience was left in the dark regarding the full extent of events until the cacophony of dissonant sounds from the orchestra delivered a jolting answer. The final entry came as nearly one extended train of heightened, abstract thought rolling onward: “… though I mistook night as healer, sleep as erasure, vespers as lumbering dissolution towards matins, matins a leaf made violet since it hangs askance grapes in the full soon…” as the litany of thoughts and sensation is laid bare, Yu delivers a glorious closing: “It was then I could to the Lord say yes.”

Preaching with Power

“The Anchoress” seizes upon an overlooked aspect of medieval culture, and in exploring its possibilities, relates a deliberately-overwhelming abundance of sensation, experience, and inner revelation.

Ludwig’s music and arrangement deftly evokes the surrounding world of the middle ages in which the anchoress finds herself; though there are many efforts made to create the medieval traditional sound and feeling, Ludwig’s composition is unafraid to employ novel effects and modern instruments to support, and even censor, its beauty. Hyunah Yu’s treatment of the libretto did much to bring out the abstract, almost nebulous beauty of Ford’s libretto. All of this made for a spiritual and sonorous trip back in time. While “The Anchoress” begins as a tale of enclosure, it proves that what we find by looking inward is truly something to behold.


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