The female vocal quartet called Anonymous 4 has become one of the most popular and respected small vocal groups specializing in early music. The group has attained the elusive combination of popularity and respect through its unique blend of creativity and scholarly/historical depth.
The name "Anonymous 4" comes from a scholarly convention for designating anonymous medieval writers and scribes with numbers; working with a particular manuscript by the scribe known as Anonymous 4, they found it an ideal name for their new quartet. The group was formed in 1986. Its purpose was to experiment with the sound of medieval music (both chant and polyphony) as sung by higher voices. Its four members are all singers of considerable beauty of tone, range, and flexibility, but all of them had nontraditional backgrounds to one extent or another. Marsha Genensky, originally a folk singer, earned an M.A. in Folklore and Folklife from the University of Pennsylvania. She is an expert in traditional American shape-note singing, and experimented with different vocal techniques for the different strains of British-American folk song. Susan Hellauer, a native of New York City, was a trumpeter with a B.A. in music from Queens College. She had always been fascinated by vocal music of the medieval and Renaissance eras, leading her to become a singer and to earn advanced musicology degrees at Queens College and Columbia University. Jacqueline Horner, of Belfast, Northern Ireland, is the only non-American in the group. She attended Queen's University, earning a B.A. with joint honors in music and English. In London, she studied performance practice at City University and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Like many other medieval-oriented performers, she is interested in both early and modern music, and has performed with Pierre Boulez's Ensemble InterContemporain, the Ensemble for Early Music, Ensemble Moderne, and Continuum. She moved to New York, which she calls her "favorite city in the universe." Johanna Maria Rose has a broad background in several of the arts. She earned an M.A. in Early Music Performance at Sarah Lawrence College.
Anonymous 4 is renowned for the depth of its scholarship. Hellauer does the primary music research, and when needed prepares the group's repertory by transcribing it into modern notation from original sources. Genensky and Rose are in charge of language research and study of literary sources, and adapting readings for their concerts. The teamwork results in concerts that avoid presenting the music in a vacuum. Anonymous 4's programs are innovative and entertaining, relating the music to its time and milieu through narrative and poetry interwoven with the music. Sometimes they fill out groups of chants or fragmentary pieces of polyphony with music of their own composition in order to make convincing wholes, but the new music they create is done accurately enough to blend seamlessly with the medieval originals.
Beyond such historical considerations, the group's astonishingly beautiful and pure vocal blend has made it one of the leading acts in classical music recording. Despite being involved in what may seem a narrowly specialized academic area of music, they have sold about a million copies of their recordings on the Harmonia Mundi Label. Among these were On Yoolis Night, a medieval Christmas album that won the prestigious French Diapason d'Or award. Their first disc, An English Ladymass, was CD Review's Classical Early Music Disc of the Year, and their fourth, The Lily and the Lamb, was Classic CD's Disc of the Year for 1996. Tower Music reported that its 11,000 Virgins disc of music by Hildegard von Bingen was one of the top 100 Independent Label releases in 1997-1998. In 2003 the group turned to early American religious traditions with its American Angels album.