Frontlines

Medieval strains, Renaissance rhythms

John Pearce November 26 1979
Frontlines

Medieval strains, Renaissance rhythms

John Pearce November 26 1979

Medieval strains, Renaissance rhythms

John Pearce

If people are only as young as they feel, perhaps music is only as old as it sounds.—Peter Hannan, Vancouver recorder player.

Baffin Island, Sept. 3, 1978. The Archbishop of Canterbury is presiding over Evensong at Frobisher Bay. The synod of the Arctic and a congregation of native people are commemorating the first Protestant communion in North America, celebrated here by Martin Frobisher’s chaplain in 1578. Appropriately, the music is by Frobisher’s Elizabethan contemporaries. The players are the Toronto Consort, flown in by Twin Otter for the occasion. Later they give seven recitals of Renaissance music on Baffin Island before bemused but appreciative audiences. Twice they share the bill with native throatsingers and drum dancers.

This incongruous meeting of sounds was a reflection of the recent explosion

of interest in the vocal and instrumental music of Europe between 1050 and 1650 AD—a trend especially evident in the coming weeks, with Christmas concerts scheduled in Vancouver, Toronto and other centres of interest in “early music.” Not long ago, lone academics seemed the sole devotees of this music, as they offered the tentative results of their archive-burrowing to pocket-size audiences. Now they find themselves respectable, popular — and no longer alone. Young professionals have joined them, many dedicated to commercial success in the field, and audiences who once thought Bach “early” are flocking to hear the music of Dowland and Praetorius, Machaut and Dufay. Several years ago, “early music,” like “Indian art,” was a grab-bag term. Now the styles and personalities of particular composers have come clear.

In Canada there were some early stirrings in the ’50s and ’60s, notably the Hart House Viols of Toronto, inspired by Wolfgang Grunsky and Christine Mather’s Manitoba Consort. Today,

however, most major Canadian cities boast an early music ensemble, amateurs meet in each other’s homes, and 15 Canadian universities offer courses in the playing and teaching of early instruments. The Toronto Consort claims a loyal following ranging from surgeons to truck drivers; the Ottawa-based Huggett family, highly successful popularizes, look fora 94-per-cent box-office on their annual home-town appearances at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre; the Vancouver Society for Early Music has made a $20,000 investment in early instruments.

Why the interest? In part, it is that audiences and performers want to chart new courses—but not contemporary ones. To them, Stockhausen and punk rock seem about as attractive as Scylla and Charybdis. So there’s sheer delight in uncovering an immensely varied repertoire, of great rhythmic and melodic richness, most of it centred on the voice or upon instruments emulating the voice. There’s also a choice between medieval pieces, which sound more strident due to their mixture of timbres, and Renaissance music which opts for a gentler blend of sounds. The bottom line may lie with Leslie Huggett’s characterization of Renaissance music: “It’s toe-tapping, it’s tuneful and it doesn’t go on for too long.”

For the musicians there’s the novelty of about 40 unfamiliar instruments, with their Tolkien-like names: shawm, krummhorn, sackbut, rebec, bombard, cittern, vielle . . . There’s also escape from the tight rein of the classics, especially when early manuscripts provide a mere skeleton around which to improvise.

Timothy McGee, ex-director of the Toronto Consort, is an impish enthusiast. Now a professor of music himself, he recalls with glee the days when he and friends tried to implement prevail-

ing scholarly theories of performance. The results were often farcial: real medieval instruments and real human lungs and fingers simply wouldn’t do what the academics demanded. He’s now writing a realistic, though probably controversial, book on the subject.

McGee and other members of the Consort, including Garry Crighton, David Klausner and Alison Mackay, have used the group as a research tool, especially for medieval music. The research necessary to support any early music performance is formidable, but the medievalists have to rely on supersleuthing and inspired guesses: many manuscripts don’t even specify whether voices or instruments are to be used.

McGee is a carpenter, and each year he presides over a building workshop where anyone can learn to make a psaltery, a crwth or an S-shaped trumpet. Usually the aim is a precise replica, perhaps of a sackbut in a Nurenberg museum or a rackett housed in Leipzig. “Extinct” instruments pose a problem. One instrument maker reconstructed the four-stringed bowed vielle from close scrutiny of six paintings by Memling. All showed angels holding vielles from different angles. One problem: how tall is an angel?

Demand for early instruments has far outdistanced supply. Craftsmen are often two to 10 years behind with orders. One frustrated client wrote in desperation: “Please, I’m getting old.” In Canada more than 15 makers, the majority in B.C., are working to high international standards. One is Edward Turner from Pender Island, who produces superb harpsichords, while in Woburn, Quebec, there’s Bob Marvin, said to produce the best Renaissance recorders in the world. Business isn’t always small-scale: Regina’s David Sarsfield operates a substantial trade in early instruments by mail order.

Darryl Williams, a teacher who lives in Schömberg near Toronto, has all the business he can handle making viols. His instruments range from $1,200 (small) to $2,200 (larger, well ornamented). In Vancouver Ray Nurse charges $1,500 and up for his lutes. In the ’60s he ordered a lute from Belgium, didn’t like it, and tried to fix it himself. Intrigued, he went to England in 1967 to study with lute makers in Ely. It’s no accident that 12 years later the venue for an international symposium of lute makers was Vancouver. Nurse is himself a lutanist and singer of high repute.

Vancouver has good claim to be the capital of early music in Canada; its Early Music Society has blazed a trail for similar societies in Calgary, Seattle

and San Francisco. Under the society’s umbrella flourish the groups Hortulani Musicae, founded in 1968 by Nurse, David Skulski and others, and the Vancouver Towne Waytes.

Skulski, a bearded, genial, gnome-like musician, ex-president and ex-executive director of the society and director of the Waytes, explains that the Waytes set out to revivify a sociocultural tradition. The original Waytes, “sounders of the watch” employed by civic governments, gradually took on more ceremonial functions. The Vancouver Waytes imitate this tradition by appearing at banquets and formal occasions, though the City of Vancouver has yet to put them on the payroll. In addition they give regular concerts, tour schools and make records. One, a Renaissance dance record, comes complete with dancing instructions.

Perhaps the best known group in the field, the popular Huggett family, don rich period costumes for their Renaissance entertainments, which include readings and wry commentary as well as music and dance.

Some “serious” practitioners bridle at any mention of the Huggetts, rather

like an English professor asked to “place” James Michener. But the smiling, wholesome Huggetts have done sterling service for Renaissance music—and for the nuclear family—in their extensive tours of Canada and Europe over the past 10 years. The parents, Leslie and Margaret, shoulder much of the research; Andrew is the composer/arranger; Jennifer, Ian and Fiona concentrate on their instruments (everyone plays at least five). Leslie was

once a horn player under Sir Thomas Beecham and Margaret a music teacher, but the children, in their teens and early 20 s, have grown up inside Renaissance and baroque music. And if onstage they place as high a priority on entertainment as on rigorous authenticity, that hardly seems to lose them audiences.

Probably new ensembles will spring up over the next few years; summer workshops for performers are drawing increasing numbers of participants. One day the early music vogue will peak, but there’s no sign of that yet.