The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music interview: John Barker discusses the increasingly successful Madison Early Music Festival which will explore early English music from this Saturday through July 17

July 8, 2010
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Saturday, the 11th annual Madison Early Music Festival (below) gets under way (with a 7:30 p.m. concert of the Tudor Songbook by Madison soprano and festival co-director Cheryl Bensman Rowe) and runs through Saturday, July 17, when it concludes its program on eight performances with pre-concert lectures with the All-Festival concert of big choral works. It will focus on English music from the 12th through the 16th centuries – basically from the Middle Ages through Elizabethan England.

Perhaps the subject explains why, at a time when many early music festivals have reported a decline in attendance during these tough economic times, the MEMF has experienced a substantial increase in enrollment, according to program director Chelcy Bowles.

Many events — daily events for participants and for the public — are planned for the week-long festival and some are quite unusual, including a showing of a silent film version of “Robin Hood” with music by Hepserus and the acclaimed Ben Bagby performing the poem“Beowulf” in the original Anglo-Saxon while playing a six-string harp.

For the public, the concert admission cost, which includes a lecture before each concert, seem reasonable indeed. Passes to all concerts save 30 percent and are $75 , $65 for students and seniors over 62; individual concerts are $17, $14 for students and seniors; and “Robin Hood” is $10 as a separate event:

Here is a link to the festival with information about tickets, events and programs as well as downloadable brochures:

To get an overview, The Ear asked John Barker (below), a retired UW–Madison professor of Medieval history and an expert on early music who also serves on the festival’s board of directors, to give an overview of the festival:

How would you summarize the history of English music from the 1100s to the 1600s? What are the big lessons to be drawn from that era in terms of the music that came later?

England has always had some detachment from the Continent, making its own way.  It was rather on the fringe in the Central Middle Ages (11th-13th centuries), even though the Troubadour/Trouvere tradition was brought over under the Plantagenets (who were French in origin and in continued contacts).

Best preserved is liturgical music, and English musicians, while they followed Parisian models, developed some styles and textures of their own.  From the late 14th century on, the court developed a splendid Chapel Royal, with a host of fine composers producing splendid sacred polyphony.

The Englishman John Dunstaple (below) was lionized on the Continent as musician and mathematician in the first half of the 15th century. By the time of the early Tudors, English sacred writing had reached great richness of imagination and sonority, with generations of fine composers coming on.

Thus, when the huge series of crises represented by the Anglican Reformation, England had superlative musical talent (and at a time of blossoming literary life) on which to draw through the twists and turns that eventually produced one of the great choral traditions and literature of music.

Despite Henry VIII’s encouragement of instrumental music, it really came into its own (utilizing Spanish models) under Elizabeth I, whose era is a fantastically rich and diversified era musically, but only as the crowning of what came before.

How did music develop?

New and dramatic change came with the waning of polyphony and the general European transition to homophony and monody, as the entire language of music changed.

England went through new crises on all fronts in the 17th century, out of which came (a) constitutional monarchy, and (b) Henry Purcell.  Byrd and Purcell were perhaps the greatest geniuses of English music, but something slipped by the beginning of the 18th century, and it was left to the foreigner Handel to reshape and re-assert English musical genius.

More bumps after that, of course, until Sullivan, Elgar, Walton, Britten and others made their mark.  (Now we have . . . Thomas Adès?)

What qualities mark English music of that era as compared to music in other countries?

It was not one era, but a series of phases–a good four and a half centuries, you know, with increasingly independent paths successively charted out.

What should the average non-specialist know about the music of that time those times?

(A) It’s fabulously rich in musical literature and tradition; (B) It isn’t just Elizabethan.

What should music listeners know about English culture and history in general during those years as they pertain to music?

They are all of a piece, constant turmoil that stimulated evolution.  The English language comes into its own as both an official and a brilliantly literary medium, at a time when the generation of English political institutions is producing things like trial-by-jury, rulers subject to the law, parliamentary responsibility, and the emergence of an ever-leavening middle class.

All this, plus tumultuous religious change, produced new patronage, new audiences, new experimentation.  In so many, many ways, we Americans today (regardless of ethnic backgrounds) are the products and beneficiaries of English political, institutional, literary, and musical developments given their form and impetus under the Plantagenets and the Tudors.

What are your favorite works and composers in the festival and why? What concerts or works would you deem essential to non-specialist classical music fans?

A few simple choices are impossible.  If you want big names, there are Dunstaple, Power, Cornysh, Taverner, Tye, Sheppard, Tallis (below), Byrd, Dowland and ever so many with them along the way.

I think that looking for just the biggies, and the classical-juke-box hits, without digging widely and deeply into the rich range of materials, is a mistake.  Listen, learn, and make up your own minds!

Do you have an opinion of the Madison Early Music Festival, either as a past participant or listener?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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