The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music Q&A: The 13th annual week-long Madison Early Music Festival starts Saturday will focus on Canadian and early American music from the Colonial period and Revolutionary War to the Civil War, and includes a FREE public lesson in Shape Singing. Part 2 of 2. | July 6, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

The 13th annual Madison Early Music Festival (MEMF) will take place on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus from this Saturday, July 7, though next Saturday, July 14. (And this year, the public All-Festival concert on July 14 will NOT compete with the Madison Opera’s FREE Opera in the Park concert, slated for July 21.)

Continuing the theme it started last year of Early Music in the Americas, the festival will turn its attention as it travels from south to north. It will change its focus from South America and Latin America to the United States and Canada. Specifically, “Welcome Home! An American Celebration’’ will focus on music from the Colonial and the Revolutionary War periods through the Civil War.

For complete information about the many lectures, master classes and public concerts, visit the festival’s homepage:

Co-director and soprano Cheryl Bensman Rowe (below) recently gave The Ear an extended interview about the festival, its events and its participants, which includes the acclaimed singing group Anonymous 4. Today is the last of two parts:

What is the historical origin and role of the music from that era in the part of the world you will cover this summer? Are there highlights you want to mention?

We will have a wide variety of music starting with the early Colonists in the 1600s, and the music they brought with them to this country from England, all the way through the Civil War era, and a bit of Canada.

The traditions of the Singing Schools, directed by singing masters, started around 1720, were started because the clergymen wanted to eliminate “an horrid Medley of confused and disorderly Noises” created from all the local and individual variations of hymn tunes that the congregation was singing from memory.

Many Moravian clergy and lay people were well trained in music, and came to the New World from what is now the Czech republic, fully conversant with the taste and practice of European classicism. In Moravian life there was no distinction between what we now call “sacred” and “secular,” and many of the composers were also teachers and pastors — music was an essential part of everyone’s education and daily life.

Other religious communities brought or developed their own music including the Shaker community, originally from England, who used music and dancing as part of their spiritual revelations. Their best-known tune is “Simple Gifts,” which Aaron Copland (below) used in “Appalachian Spring” and his “Old American Songs.”

The Harmony Society, under the spiritual leader George Rapp, emigrated from Iptingen, Germany in 1804 to found a Utopian communal society, greatly influenced the economic and cultural life of early Western Pennsylvania.  They built three towns and operated prosperous factories and farms. Using their wealth they satisfied their enjoyment of music by establishing one of the first orchestras in the United States, building a large music hall, training musicians, commissioning original works, and holding frequent concerts.

We will also be studying and performing music from the Thomas Jefferson Library. For a preview, visit:

Jefferson (below top) was a devoted violinist, who continued to practice three hours a day, even when he was the President of the United States. He had a big collection, which includes works of Handel, Pergolesi and Corelli as well as songs and chamber music. (Below bottom is his violin and sheet music he used.) It’s fun to check out the link I’ve included to see what’s in there.  One of the faculty members will be teaching a class focusing on some of the chamber music from the collection, and we will be performing several pieces from this collection on the All-Festival Concert.

Why has that music and those composers been neglected by historians and performers?

Sometimes I think that Americans can be a bit snobby, and feel that what is in Europe is better.  Even in the orchestral world, there is a glamor factor about the European conductor. That’s why I was so happy to see that Alan Gilbert was hired as the principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic.

Actually, there has been a broader interest in this repertoire. Anonymous 4 (below and at bottom) one of the most popular early music ensembles recorded three CDs dedicated to this repertoire: “Gloryland,” “American Angels” and “The Cherry Tree,” as do the Rose Ensemble, The Western Wind Vocal Ensemble, Boston Camerata, Hesperus, Boston Baroque and Paul Hillier’s group His Majestie’s Clerkes, to name a few.

I haven’t heard a lot of the choral repertoire performed in Madison, so I hope we will spread the word, and that singers and conductors from the area will come to the concerts to hear what a great wealth of repertoire comes from our own musical history.

What will be the program for all-festival program?

We are presenting a whirlwind tour.  Starting with a short set of pieces from England, before the earliest colonists left the shores to come to North America, Shaker Hymns, a Federal Overture by Benjamin Carr, William Billings anthems, music of the Moravians and the Harmonists.

The music from the Thomas Jefferson Music Library that we will present includes several songs dedicated to George Washington by Francis Hopkinson (below, a signer of the Declaration of Independence), and “An Ode: The Dying Christian to his Soul,” adapted by Alexander Pope to the principal airs of the hymn “Stabat Mater,” composed by Pergolesi.

I spent a lot of time and detective work finding this piece, which has not been published in a modern edition!  The book was so fragile that is could not be copied from the original which is in the Special Collections library at the University of Virginia.  Luckily, it was on microfilm, which could be copied, so we will be able to present the work at MEMF.

Are there other concerts, performers (new or returning), sessions and guest lectures you recommend for the general public?

This is a difficult question to answer.  Everything is accessible for the general public.  Check out the web site I’m sure people will find many topics and concerts of interest:

The new artists we are presenting include: Anonymous 4 on Saturday, July 7; Chris Norman performing French Canadian chamber music with Chatham Baroque on Sunday, July 8; and the Newberry Consort with banjo player Michael Miles, pianist David Schrader and actor Paul Hecht on Friday, July 13.

But the returning ensembles are also wonderful, on Sunday night The Rose Ensemble  (below) will be singing early American Hymns and Ballads, and the Faculty Concert which is musical reflections of the lives of the first settlers who settled in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, includes the first known American ballad, a true tale of the struggles of day-to-day life, New England’s Annoyances, “… We have pumpkins at morning and pumpkin at noon; If it was not for pumpkins we should be undone …”

All of the lectures are free and open to the public, and each lecture focuses on topics from “Early American Vocal Music” (Lawrence Bennett) to French Canadian history (Michelle Bray Wilson); Colonial and Federal American Art (William Keyse Randolph from the Milwaukee Art Museum); “From Colonies to States” by John Barker, who, as you know, writes for your blog and is the music critic for The Isthmus; “The Librarian and the Banjo” by Jim Carrier; and “An Early American Sampler” by Mike Allsen, well-known to Madison Symphony goers for his program notes.

Besides the lectures and the special events — I talked about the Four-Shape note music event earlier — we also have a dance event, “Jigging Across North America,” on Monday, July 9, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. in the Great Hall at the Memorial Union.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I’ll only add a great quote from the “Sacred Harp Singing” documentary about Shape Singing (below) that  I mentioned above: “The earliest American music is neither dead nor dying: it’s standing right in front of you, singing.”

So we hope that everyone in the area will attend a concert, lecture or special event, or become a workshop participant.  Besides the music, it’s a great opportunity to learn about many facets of the rich culture during this time in history: art, political history, geneology, dance, instrumental, and vocal and instrumental styles and musical composition.

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