The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music education: Next summer’s Madison Early Music Festival will explore the 17th century German Renaissance.

July 18, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

The final All-Festival concert of the 13th annual Madison Early Music Festival took place Saturday night on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus and surely left a lot of people – both performers and listeners — with a lot of good memories as well as a newly informed appreciation of early music in North America. (Last year’s theme was the early music of South America.)

But first things first – by which I mean there is NEWS to report.

Co-artistic directors Cheryl Bensman-Rowe and Paul Rowe announced that the 14th annual Madison Early Music Festival will take place next summer from July 6 to July 13, 2013. The theme will be “Stuttgart 1616: A Festive Celebration of the German Renaissance.”

More details about performers and repertoire will be forthcoming. But for the moment, you can find more information about attending the festival – as either a participant or a listener – by visiting the website’s home page at:

As for the final all-forces-combined concert of this summer’s festival, the theme was “Oh, the Happy Journey.”

As a metaphor, the theme of voyage served the program very well. The program started with music that musically said good-bye to the Old World and gradually worked into the arrival in the New World, where indigenous music itself proved yet another voyage that took different routes as it developed and evolved.

Like most long journeys and extended voyages, there were ups and down, moments where we seem becalmed and moments when the wind stirred our souls.

Mostly, of course, it was a historical journey through time from the Colonies to the Federalist period that started with Shaker hymns, Moravian songs in German, fuguing tunes, Federal and Presidential marches, dances, and songs by such American pioneers as Boston-based William Billings and New Haven-based Daniel Read (below).

In short, the ear-opening unusual program proved both instructive and enjoyable.

The combined forces of vocal and instrumental students, teachers and guest artists formed an impressively large body of musicians. They once again performed under the capable direction of the Milwaukee-based early music conductor Kristina Boerger (below)

The inventive conductor even had singers performing in the aisles (below) before moving onstage and placed brass players in the upper back balcony – all to terrific effect.

Others might disagree but The Ear heard several highlights, most of which came during the livelier second half.

One was a work taken from the official and impressive music library of President Thomas Jefferson who practiced his violin (below) up to three hours a day.

The work was English poet Alexander Pope’s “The Dying Christian to His Soul” set to the “Stabat Mater” music by Pergolesi. The poignantly close harmonies and bittersweet dissonances showed just what exquisite taste Jefferson (below) had in this, as in so many other things. What we don’t even know about our own heroes!

Another highpoint was to hear the variety of music composed by William Billings (below). He was a tanner by trade who was also a largely self-trained composer. Some of his music seemed pretty typical of 18th century. But when the performers got to “Jargon” (at bottom, with different performers), Billings used wild dissonances and weird sound effects, including animal noises. It was the kind of iconoclastic Yankee music and humor that reminded one of the later Charles Ives — or even of Mozart’s “A Musical Joke.”

A friend asked me: How come so much of this music seems so naïve and simple when it was composed after Vivaldi and Bach, Haydn and Mozart had finished their careers and more sophisticated works?

UW-Whitewater professor and bass trombone player J. Michael Allsen (below), who also writes the outstanding program notes for the Madison Symphony Orchestra, provided the answer.

In his pre-concert lecture, which fittingly took a fabric sampler (below), with many different stitches and patterns, as its theme or metaphor, Allsen discussed how American composers set out to create a distinctly American sound, to write music of the New World homeland and not its Old World roots.

Sometimes, it seems, such an evolution can seem like re-inventing the wheel. But as the concert showed, that long and seemingly repetitive process can yield unique and unusual , if not mainstream, results.

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