Early Music Stages a Revival
American composer Richard Einhorn first saw a scratchy print of Carl Dreyer's magnificent silent film "The Passion of Joan of Arc" (1928) on a dirty wall in a basement room of New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1988. Poor as the conditions were, he was transported by the experience and inspired to begin his dazzling oratorio, "Voices of Light," to accompany the film.Skip to next paragraph
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The oratorio, which combines elements of medieval music with the grand scale of contemporary orchestra and chorus, can stand splendidly on its own. It has been described as sonorous and dramatic at times, managing moments of fragile beauty.
The complete multimedia event with film, full orchestra, chorus, and soloists has packed in eager audiences in concert halls across the country and garnered critical praise for Mr. Einhorn since its debut in 1994.
The film, about the trial and execution of Joan of Arc, is generally recognized by film historians and art critics as a masterpiece of the silent era. Books have been written about it, yet it's difficult to see because screenings are rare. Einhorn has given it a new life.
And that further life has blossomed in the context of an early-music revival. Early music is not "whatever you hear before 7 a.m.," jokes Kathleen Fay, executive director of the Boston Early Music Festival. Medieval plainsong (church music - many hymns and carols derive from this source), court dances, songs of troubadours, court entertainments of the Renaissance, and the earliest operas and Baroque pieces have returned in breathtaking variety.
Early music is back, and it's big. It has even shown up in popular music like Enigma's "Sadeness."
In any fine CD store, you can find a whole section devoted to early music. The solemn pace of the Gregorian chant sung without musical accompaniment offers a pure, sweet sound that evokes the expression of faithful love and praise. The rousing court dances and songs of troubadours awaken long-sleeping memories of chivalry, and speak to the joy and wit of a distant, yet familiar culture.
One reason for the revival of early music has been the increase of scholarship in the area and the increasing interest of musicians in the period. Chanticleer began as a group of friends, members of a professional chorus, who met to experiment with plainsong and other early music - as did Anonymous 4 (see story, above). The Boston Camerata has been around since 1954, and in 1974 began touring extensively through Europe and the Americas.
Many groups, like the Cambridge Singers, include early music in sampler albums. And other groups like the Waverly Consort, Msica Antiqua de Albuquerque, Sequentia, and the Tallis Scholars offer a wide variety of styles, sometimes with mixed-gender voices.
"New York Pro Musica set the table in the '50s and '60s," says music critic Mark Shullguld, who adds that other recordings of early music ranged from excellent to wretched.
"And in the '60s David Munroe - a young intense English fellow who played the recorder like a rock guitar - helped open up the field for the public. Then 'Chant' [a 1994 CD] broke open the whole field....
"Once [audiences] realized that the music was beautiful and that they could connect with ancient times and people - for me, that's always been part of the excitement - then it took off," Mr. Shullguld says.
The earliest manuscripts offer notes and text without indicating tempo, rhythm, key, and so on. Sometimes the notes and text don't even line up. Learning to perform these works requires tremendous scholarship - and a good deal of intuition.
Paul O'Dette, artistic director of the Boston Early Music Festival and one of the world's great lutenists, points out that it took years just for musicians to master the huge array of medieval and Renaissance instruments - which are as various as wildflowers.