At Renaissance fairs, many groups perform with impeccable musicianship and showmanship and are justly appreciated and admired. We’re fans of the vast majority of the ones we’ve heard, and some of them we have the privilege and honor of counting as friends. Bless ’em all—but you won’t hear a whole lot of music actually from the Renaissance or Middle Ages at Renaissance fairs. As fans of early music, we’d like to do what we can about that, namely perform early music at fair, in hope that fair patrons unfamiliar with early music will come to know and like it, too. Ideally, we will start a nice positive feedback loop.
In late July of 2001, a singer in a group that performs at Renaissance fairs posted an innocent request for suggestions for new material to alt.fairs.renaissance. The first response of “Yeah, how about something actually from the Renaissance?” led to a one hundred fifty-eight message flamefest, during which several people, including some Renaissance fair performers, expressed opinions of early music that couldn’t honestly survive significant exposure to the field.
If all the early music you’ve heard is Gregorian chant, which was briefly hip a few years back, the music of Hildegard von Bingen, a more recent fad, or the few madrigals most often sung at Renaissance fairs, we can see why you’d think that.
Polyphonic music of the Renaissance and Middle Ages is very different from most Western music that people have listened to for the past few centuries. It’s a bunch of people singing or playing, with no one part being the special or important part. To modern ears, the various parts sound like they just happen to make a point of mostly staying at consonant intervals relative to one another. Like impressionistic music, early polyphony and chant may not hit you over the head with a blatant beat or structure, and even when they do repeat, the repetition isn't always obvious. One particular kind of early music, the “isorhythmic motet,” is designed to take a long time to precisely repeat!
So, some early music is a shifting texture of multiple parts with no obvious beat or apparent destination or landmarks that you can get your bearings from, and without the bombast of Romantic music or rock and roll. No wonder it can initially seem boring to people brought up on Elvis and Ozzy, Ludwig and Gustav, or Dizzy and Bird... but not all early music is like that! For example:
Not, as they’d say on Seinfeld, that there’s anything wrong with early polyphony. We like it a lot. It’s just that people new to early music might not want to plunge into the Ars Subtilior right off the bat.
In a way, perhaps. Not a whole lot of it survives—probably very little was written down to even have a chance to survive. Compositions written down so consorts could perform them for rich patrons would be a lot more likely to survive than whatever J. Random Troubadour came up with on the fly. Even the risqué songs about peasants like “Martin et son porceau” were probably written so that upper class folks could snicker at them and feel superior.
It wasn’t all hoity-toity, high-falutin’ stuff with frolicking nymphs and shepherds, though. For example:
Speaking of Thomas Morley, he and some other composers of the Elizabethan era wrote both beautiful religious music (by all means check out his gorgeous “Nolo mortem peccatoris”) and extremely raunchy stuff. Even “Now is the month of Maying” is often bowdlerized for performance at Renaissance fairs and high schools by people who would rather you not think about just what those merry lads were doing “each with his bonny lass out on the greeny grass.” Anyone writing religious music these days who was found out as having written a song like “Will You Buy a Fine Dog?” would be fired, shunned, excommunicated, and whatever else the church and congregation could think of so fast his head would spin. Maybe that says something about the Elizabethan era versus our time.
Probably a lot don’t know. But we can say that some patrons have recognized Machaut virelais that we’ve played at Renaissance fairs and themed dinners. (Yes, paying customers dressed in modern clothing.) There was even one guy who had recorders on hand, requested particular pieces that he knew as well as we did, and joined in.
Early music is gaining in popularity. Foolscap again—mumble-mumble years ago, when I had just gotten seriously into early music, and for a long time after that, I made a point of snapping up every early music album I found. I can’t afford to do that today. If you’d told me back then that one day I could go to the local bookstore and buy a magazine whose exclusive subject is early music, I’d have asked where you’d gotten such high quality mind-altering substances. Today, though, I can walk three blocks and buy the excellent quarterly Early Music America, which publishes an extensive list of seminars, festivals and workshops each year. More people have heard early music, and even like it. In fact, you probably know more early music than you realize.
People go to Renaissance fairs to experience something out of the ordinary. The general public knows enough about the Renaissance and Middle Ages that it would object to a “Renaissance fair” where the performers dressed like flappers, Gibson girls, Civil War re-enactors, Minutemen, or the cast of Grease. Why is the musical equivalent so prevalent? If we musicians can keep to the time the fair claims to be based on while still entertaining, moving, and educating an audience, why shouldn’t we?
We admit it up front: we’re no paragons of periodicity. Foolscap plays plastic Yamaha recorders that are modeled on Baroque originals, so that they have a conical bore (the hole running the length of the instrument) rather than the cylindrical bore of Renaissance recorders. Lady Ampersand plays a Boehm flute, and although transverse flutes go way back, and from iconographic and literary evidence were seriously popular in the 16th century, Theobald Boehm did his ground-breaking work on woodwind key layout in the mid nineteenth century.
If we must defend ourselves from charges of hypocrisy, suffice it to say that the music is what matters to us. If pressed, we’ll point out that composers in period were far less picky about instrumentation than modern composers, that good plastic recorders are generally considered superior to cheap wooden recorders, and that conditions at Renaissance fairs vary from cold with torrential rain to 100+ degrees Fahrenheit on dark-colored stages in the blazing sun.
If a choice must be made, it is far better to perform the music well on an instrument that is not the ideal first choice than to play it badly on the correct instrument.
—Timothy J. McGee, Medieval and Renaissance Music: A Performer’s Guide
© 2003-2012 Concentio Agnorum