Illuminating Early Music

When done right, these choral directors say, early music transcends its intimidating reputation and connects with audiences.

Early music can seem intimidating, as imposing and immutable as a stone cathedral. The context for which much of it was written—liturgical ritual—is no longer a part of daily life for most. The music adheres to mathematical and technical principles, rather than sweeping listeners away with the pathos of Romantic repertoire. And the training required to play most period instruments is expensive, difficult, and time-consuming. Perhaps as a result, early music (usually defined as Western European music written before the death of Bach in 1750) is often viewed as a monolithic obstacle to surmount or a gleaming ideal on a pedestal.

These musty conceptions are exactly what some of today’s most innovative choral directors are seeking to topple. It helps that the voice is a much more accessible instrument than, say, the theorbo or the viola da gamba. A cappella early music in particular has spread beyond the domain of conservatory-trained professionals, and many community choruses regularly perform early pieces.

Inaccessible? Actually, People “Get It”

The choral directors interviewed all agreed that early music is, in fact, warmly appreciated by their audiences. “A tremendous amount of early music is a cappella,” says Kent Tritle, who helms ensembles such as the Oratorio Society of New York and Musica Sacra in addition to his duties as director of choral activities at Manhattan School of Music. Tritle has also directed the choral workshop  program at the Amherst Early Music Festival, a one-week intensive for experienced volunteer singers. “What the human voice can do with monophony, polyphony, and antiphony has a magnetic way of touching people deeply. Early music, performed beautifully—people get it.”

“I feel strongly that Bach belongs to everybody,” said Magen Solomon, the director of the San Francisco Bach Choir. “Bach can be absorbed and appreciated by people who don't have any idea of its complexity. It's available to people on all emotional, intellectual, and musical levels.”

SF Bach Choir
“I feel strongly that Bach belongs to everybody.” -Magen Solomon, director, San Francisco Bach Choir.

“We don’t find any particular resistance to early music at all. On the contrary, people really appreciate it,” says Karen Thomas, director of Seattle Pro Musica. "Our Bach B Minor Mass is selling better than any of our other concerts this year, and it's not till May. I find that especially younger audiences come with a fairly open mind about what they're going to hear."

Jamie Bunce has been teaching at Columbia High School in Maplewood, NJ since 2010. Since her first semester, she has included a piece of early music in every concert for her honors-level mixed choir. “I think it's part of my job to expose kids to music from around the world and across time periods," she says. "It's crazy that a human voice is able to make the type of sound that is required of early music, and I just think that kids will naturally like it if it's presented in a way that demystifies the process of learning it. We did Byrd's Ave verum corpus a few years ago, and the kids still sing it in the hallways."

Programming Early Music Well

Seattle Pro Musica and its three smaller ensembles perform a myriad of material from different time periods and eras, often as part of the same concert. "Where the early music goes on the program really depends on what the program is and how I want the narrative arc of the program to unfold," Thomas says. "Sometimes the earlier things will come first, simply because they speak to the ear in a way that’s hard to follow something lush and Romantic with. The historical unfolding often lends itself to starting with something that’s earlier, a little more sparse in terms of what’s going on harmonically and sonically.”

“If you're assembling a program of shorter works, I feel they need to be thematically connected in some way,” says Magen Solomon. ”It can be a musical, intellectual, cultural, or historical connection, but I don't think it's sufficient to do a bunch of nice pieces in a row.” The Bach Choir, which specializes in German choral works from the late 16th through the 18th century, recently presented a program centered around love and loss in landscape imagery that featured Brahms' Neue Liebeslieder waltzes, partsongs by Haydn, Fauré, Elgar, Tchaikovsky, and Mendelssohn, and Renaissance madrigals. “Another way to put together a program is to trace a musical theme, a piece of plainchant for example,” says Solomon.

Rose Ensemble
The Rose Ensemble is able to create dynamic programs by expanding the traditional definition of early music.

“Plainchant was my first love, along with early polyphony and Renaissance choral music, and we perform a lot of that,” said Jordan Sramek, director of the Rose Ensemble. “But our thematic programming allows us to use that kind of music along with what the larger world calls 'world music.'"

Hawaiian polyphony, American shape-note hymns, and medieval Spanish pilgrims' songs have all been the focus of recent Rose Ensemble programs and recordings. "We've broadened our definition of early music in such a way that it includes the historical, underserved, and rarely heard, as opposed to having to fit into the conventional time parameters. Because let's face it, if we set those, then a lot of early music from outside Europe wouldn't be included," says Sramek.

The St. Paul-based group is known for its meticulously curated programs, which often center on a niche of early music that has not been extensively performed. This year, the ensemble’s programs include Maltese Baroque Christmas music and music from Paris's Sainte-Chappelle chapel.

Kent Tritle's concerts with Musica Sacra, an AGMA union choir, frequently include a piece or two of early music. In October, his “A Cappella Extravaganza” at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan included Thomas Tallis's monumental 40-part motet Spem in alium along with German Romantic and contemporary American works. The lineup was intentionally eclectic, with the choir changing formation throughout.

KentTritle_headshot_creditJennifer Taylor
"Rather than considering myself an early music specialist, my niche has been to build programs that include early music done well.” -Kent Tritle, director, Musica Sacra

"Rather than considering myself an early music specialist, my niche has been to build programs that include early music done well,” says Tritle. “I’ve always tried to develop programming relevant for the ensembles I’m with that includes going way back and moving way forward."

Sometimes early music fits with a chorus’s mission in unexpected ways. The San Francisco Girls Chorus recently opened its season with a program of music from 16th and 17th century convents for the choir's touring group and three singers from New York early music ensemble TENET. According to artistic director Lisa Bielawa, the repertoire highlighted not only the female voice, but a historically female-centric way of producing music. "The older women were composing music for the novices to sing, and this whole city of women existed in the convents," she says. "It was entirely women creating and presenting this music.”

Getting the Historical Aspects Right

Groups that don’t specialize in early music may find it helpful to tap into the expertise of groups that do focus on the repertoire. For the San Francisco Girls Chorus performance with TENET, Bielawa collaborated closely with TENET’s Jolle Greenleaf to design the program. “She knows so much about this repertoire. The leaders of early groups are also scholars, because uncovering the repertoire is half the curatorial journey.” The program included music by composers such as Francesca Caccini and Lucrezia Orsina Vizzana, names obscure even to seasoned early music listeners.

Though the music was hundreds of years old, the process by which the concert came together was decidedly 21st century. Because Greenleaf was on the East Coast for most rehearsals, she listened to rehearsal recordings and sent comments and insights to the people who were working directly with the young singers. “We really used the connectivity the Internet provides to get these techniques introduced authentically, making sure the girls were singing like themselves instead of trying to sound like somebody,” Bielawa says. 

SFGirlsChorus creditDana Davis
The San Francisco Girls Chorus partnered with professional early music ensemble TENET to tap into their repertoire and technique expertise, which also served as a mentorship experience for the girls.

As a group focused on early music, the Rose Ensemble has substantial experience performing this repertoire, but the group still makes it a priority to work with specialists. “We bring in coaches to help us fortify our knowledge,” says Sramek. “We spend a lot of time on these things, because we think attention to pronunciation is as vital as tuning.”

Not every chorus has the resources to collaborate with experts, but modern technology has enabled directors and singers to explore early music and refine their performances like never before. Thanks to musical resources like YouTube and Spotify, anyone with an Internet connection can now listen to early music for free, whenever they want.

“I can use YouTube to have students compare and evaluate performance practice and style,” Jamie Bunce says. “There was an awesome video of a quartet in the UK. They sang a motet while being laryngoscoped, and they split the screen four ways. It was incredible. The kids’ onsets really lined up after that.” Also, much early repertoire is in the public domain, and can be found on websites such as the Choral Public Domain Library (CPDL). Easy access to early music scores is a financial boon to choruses that may not have the money for licensing fees.

Despite these resources, performing early music still presents  unique challenges, particularly for groups that don’t specialize in the repertoire. “If we’re doing a Baroque work with orchestra, we have to make the decision early on—are we doing it with baroque or modern instruments? What kind of tuning are we using?” says Karen Thomas. “We’re doing the B Minor Mass at A415, and if you’re looking at a modern choir with female altos, you have parts that sit rather low for a female alto. How do you make that work vocally, and do you use some countertenors on alto parts, or move some high altos to second soprano?” Thomas says Seattle Pro Musica has made accommodations in the rehearsal space and is not using the group’s usual A440 piano. “The biggest hurdle will be tuning the ears to the 5ths and 3rds; that will come.”

Seattle Pro Musica St. James Cathedral
Seattle Pro Musica in St. James Cathedral, one of their favorite venues for early music. "We can sing from different areas, creating a different effect for the audience...We’ll use music where the choir can move while singing,” says director Karen Thomas.

The San Francisco Bach Choir will also perform the B Minor Mass with period instruments, but Solomon says that choruses shouldn’t get hung up on historical authenticity. “It's absolutely possible to perform a Bach work successfully with modern tuning,” she says. “Feeling that you can't do it because you don't have enough baroque instrumentalists around is crazy.”

Directors often make use of space and movement when performing early music, including approaches like singing antiphonal music from balconies, singing in the round, and processionals. “We do a lot of concerts in St. James’s Cathedral, which is a lovely space because we can sing from different areas, creating a different effect for the audience,” says Thomas. “We’ll use music where the choir can move while singing."

“I think it's important to move all the time when you're doing motets with young people," says Jamie Bunce. "There's this odd juxtaposition of otherworldly effect but there's such a human sound, sound that only a human voice can make. Though there's not so much a sense of personal expression, there's so much human physicality in each line."

Tritle and Solomon both noted the changes in performance practice they had experienced. “Before people realized that notational values were different than our time, you heard incredibly slow pieces without realizing that that was just their range of notes. So, a lot of the Renaissance repertoire and quite a bit of Bach was done very turgidly,” says Solomon. “I think the realization of Bach’s relationship with dance music and Italian music helped people take a fresh look.”

“We’ve really honed it down to where we’re true to ourselves as musicians, but we’re being true to the composers,” says Tritle. “This intimate, personal execution is what draws audiences. There’s a lot more direct emotional appeal in how people do early music these days.”

Connecting with an Audience

Several of the directors interviewed noted an increased interest in performing early music – and acknowledged that this can make it a challenge to draw audiences in a crowded market.“There are more early groups than ever because we have a great sense of entrepreneurship, and as a result there’s even more and more to choose from,” says Tritle “I believe more is more—the more we do this the more the audience will grow—but ultimately it is a hard business to be in."

“Twenty-five years ago, the options were the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, Oakland Symphony Chorus, or us,” Solomon says. “Now there are about 500 choirs in the Bay Area. We are both lucky and unlucky to have a huge Baroque interest here. Sometimes it's harder to get attention because there are so many groups performing on a regular basis.”

Jamie Bunce
“If I don’t act like this is high-horse music that only magical unicorns can sing, I don’t think it takes much convincing,” says high school director of Jamie Bunce of introducing her students to early music.

The best way to attract attention from potential audience members, ensembles have learned, is through word of mouth and creative outreach efforts. “We certainly encourage our singers to reach out to their friends,” Solomon commented on audience development. “I think the excitement and the love of the singers for this repertoire is one of the biggest selling points and advertising mediums.”

 “I try to see the need for marketing and promotion not as a failure of music to speak for itself, but as an opportunity to connect with other fields, and draw people who might not know they'd respond so powerfully to 17th century Italian music,” says Lisa Bielawa.Themes of mentorship infused every aspect of the San Francisco Girls Chorus concert with TENET, from the repertoire to the rehearsal process to the staging—and to the marketing as well. As part of its promotional efforts, the ensemble reached out to Bay Area tech companies that had recently established mentoring programs to teach girls to code.

To make the music’s context clear once the audience is in the door, most ensembles combine program notes with comments from the stage. “When I describe music, I hope it’ll open a door to comparing the emotional content of the music to that in the audience members’ imaginations. I want to give the audience permission to go into an imaginative realm, if they don’t normally do that,” says Tritle. “I may talk about Qui tollis peccata mundi, and taking away the sins of the world, and how relevant that is right now with all the world’s tragedies. We can consider these words just like Bach considered them.”

“My goal is to make Baroque music seem like it isn’t something weird and foreign, or for snooty people,” Magen Solomon says. “I think the music does speak for itself.”Jaime Bunce agrees. “If I don’t act like this is high-horse music that only magical unicorns can sing, I don’t think it takes much convincing,” she says about connecting her singers and listeners to the repertoire.

“I think the key is not to look at early music as an obstacle to overcome, or a programmatic challenge, and certainly not as something to cause fear because it might be unknown,” says Jordan Sramek. “I think so often people are afraid of it because it's not by a known composer. The intention is not to fulfill a stereotype.”