courtesy of PIAS
When we discuss the topic of “Early Music” in the “New World,” we tend to frame the topic with the Renaissance influences from Spain and Portugal in territories such as Mexico, Guatemala, and Peru. (Music from the first two of those territories was explored last month when San Francisco Renaissance Voices presented their program entitled The Music of Renaissance Portugal & the New World.) The framework for our own country, however, was probably best defined in the history book by Gilbert Chase entitled America’s music: from the pilgrims to the present, whose first chapter is entitled “Puritan psalm singers.” “Early music” in our country came later than in the rest of our continent, delayed, in any serious way, until the early eighteenth century.
This context must be held in mind when we examine the recording that the Boston Camerata has prepared for harmonia mundi as part of the celebration of its 65th anniversary. It was founded in 1954 by Narcissa Williamson at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, motivated by the precept that visitors to the museum would be more interested in listening to the musical instruments in the collection, rather than just looking at them in glass cases. When Joel Cohen became Music Director in 1969, interest in recordings of Renaissance music was on a rise; and my own “first contact” with Cohen came from the lute recitals he would give in the Chapel at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (free of charge). Since that time, Boston Camerata has established itself as a top-tier performer of the pre-Classical repertoire; and, in 2008, Cohen passed leadership to Anne Azéma while remaining as Music Director Emeritus.
This Friday harmonia mundi will release that new “anniversary” album, whose full title is FREE AMERICA! Early songs of Resistance & Rebellion. Given where the ensemble based, it is about time that it provide a recording based on the opening chapters of Chase’s book! The twelve-member group consists of six vocalists and seven instrumentalists. Those questioning my arithmetic should note that Joel Frederiksen plays guitar in addition to serving as the bass vocalist. Azéma also does “double duty,” singing mezzo as well as leading the ensemble. The other vocalists are soprano Camila Parias, contralto Deborah Rentz-Moore, tenor Timothy Leigh Evans, and baritone John Taylor Ward. The other instrumentalists are Jesse Lepkoff (flutes and guitar), Eric Martin (violin), Reinmar Seidler (cello), Andrea Wirth (percussion), and both Sarah McConduibh and Paul Joseph playing fifes. As expected, Amazon.com has a Web page that is currently processing pre-orders for this album.
I should, perhaps, make the disclaimer that I have been curious about this repertoire ever since I read Chase’s book. I had encountered William Billings’ “Chester” in one of my folk song books; and, since my high school band had played William Schuman’s arrangement of that hymn, discovering its aggressive revolutionary text was a real find for me. My real delight, however, came during my tenure at the University of Pennsylvania, when one of my students told me about a group of Sacred Harp singers she had discovered. I had no trouble being the only Jew in an ensemble of Fundamentalists (after all, Schuman was also Jewish); and they seemed more interested in my baritone voice than in any professions of faith! We sang out of the 1971 edition of the Denson Revision of the Original Sacred Harp, whose setting of “Chester” has a more religious text that begins “Let the high heavn’s your songs invite.” (One evening our director confessed that he had just discovered the “revolutionary” version of the text, reading it to us with a tinge of horror in his voice!) The one selection we sang without music was the round “When Jesus wept,” whose text I wrote down on the front page of my Sacred Harp copy.
What I remember most about this experience was the colloquial approach we took to singing. This music was not intended as “art song;” and there was no good reason to sing it that way. For my own part, I had no trouble getting the spirit without embracing the faith, so to speak. From that point of view, I would say that many of the Camerata selections, particularly the a cappella part songs, sounded a bit too polished for my own tastes and memories. On the other hand the full repertoire that unfolds over the album is an impressive one and even occasionally amusing. Thus, if my former chorus leader had been shocked by the “political version” of “Chester,” I was tickeled with amusement to discover that “The British Grenadier” had been given a new set of words with the title “Free Americay!;” and “Rule Britannia!” was similarly transmogrified into “Rise Columbia!”
Most importantly, this period in the history of American music has long been a gap in my collection of recordings; and, taken as a whole, this new FREE AMERICA! recording is far more than merely satisfactory when it come to filling that gap.