Early Music in the Bay Area: Sackbuts and Crumhorns and Citterns…oh my!

It’s well-known for its fog, iconic bridge, wineries, redwood forests, and cable cars. It’s also known to early music enthusiasts as a world-class early music research center, for being home to one of our nation’s oldest and most prominent early music societies (SFEMS–the San Francisco Early Music Society), and for sponsoring one of the three most important early music festivals in Europe and America, the Berkeley Festival and Exhibition (BFX). The Bay Area has been called “the real center of historical performance in the United States” (San Francisco Classical Voice) and its early music festival has “become a remarkable institution on the American musical scene” (The New York Times).

How did the Bay Area become such an important location for early music performance and scholarship? And why does that community continue to thrive?

The Bay Area was notable after WW2 for its cultural diversity and experimentation in music and all the arts. This environment enabled musicians to interact and generate new ensembles, projects, and repertory. Amateur singing groups and community choruses with an early music emphasis were encouraged to grow. Schools began offering programs that inspired young musicians to pursue careers in early music, some of whom (like mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson) went on to become acclaimed artists.

According to former SFEMS President and BFX Artistic Director Robert Cole, the lifestyle in the Bay Area was different from other places in the ’60s. “There’s always been a spirit of diverse community…very much a freelance kind of world where you tried things out and performed with different groups instead of working with a single orchestra. During the ’70s, areas like the high tech industry showed a similar tendency. A number of tech people didn’t want to be part of a large organization and left places like New York for the Bay Area to start their own businesses…in a region that’s also attractive and a major tourist destination.” Cole explains that SFEMS was able to develop and flourish primarily because of its Bay Area location and, in turn, helped strengthen the region’s early music scene. “There’s no other organization quite like it, at least of any size…. It’s unique in offering such a broad range of services: community services that have helped dozens of ensembles get off the ground, education programs that have taught thousands of aspiring professional and amateur musicians, and production of the biennial Berkeley Festival—an event that’s earned the organization international recognition.” (The next Festival will be held in 2020.)

Harvey Malloy, the current Executive Director of SFEMS, refers to the Society as a pioneer: “It was one of the first organizations to create opportunities for musicians and offer nationally recognized workshops and classes.” Malloy agrees that SFEMS has played a central role in turning the Bay Area into a thriving world center of historical performance through presentations showcasing the finest early music performers, by opening the world of early music to adults and children, and training members of the next generation of artists.

SFEMS’ Affiliate Program has contributed to the success of numerous local artists and organizations by providing support and publicity. (The nation’s leading period instrument orchestra, the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, was originally an affiliate.) SFEMS’ concert series has always drawn a variety of internationally acclaimed early music artists to the Bay Area including Emma Kirkby, Joshua Rifkin, Anonymous 4, the Hilliard Ensemble, Jordi Savall, and Gustav Leonhardt. The current season, SFEMS’ 42nd, continues to feature a wide variety of programs including performances by The Choir of New College Oxford–founded in 1379 and one of Britain’s most acclaimed choral ensembles, Antic Faces–a newly formed Renaissance band presenting Elizabethan entertainments, the Grammy Award nominated Ars Lyrica Houston Chamber Players performing works for violin, viola da gamba, and harpsichord, Iestyn Davies–one of England’s greatest countertenors accompanied by lutenist Thomas Dunford, and El Mundo–a chamber group dedicated to recreating Latin sounds of the old and new worlds.

The Bay Area early music scene also continues to thrive because of the Berkeley Festival and Exhibition. The biannual BFX has a large number of formal “mainstage” concerts performed by local, national, and international artists, as well dozens of more informal artist-produced concerts. The weeklong festival has been the place to find everything from medieval to 19th-century music, risqué chansons and erotic madrigals fitted with new sacred texts, ribald folksongs transformed into prayerful polyphony, a rediscovered mass in 40 and 60 parts that hadn’t been performed in close to 450 years, early music film festivals, impromptu performances, a sing along, and a fully staged Baroque opera/ballet about an ugly water nymph who believes the king of the gods is in love and wants to marry her. During performances and in the exhibition hall you’re likely to come across a variety of period instruments including Bladder pipes, Eunuch flutes, Shawms, Vihuelas, Hurdy-gurdys, Racketts, Ouds, Sackbuts, Crumhorns, and Citterns that were precursors of modern instruments or were popular for a while then went out of style.

Robert Cole again: “The BFX is the spirit of historical performance—seeking to know and understand music in its full historical context, its artifacts, it practices, its meaning to those who composed and heard it. And from that knowledge and experience, we hope to know ourselves and our own world better, as we make fresh and hear anew the thoughts and sentiments of souls singing to one another across the ages”–statements that apply to the entire early music scene as well.

Of course you don’t have to travel to the Bay Area to hear early music: Performances are readily available on vinyl, CDs, DVDs, and from downloads. If you’re just starting to investigate early music or already enjoying it, try listening to recordings by some of the following period instrument groups: The Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, Musica Pacifica, Magnificat, Archetti Baroque String Ensemble, Ensemble Vermillion, and Vajra Voices…all with roots in the Bay Area.