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Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2008

Songs of Courage

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To get at the very roots of classical music (aka “European Art Music”), you have to turn the clock way, way back. Beyond Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven; much earlier even than Bach, Handel and Vivaldi; past Monteverdi and Palestrina, and even before the famous madrigals, lute songs and ballades of the Renaissance. We must look to the period that follows the fall of the Roman Empire in the year 476. In Milwaukee, there’s no better escort than Early Music Now to take us on such a journey, and so they shall in their next concert. Titled “Chanterai por mon courage,” Early Music Now examines music from the 11th century to the end of the 13th, leaving us at the Renaissance’s very doorstep.


Commonly called the Medieval Period or the Middle Ages, music of this era tended to be centered on the church (i.e., the Roman Catholic Church) in the form of plainsong, motets, chants and so forth, but there were also the secular songs of the troubadours and common folk. The concert (described as something of “a mirror of our time”) canvases music selections for voice or voice and instrumental accompaniment that would have been used primarily to comfort generations in Europe left behind by young crusaders in the battle for the Holy Land. As guest artist Anne Azema says, it’s “a program of medieval secular and para-liturgical music that reflects the hopes, fears, frustrations, pains and comforts of the crusaders’ contemporaries.”

Azema, a French soprano regarded as one of early music’s foremost practitioners, lends both her voice and her talents on the hurdy-gurdy (kind of a hand-cranked, mechanical violin) to this effort. She’s joined by American string virtuoso Shira Kammen, who has spent most of her life exploring the world of early music. Kammen joins in with both harp and vielle (a bowed, stringed predecessor to the violin, but with a leaf-shaped pegbox and five strings instead of four).

In addition to the music of Thibault de Champagne, Guiot de Dijon, Alfonso el Sabio and Gaucelm Faidit, contemporaneous readings from the works of Richard the Lionheart, Saladin and others will be presented. A medieval “Feast of Fools,” with recipes and entertainment from the Middle Ages, follows the Milwaukee performance.

At All Saints’ Cathedral in Milwaukee on Feb. 2 and at Luther Memorial Church in Madison on Feb. 3.