Early Music Review



Boston Camerata: The Spread of Folksongs across the Ages

February 14, 2005 - Elon, NC:


It was astonishing to read in the program blurb that the Boston Camerata has been around for over five decades. Founded in 1954 by director Joel Cohen and originally associated with the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the ensemble has been touring internationally since 1974. A mainstay of the "original instruments movement," it is renowned for its consistently unique programming and superb execution of European and American music of the Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque eras. During two Spoleto Festival USA seasons in the 1980s, we were enthralled by performances of the Medieval mystery play, Herod and the Massacre of the Innocents, and settings of the original sources of Tristan et Iseult. Several programs in recent years have focused on the transmission of folk music from Europe to the Americas. The delightful program New Britain: The Roots of American Folksong, presented in Elon University's McCrary Theatre on February 14, was originally conceived and presented by Cohen during the American bicentennial year. It has been revived for tours in 1978, 1982, 1986, 1992, 1997, and 2005.

Much of the program coupled older and more recent examples of European and American pieces utilizing the same basic tune. The concert opened with tenor Tim Evans chanting "Judicii Signum" (the Sybil's Chant), one of the oldest melodies of 10th century (Medieval) southern Europe. The full roster of singers conjured a choir of the Deep South, singing "The Great Day," from the shape-note collection Sacred Heart, Philadelphia, 1860. Both pieces portray the horrors of the Day of Judgment, and the shape-note hymn is still in use.

Next came some thirteen selections that concentrated on the preservation and metamorphosis of the music of Old France in New France, Québec. Most striking was the contrast of Jacob Arcadelt's "Une nymphe jolie" (c.1568), a vivid description of a naked, sleeping nymph, with a Christmas hymn composed in the Huron language by French Jesuits.

A set of 22 pieces under the rubric "Wandering Songs and Ballads" traced the same basic and well-known melody from France, "Il est venu le petit oysillon" (c.1475), to "An jenem Tag, nach Davis sag" (Germany, 1619) to an English version (1859) and on then to Tennessee (1937) – it is now known as "Barbara Allen." A comic song from the Texas, "There were three crows" (1950), the main point if which was onomatopoeia, was paired with the eerie and haunting imagery of Thomas Ravenscroft's "There were three ravens" (1611). Using a period violin but playing it in country-fiddle style, Shira Kammen dashed off a series of variations on the Scottish air "The Jolly Beggar" (1790), which contains the tune of the unofficial anthem of the Old South, "Dixie."

The last quarter of the concert traced folk hymns and spirituals from 1850-70. The instantly-recognizable tune of the Pennsylvanian German hymn "Nun sich die Nacht geendet hat" proved to be "Amazing Grace," which was given in an 1860 version from Philadelphia. The Elon audience eagerly responded to an invitation to sing along during the last three selections – "Roll Call," which echoed the sounds of the Civil War camps, "Deal gently with thy servants, O, Lord," and "Hallelujah."

The use of mostly Renaissance instruments – lute, rebec, recorders, violas da gamba, and vielle – with modern guitars worked well for the more modern selections and the older ones, too. Sopranos Anne Azéma and Margaret Swanson, contralto Deborah Renz-Moore, tenor Tim Evans, baritone Donald Wilkinson, and bass Joel Fredericksen were all excellent. A search of the Boston Camerata's website will give a full list of many award-winning recordings, some of which are hard to find.