Sackville festival revives early Christian music

Faint and angelic sounds cut across Mount Allison’s habitual drone of hip hop and drubbing house music last weekend. The sweet tones emerged from the Sackville Festival of Early Music, a performance and lecture series about Song of Songs.

Song of Songs is a controversial religious text containing a series of romantic and sometimes-erotic poems. Laden with sensory detail, the poems describe a couple’s sexually intimate relationship. Over the years, Song of Songs has been interpreted as a religious treatise, literary text and musical piece. It has even been analyzed through feminist and queer lenses.

michael angers on theorbo (left) and kiya tabassian on setar (right) accompany soprano suzie leblanc. samuel thomson/contributor
michael angers on theorbo (left) and kiya tabassian on setar (right) accompany soprano suzie leblanc. samuel thomson/contributor

Fiona Black, a professor of religious studies at Mt. A, opened the festival with a humorous and accessible lecture on the various contexts and interpretations of Song of Songs. She examined modern renderings by both the Pixies and the New York Polyphony, an all-male vocal group that performs Renaissance-style madrigals (vocal songs without instrumental accompaniment).

Black also presented visual interpretations of Song of Songs by artists Marc Chagall and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and medieval illustrations of the text from the Winchester Bible. She concluded with feminist and queer readings of the text, and an overview of how the piece has been received historically.

On Friday the New York Polyphony, Black and Andrew Wilson, a professor from Mt. A’s religious studies department, hosted a panel discussion in the Chapel that focused on textual understandings of Song of Songs and the Polyphony’s style of blurring the line between modern and ancient sound.

Obvious differences emerged between the musicians, who seek to evoke emotion, and the scholars, who strive to uncover meaning in text. The Polyphony cheekily said, “for us as interpreters, frankly, most of the time we’re just worried about singing the correct notes and rhythms.”

Responding to a question on how musicians can best ensure proper representation of old texts, the musical group said, “we have this expression to not over-ice the cake. We have to toe a line with composer intents, in being stylistic, in being respectful…We try to make the musical gesture as passionate and powerful as possible, and [at] the same time, we don’t want to inject something into the music that is not actually there.”

Renaissance man bows viol, crowd goes wild. andreas fobes/the argosy
Renaissance man bows viol, crowd goes wild. andreas fobes/the argosy

The Polyphony followed the panel discussion with a concert later that night. The performance featured poems from Song of Songs and antiphons praising the Virgin Mary, a figure often featured in allegorical interpretations of Song of Songs. The quartet’s engaging and intimate performance bridged the 600-year gap between today and the time the works were composed.

Presenting the livelier side of early music, Ensemble Constantinople took over Brunton Auditorium Saturday night, transforming it from a concert hall to a Renaissance theatre. While the Polyphony had presented the sacred and serious works of the Renaissance, Ensemble Constantinople performed the light-hearted music of the era: dance tunes, love songs and improvisations.

Ensemble Constantinople performed music from the Renaissance and Baroque eras, played on period instruments. Acadian soprano Suzie Leblanc, who accompanied the ensemble, sang a variety of dance and love songs by Monteverdi, Barbara Strozzi and more. Full of sighing descents and haunting plunges to the low register, Leblanc’s expressive and tragic performance of L’Eraclito amoroso (the love of Heraclitus) easily stood out as the evening’s highlight.

The festival’s five-day duration managed to bring out admirers across eastern Canada. The collaboration between the town and the Mt. A community was no doubt a success in showing that early music has a place in modern society.

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