Among the many pleasures of the holiday season is the musical bounty it brings.
From traditional carols to seasonal pop standards, music provides the atmosphere for merry-making; and what better atmosphere to evoke than one of roaring fires in great halls, feasts consumed to the gentle voices of troubadours and the plaintive sounds of a recorder? That’s precisely the mood created by the Brevard-based early music ensemble Musicke Antiqua.
The group will be appearing at holiday observances from Hendersonville to Asheville this month with its distinctive repertoire of music from years long past. Musicke Antiqua performs on instruments that have survived into our own time, like recorders and dulcimers, and less familiar ones like crumhorns, cornamuses and Kelhorns, all under the guidance of the group’s music director, Sharen Hafner, a retired elementary school music teacher widely credited with bringing the group to near-professional performance status.
“Our repertory comes mostly from the medieval, Renaissance and Baroque periods of music,” says Carol Markey, who helped establish Musicke Antiqua in 2003 with two other musicians. “Mostly we play on replicas of Baroque recorders. Our busiest time of the year is always the Christmas season. Who can resist colorful costumes and early music on ancient instruments at holiday time?”
Musicke Antiqua now numbers ten musicians (although not all of them may appear at any one performance) in an effort to vary the sound and texture of the music according to the size of the audience. “Sometimes we use all high recorders and at other times all low, as well as crumhorm quartets and trios,” Carol explains. “One of our favorite small ensembles is Camerata Antiqua, which is our Renaissance quartet/quintet.” In an annual holiday tradition, Musicke Antiqua appears at Asheville’s historic St. Matthias Church during December. “We work several months to prepare for these concerts and look forward to playing in that marvelous space,” Carol says. “We also really enjoy playing for festivals at the Historic Johnson Farm in Hendersonville. Many people stop and ask questions about our music and especially about the instruments.”
While some of those instruments might sound “buzzy” to modern ears, they were valued highly enough that Henry VIII built a personal collection of them, all ancestors of our modern recorders and other woodwinds. Crumhorns, one of a family of early reed instruments referred to as “capped-reed” because of the wooden cover over the two resonating strips of wood, were widely played from the 14th to the 17th centuries in Europe. Resembling the wooden chanter of the bagpipe, from which it was derived, the crumhorn has a double reed beneath its slitted cap and requires more breath pressure than modern woodwinds. “It requires both skill and stamina to play in tune,” Carol says. “They’re not for the faint-hearted!”
Besides the recorder-like instruments the ensemble employs, the repertoire calls for cellos, harps and a surprising array of percussive instruments that includes the muzzar and the doumbeck, both types of Middle Eastern drums. Finger cymbals, tambourines, maracas, woodblocks, and even a glockenspiel join in, too. “Most early music wasn’t written for any specific instrument,” Carol notes. “In fact, most early music was vocal, with any instrument handy playing along.” The group’s instruments are purchased from suppliers around the world and, closer to home, from George Kelischek’s Workshop for Historical Instruments in Brasstown, where musicians are invited several times a year for all-day play-alongs, just one of several opportunities for cross-fertilization with other early music groups at workshops held each year in Durham and Atlanta, among other venues.
Musicke Antiqua’s popularity has grown along with the increasing public interest in early music, sparked in the early 20th century when music historian Carl Dolmetsch unearthed from a long-ignored closet at a university in France a collection of early instruments and the music that was played on them. A member in good standing of the era’s Arts and Crafts movement, Dolmetsch almost single-handedly revived the recorder as a commonly available and relatively easily learned instrument. Carol and her fellow musicians, noting the response to Musicke Antiqua’s early performances, formed the Carolina Mountains Recorder Society in 2008, attracting players from as far away as Clemson and Greenville, South Carolina.
Best of all is the discovery of how Musicke Antiqua’s performances inspire a return to the cohesive nature of playing music together. “We strive to inspire a new appreciation of early music and recorder playing as a shared social experience,” Carol says. “Audience members thank us all the time for inspiring them to go home and find their long-closeted recorders.”
Musicke Antiqua will be performing throughout the area during the holiday season. Among the venues are the Historic Johnson Farm in Hendersonville on December 3rd, from 3-4 pm; St. Matthias Church in Asheville on Sunday, December 4th, at 3pm; and at the Transylvania County Library in Brevard on December 16th at noon. The Camerata Antiqua will give a Christmas Eve performance on Decembert 24th at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Edneyville. For a complete listing of coming appearances, visit musickeantiqua.org.