Music Before 1700–A Feast for the Ear and Eye in Utrecht

Utrecht Early Music Festival; Utrecht, the Netherlands; Aug. 26-Sept. 3; 2013—The performers at the yearly Early Music Festival in the lovely city of Utrecht, The Netherlands, invariably reads like a Who’s Who in Early Music, and this year’s Festival was no exception. For 10 days beginning the last Monday in August, the lovely, café-lined canal city resounds with great music, most of it composed before 1700. Beautiful old churches, halls, even the streets are filled with famous and upcoming groups—the street buskers play ancient instruments, four-, five-, and six-voiced a cappella groups are on corners intoning motets by Renaissance composers. It’s an almost surreal experience: people who did not know they enjoyed “early music” sit at sidewalk cafés sipping beer, wine, coffee; while the converted—who can be as passionate, if not as maniacal, as Trekkies at a Star Trek convention—bathe in the star acts. Concerts sell out fast—one man’s rarity is another person’s favorite.  There was even a “lute weekend”, with concerts, exhibitions, and symposia; it was enthusiastically attended.

The 2013 Festival was also celebrating 300 years of the Treaty of Utrecht, which ended years and years of warring among European nations including Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Spain, and France, and works by composers from all of these were performed. Indeed, a fascinating experience was called “Listen to Art”, a walk through the city’s medium-sized, impressive Centraal Museum. As ticket holders walked from room to room looking at paintings, etc, from each country involved in the wars and treaty, a group of live musicians—a pair of violinists, a cellist, a lutenist, keyboard player, and theorbo-player—joined us, playing music from that period and/or country: George Muffat, J.S. Bach, and Andrea Falconiero rang through the museum while onlookers watched and listened.

In addition to “Listen to Art” I attended about 8 of the more than 100 events. A young five-voice, all-male ensemble called Oratori (coached by Anne Smith) presented a fine program of Lassus’ Sacrae Cantiones (1562) in the 11th-century St. Peter’s Church, emphasizing the texts and drama in each motet; they’re a group to watch. In the city’s Cathedral, the Domkerk, three hours later, the justly famous 12-voice British mixed choir, Stile Antico, gave a concert alternating works of Lassus with some by Nicholas Gombert (1495-1560)—perfect performances, filled with both warmth and power, dramatic changes in dynamics, and dead-center pitch from each member of the group combining to bring the audience to its feet. The Gloria from the Gombert Mass dazzled with its tricky dissonances and mood changes; the Sanctus, unlike some extroverted examples of the setting, was pious and smooth, with a complex suspension at the very end. (The concert is available online:

The following afternoon, Stephen Rice led his Brabant Ensemble in works by Cipriano de Rore (1515-1565), Lassus, and Pierre Regnault dit Sandrin (1490-1560). Sandrin, enormously popular in his day for secular music and almost unknown today, supplied the song “Doulce memoire”, upon which de Rore based his Mass, also performed, with motets by Lassus sprinkled in between mass movements. The 12 singers are a sensitive group, and Rice has a sharp way of delineating the polyphony—the occasional first note of a phrase will be emphasized just as a cue for the listener to start following. The brief, uncomplicated motet Justorum animae (Lassus) ends on a note of utter peace and brings in the two-minute Sanctus from de Rore’s Mass, which begins in the minor but ends in the major, lifting the spirits. The clarity of each line, throughout the program, was a model of balance and purity.

A bit later, Erik Van Nevel led his group Currende, 13 mixed voices and organ, in yet more Lassus and sprinkles of others: the almost unknown Utendal, Hassler, and LeFebure. The concert made clear the direction pure polyphony was headed—away from wild complexity and toward greater attention to text. A Lassus Magnificat alternated plainchant with mixed voices; at times just the high voices were featured, and an odd but welcomed high embellishment on the final Amen was lovely. Hassler’s Deus, Deus meus was severe; Utendal’s O Domine, multi dicunt, beginning in the group’s low voices and climbing in canon was full of chromatic surprises and dark piety. Hassler’s Ad Dominum cum tribularer is based on a rising eight-note motif telling of a call to God; within its four-minute span it goes through enough changes, most of them simple to the ear, to turn into a rich tapestry. It was beautifully performed. The group’s strongest suit seems to be its profound bass voices; they made the Cathedral vibrate.

The event designed to be the most staggering was also presented at the Domkerk: Hervé Niquet and Le Concert Spirituel. Among other pieces they performed Alessandro Striggio’s (1537-1592) 40-voice motet and equally busy Mass, for, yes, five choirs of eight voices each, accompanied variously by zink (an early cornett) , bazuins (early trumpets), dulcians (predecessors of the modern bassoon), regal (a mellow, portable organ, complete with bellows), various tinkly keyboard instruments, and cello and double bass. The Striggio is the piece that prompted Queen Elizabeth I to challenge her musicians to strive for ever more elaborate writing: Thomas Tallis responded with Spem in alium.

If truth be known, “Spem” is a far greater work than anything Striggio ever composed, but the Striggio makes quite a wondrous noise. Watching as well as listening was a revelation: Choir 5 enters almost three measures after Choir 1 has started singing; Choirs 2, 3, and 4 enter when Choir 1 is silent and at the very close of Choir 5’s opening statement. Then Choir 4 breaks off by itself until 1 and 2 overlap; within a few measures all are singing, a couple in unison, a couple with filigree, and so on. The instrumentalists (with options left up to the conductor) comment on and/or sometimes take over the vocal lines. It is as rich as layer cake; dizzying and stunning.

Other works on the program included Francesco Corteccia’s (1502-1571) motet Tu puer propheta Altissimi and Memento Domine David by Monteverdi, a quick, strange, homophonic palate-cleanser. The performances were—across the board—brilliant. The Festival runs every summer; many concerts are free, all are affordable. And the city is welcoming and lovely—and of course, everyone speaks English. A great side trip on your summer vacation!