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Pop-Up Renaissance Concert: Historic Familiarity in a New Modern Form

Students from Music 181R perform at the Harvard Art Museums on Nov. 16.
Students from Music 181R perform at the Harvard Art Museums on Nov. 16. By Emma A. Lucas
By Ava E. Silva, Crimson Staff Writer

Against the cold metal interior of the Harvard Art Museums echoed the distinct noise of Renaissance-era viol music — a blend of old and the new sounds. The Pop-Up Renaissance Concert was organized by the course Music 181R: “Performance and Culture: Renaissance Music'' on Nov. 16 in the Calderwood Courtyard of the Harvard Art Museums. The production included: “In Nomine á7” by Robert Parsons, “The Silver Swan” by Orlando Gibbons, “O magnum misterium” by William Byrd, “Lachrimae Antique” by John Dowland, “Who Like to Love” by William Bryd, and “Passamezzo Modern” by Diego Ortiz.

The chosen instrument for the concert was the viol, also occasionally referred to as the viola da gamba, or gamba. This instrument was commonly used in Europe during the Renaissance period by many musicians from the amateur skill level to professional. The use of the instrument by the class was strategic as not only did the viol fit the music context historically but also accommodated the varying degrees of musical performance knowledge.

The show began with vocals that initially captured the audience and eased them into the instrumental performance. The combination of an aged instrument in a present-day building, like the Harvard Art Museums, which display sleek and industrialized architecture, produced an interesting dynamic. The concert took an impromptu format: Behind the music were also the sounds of dishes clinking in the cafe, light conversation from other parts of the museum, and slamming cabinets.

Hixon C. Foster ’26, a performer in the concert, reflected on how the setting created a contrasting dynamic between the old and the new.

“There's just something about a modern presentation of an old instrument within the space that felt particularly fitting compared to more traditional concert halls or the classrooms we practice in, beforehand,” Foster said.

While Foster pointed out the differences between the concert and the location it took place in, Grant S.C. Shueh ’27, a student in the class, explained why the venue worked logistically while also honoring the origins of the instrument.

“The reason the viol dropped in popularity was actually because it wasn't a very performance friendly instrument,” said Shueh. “The acoustics are such that it's meant to be performed in an intimate setting versus the violin, which was a much louder instrument, so that's gonna be performed in concert halls.”

Shueh also shone a light on why this setting was so important to the music itself. Historically, the viol was not meant to be played in extremely formal settings, but rather in small personal gatherings with low stakes as musicians simply wanted to share their art. This space was not only beneficial for the audience absorbing the style, perhaps for the first time, but also helped strengthen the bonds between the performers themselves.

Fred W. Larsen ’24, another musician, revealed how the class grew not only as musicians but also fostered stronger communication skills between one another.

“Intimate space. It felt like a performance for ourselves, really transformed into the amateur musicians in Renaissance England in that the circle was closed,” Larsen said. “It wasn't intended for a wide audience. It was just amateur music-making. It's not built for performance before our own experience of it. So it's really fun for it all to come together in real time with communication involvement.”

This was especially needed due to the diverse musical backgrounds of the members. Past experiences with the string instrument was not a requirement to enroll in Music 181R and the course was specifically designed to meet students at their personal level.

Since students of the course have a variety of musical experience, the choice of instrument was intentional. As Laura Jeppesen, the teaching fellow of the course explained, students have the choice between “plucking” or “bowing.”

“The fact is playing the viola da gamba was something that amateurs have always done,” said Jeppesen.

While this blend of instrumentation and environment may seem perplexing, these factors all accumulate into a meaningful performance. From the students to the audience, everyone seemed to enjoy the immersion into the Renaissance era.

Jeppesen assured that this combination is exactly what the style of music is all about.

“Always meant to be played for the enjoyment of playing. This is not music for the concert. This is music as a social activity, which is what making music was in the Renaissance,” said Jeppesen.

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