The Day Crumhorns Replaced...Saxophones...

30 years ago the York Early Music Festival radically changed the way period music was performed and it remains the leading festival of its kind.

Ref The Guardian Music Blog.....

The summer of 1977 saw a musical revolution. A bunch of young players, bored with the mainstream, ripped up the rulebook and stripped everything back to basics, playing home-made instruments which were often out of tune. The DIY ethos meant anyone capable of strumming a few chords could join in. It was also the summer of punk.

The York Early Music Festival celebrates its 30th anniversary this year: and though it now shares the scene with similar festivals in London and Brighton, it was the first of its kind in Britain and remains at the vanguard of period music performance.

We now take "authentic" performance so much for granted that it is hard to appreciate just how much of a radical, cult interest pre-18th century music was when the York Festival was founded in a one-bedroom flat within sight of one of the city's medieval gates. David Munrow's chance discovery of a crumhorn led to the publication of a highly influential book, Instruments of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and the establishment of the pioneering Early Music Consort of London.

Yet Munrow's tragic early death in 1976 deprived the early music movement of its impetus, and it was up to a group of young enthusiasts to establish a focus for the genre with a series of intimate concerts staged in a spread of medieval venues across the city.

From the very first concert it became apparent that the York Festival would change the way early music was perceived. At that point it was not unusual to hear Monteverdi performed with clarinets, or even saxophones, as baroque trumpets were virtually unknown; while Renaissance vocal music remained the fey preserve of madrigal groups. Andrew Parrott arrived to direct Machaut's Notre Dame Mass at York Minster and instantly convinced those in attendance that Medieval polyphony was manly stuff: throaty, guttural and no place for hooting altos.

The festival established York as the country's de facto capital of early music; a situation which became official at the beginning of the new millennium when a heritage lottery grant enabled the purchase of St Margaret's Church, one of the city's most forlorn redundant churches. In 2000 St Margaret's re-opened as the National Centre for Early Music, a state-of-the-art performance, recording and rehearsal venue.

Flexible, well-appointed and acoustically excellent as St Margaret's now is, the chief joy of the festival is that it still occupies some of York's largest - and smallest - spaces. It's a measure of how commercially attractive Renaissance polyphony has become that an ensemble such as the Sixteen can comfortably sell out York Minster for an obscure programme of antiphons from the Sistine Chapel.

Yet at the other end of the scale you can hear singers of the calibre of Robin Blaze and Sophie Daneman entwine in a series of Arcadian duets at the tiny Georgian gem of the Unitarian Chapel in St Saviourgate - about as close as you'll come to the luxury of two of the world's finest baroque specialists performing in your front room.


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