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"Dangerous music" played at Reed College

by: DAVID F. ASHTON - Before her workshop Hidden Voices of Renaissance England, Reed Visiting Scholar Dr. Kerry McCarthy shows a facsimile of 16th century sheet music for Visita quaesumus. During the English Renaissance, not all of the music composed was allowed to be performed in public. But this didn’t stop groups of primarily women in the Elizabethan Catholic Church from performing some of these works – such as “The Mass for Three Voices” by William Byrd, and other motets and sacred songs.

This is what a hundred people learned when they attended a workshop in the new Performing Arts building at Reed College, on the afternoon of Thursday, June 5.

The instructor for this special program was Byrd scholar Dr. Kerry McCarthy, a Reed Alumnus (class of 1997), who has returned to the school as a two-year “Visiting Scholar”, teaching music history.

“Today's workshop is about music from the English Renaissance; music from the time of Shakespeare,” McCarthy told THE BEE.

The music she was discussing and would be performed by the group “In Mulieribus” (the Latin word for “women”) and was written in post-Reformation England, which made the sheet music politically sensitive documents at the time. So much so, that anyone caught with the music would likely be arrested.

“This is why the music they we are doing today is music that people sang behind closed doors and shuttered windows, in the privacy of their living rooms, not in cathedrals,” McCarthy said. “So, this is ‘music for normal people’; this is something I want to bring back to the community.”

The free workshop coincided with the school’s Alumni Weekend, which drew many former students. But, current students and members of the community were also invited to attend.

“This workshop is open to anyone who can read music. And, I’m doing something special at the end of the workshop,” McCarthy said as she held up unusual-appearing sheet music. “At the end, we will be reading the original music notation preserved from the 16th century. So in a sense, we’ll be doing a little bit of musical time travel.”

As attendees came in and filled the combined classroom and rehearsal hall, each was given a syllabus, and sheet music.

Reed Professor of Music Virginia Hancock opened the workshop, welcoming the attendees. But first, instead of diving into the lecture, McCarthy joined the seven-woman professional group, “In Mulieribus”, to perform examples of English Renaissance music.

Then, McCarthy began her talk, “Hidden Voices of Renaissance England”. She explained how music, such as Boyd’s, was quietly and discreetly published in “partbooks”, on a single sheet of paper. This sheet music was distributed through friends among the nobility and gentry in the Elizabethan Catholic community, to be sung at clandestine Mass celebrations.

It wasn’t long until the group was led by the soprano and alto singers through a rehearsal of Boyd’s “Three-Part Mass”, led by “In Mulieribus” co-founder and Artistic Director Anna Song. After the workshop returned from dinner, “students” of this master class rehearsed singing Byrd's “Visita quaesumus Domine”, a fifth-century hymn.

And to top off the workshop, they all sang “Visita quaesumus”, but this time, as promised, from a facsimile of the original sheet music.

In the end, McCarthy said that the workshop was important to her for more than intellectual reasons. “It is essential to involve people in performing this music. Many people in Portland go to attend concerts. We have an active arts community, and many professional performers.

“But, I think it’s so important to involve the community in making music,” McCarthy continued. “Not just to consume it. Music is something for more than which you just buy a ticket. Music is something you make. That’s really the point behind this workshop.”

Learn more about “In Mulieribus” by visiting their website: www.inmulieribus.org .

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