My Renaissance Fair Pet Peeve


Here it is: in my experience, Renaissance fairs are not at all the best places to go to hear Renaissance music.

Disclaimer the First

I enjoy Renaissance fairs. I even sing at them, and the group I currently sing with is just as guilty as the rest. Yes, I know there are exceptions, and I cherish them.

But, That Said...

If you go to a Renaissance fair and check out the paid musical acts, what will you typically hear? Sea chanteys (one web site says the golden age of the sea chantey was the early to mid-19th century!). Irish music, from Carolan (late 17th to early 18th century) to songs of the 1916 Easter rebellion. Scottish songs, often dealing with the 18th century Jacobite rebellion, and some by modern composers (e.g. "Queen of Argyle," "Flower of Scotland").

A year or so ago on the alt.fairs.renaissance newsgroup, someone posted a request for suggestions for material for performance. Someone responded, "How about something actually from the Renaissance?" and was generally shouted down. The shouters-down typically had the opinion that the responder was being a jerk (arguably true; certainly the response at least seemed sarcastic, and immediately put the requester on the defensive), but also that the paying customers at Renaissance fairs want only music of a sort they're familiar with. There was also the common belief that surviving period music is all elitist--a belief only holdable by people massively ignorant of early music. (To correct that notion, listen to "Tappster, Drynker," "Blow Thy Horn, Hunter," "Hoyda, Jolly Rutterkin," "And I Were a Maiden," "Martin Said to His Man" (one of the "freemen's songs" Henry VIII is said to have enjoyed singing with Lord Peter Carew; given the subject matter, I can't help imagining them singing it after a few brewskis), "Matona Mia Cara," "O Bene Mio Fa Me Un' Favore," most of the songs of the Carmina Burana, which were written by freaking goliards (monk dropouts), for heaven's sake, a goodly number of the troubadour/trouvere works, and then there was that motet, "Hare hare hye/Balaam" that some French university students sang as they rioted over a tax on booze; gee, protest songs have gone downhill over the past few centuries...may I stop now, please?) Another response gave one example of a folk song having a tune going back to a medieval origin (I suppose in the way "Orientis partibus" morphed into "The Friendly Beasts"), apparently attempting to justify the performance of any and all "traditional" songs at Renaissance fairs.

Disclaimer the Second

Many of the groups that play very non-period music at Renaissance fairs do so with impeccable musicianship and showmanship, and when I can count them as friends, I do so happily and with great pride.

So...

On alt.fairs.renaissance, people will go on at great length about authenticity of language and clothing. I don't think people would excuse performers at Renaissance fairs dressed as slackers, goths, flappers, Gibson girls, or like Minutemen... (Well, they do excuse something similar in the "wench" attire. Cleavage trumps verisimilitude, I guess.) ...but they seem to tolerate the musical equivalent. I don't understand why. Period music can be just as raucous, risque, and outrageous as any other music—it's not all madrigals, chant, and isorhythmic motets—and there's got to be some way it can be sold to a modern audience. (Owain Phyfe does all right getting an audience by performing early music (and doing it exceptionally well); I wish I could sit and talk to him about it for a while.) If people don't want to hear early music, why is the market big enough to support a quarterly magazine about it these days?

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