In the 2020 tradition of cancellations that we’ve come to both expect and abhor, there was little live holiday music and only a few (unauthorized) mummers strutting in the new year. But Piffaro, Philadelphia’s lauded Renaissance band, offers a different kind of seasonal celebration. On January 5 the ensemble premieres the stream of Music for 12th Night, inspired by the opulent 17th-century court performances called “masques.” The concert was conceived and directed by lutenist Grant Herreid, whose musical and theatrical research led him deep into the courts of Jacobean and Elizabethan England.
Masques are rarely performed now. Filled with lavish costumes and enormously complicated theatrical machinery, they were designed to show off both kingly power and the required terpsichorean skills of elegantly clad courtiers (women, men, even monarchs), who trained assiduously with dancing masters. For contemporary perspective, Herreid likens participants to cabinet members and chiefs of staff performing at a White House banquet. Though famous writers often contributed texts, extravagant settings and choreography were the most important parts of a masque.
A different kind of holiday treat
Stepping into this genre, Piffaro offers 22 musical works (many arranged by Herreid and drawn from the era of James I) that create an aura of mystery totally different from the joyful sparkle of its usual Christmas offering. But though darker, this holiday treat is equally accomplished, celebratory, illuminating, and inventive.
The 40-minute concert—performed and filmed in November according to COVID protocols in an empty, darkened Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral, a favorite Piffaro venue—is filled with musical lights and delights. As the first of six sets opens, double-masked black-clad players enter in a mysterious torchbearers’ dance. Torchbearers provided the theatrical lighting for these traditionally nighttime extravaganzas, but torches being risky (“we have insurance, but . . .”) the ensemble carries candles, processing to their own recorded music and Herreid’s insistent drum.
Herreid then recites from the Maske of Flowers (1614, Anonymous), which praises the frosty season inspiring these lavish entertainments. The ensemble segues into “Now winter nights enlarge,” an instrumental arrangement of a song text by Thomas Campion (1567-1620), one of the noted poets and writers of these extravaganzas. Here, the subtitled words make it possible to almost hear Campion’s song as it would have been sung.
This opening set concludes with “The First Witches Dance,” boisterous music from a masque by another well-known playwright, Ben Jonson (1572-1637), whose description of players—“some with rats on their heads … making a confused noyse, with strange gestures”—is highlighted in Herreid’s extensive, informative program notes.
Princes, animals, and revels
The second set (“Entry Dances of the Masquers”) features three stately instrumentals from masques by Jonson, John Coperario (c. 1570-1626), and Robert Johnson (c. 1583-1633) that accompanied the formal entrance of the courtly dancers. In Johnson’s “The First of the Princes,” Herreid and Mark Rimple partner on duo lutes to evoke the sound of the original 20-lute consort.
Next comes the “Antimasque Dances of the Animals.” Antimasques generally opened these entertainments; they were comic sections performed by professional actors and often depicted animals. Here, gaudily masked Piffaro musicians play four charming, descriptive pieces evoking a bear, birds (trilling calls by Joan Kimball and Priscilla Herreid), a goat (Bob Wiemken on the large double-reed douçaine), and a group of baboons. Documented historical performances refer to appearances by actual baboons and dancing bears.
After the masque was concluded, courtiers spent the evening in “The Revels,” often-rollicking social dancing to popular tunes. The Piffaro ensemble presents their shortened version—eight dances including the volta, allmand, cushion dance (with the spirited bagpipe duo of Kimball and Priscilla Herreid)—and ends with a lively dance appropriately called the brawl.
A growing instrumentarium
Changing the tone, Piffaro’s penultimate set of “Two Epiphany Motets” celebrates the three kings’ journey (sacred counterpart to secular 12th Night celebrations) with peaceful arrangements of Reges Tharsis by Palestrina (c. 1525-1594) and Surge illuminare Jerusalem by William Byrd (c. 1540-1623). And the concert concludes in style with a lively highlight, “Exit Dance of the Masquers,” a Coperario march where Greg Ingles and Erik Schmalz bring out their recently acquired (and astounding) long straight trumpets, copied from original instruments discovered buried in the mud of London’s Thames River.
Piffaro has a huge “instrumentarium,” and it’s nearly impossible to keep count of how many instruments are wielded by these virtuosic players. At one point, Herreid plays drums and recorder at the same time. He notes that much masque music was likely created during rehearsals. And like Shakespeare’s actors, musicians carried only their own part, so Herreid created his multi-part arrangements from sources often written in just two voices.
Lavish entertainment, then and now
There are abundant visual depictions of these lavish entertainments, many designed by England’s renowned architect and painter Inigo Jones (1573-1652), who utilized a raked stage and scenery in diminishing perspective. Here, this concert’s visuals are elegantly filmed by Dave Tavani and Sharon Torello, with pristine audio recording by John C. Baker of Affeto Records.
Though they reached their zenith in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, these entertainments began in the 1300s and were originally called “mummings.” Yes, everything old can be new again, elegantly proven here by the musicians of Piffaro.
Image description: Musician Bob Wiemken plays the douçaine, an instrument that looks like a wooden recorder several feet long, with a segmented mouthpiece. He wears a fanciful horned and feathered mask and black clothes.
Image description: A colorful Renaissance artwork shows a circle of six musicians at the center, and a procession of performers marching around them, some naked except for their sashes and holding long torches, and some wearing crowns and long gowns.
What, When, Where
Music for 12th Night, by Piffaro. Conceived and directed by Grant Herreid. A ticketed virtual concert with Joan Kimball, Bob Wiemken, Priscilla Herreid, Grant Herreid, Greg Ingles, Erik Schmalz, and Mark Rimple (guest artist). Recorded November 19 and 20, 2020, at Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral; streaming January 5-11, 2021. Visit piffaro.org for tickets.