Bristol Early Music Festival

Bristol Early Music Festival
Online from 7-9 May 2021

The Bristol Early Music Festival was founded in 2018, and ran its first festival the following year. Covid led to the cancellation of the 2020 festival, and this year’s weekend festival is based on videos, most commissioned by the Festival, with live Zoom question & answer sessions after most of the videos. The festival videos and further information on each event are available here. They can be accessed until May 14th, but the Q&A Zooms were only available live. The videos are free to watch, but donations are very welcome through this link. Because of the nature of the event, and the ready availability of the events, I will not attempt a critical review, but rather just make readers aware of this interesting event.

The weekend opened on Friday 7th with a concert by Annabel Knight, recorder and traverso, and Robin Bigwood, harpsichord, a duo from the usually four-strong Passacaglia ensemble. Their programme, recorded in their living room, contrasted pieces from the years leading up to 1700 with pieces dating back to the early 16th-century. They included Matthew Locke’s Suite ‘For Several Friends’, Paisible’s Sonata II in E flat major, divisions by Annabel Knight on Josquin des Prez’s Plusieurs Regretz based on Ganassi’s 1535 treatise, and a Suite from De La Barre’s 1710 Deuxieme Livre De Pieces Pour la Flute Traversiere. The keyboard instruments used were a 1660’s French double manual harpsichord and a copy of the 1580’s Queen Elizabeth Virginal now in the V&A.

The first of the three Saturday events was a 20′ video guided tour of Peter Barnes′ harpsichord workshop. He demonstrated the instruments themselves as well as allowing us an over-the-shoulder peep at some of the restoration techniques that form the nucleus of Peter’s work.

This was followed by Emma Hornby, Emily Wride and Marcus Jones from the University of Bristol Department of Music. Their talk ‘Legwork, intervention, assistance and correction: identifying music scribes in an 11th-century Iberian manuscript‘ explored detective work on an 11th century liturgical manuscript (Santo Domingo de Silos, MS 6), famous for including one of the earliest uses of paper in Western Europe. This complex manuscript was made by several scribes and the detailed working out of who did what made for an intruiging session

The evening event was a harpsichord recital by Nathaniel Mander, focussed on the music of Willam Byrd and his Elizabethan contemporaries, Gibbons, Tomkins, and Phillips. It is known that Elizabeth adored music, and often played the virginals or harpsichord in order to banish melancholy. Inspired by this notion, Nathaniel included music by Gibbons, Tomkins, Phillips and Byrd “to lift and soothe the spirits”.

The weekend festival finished on Sunday with an illustrated talk by Poppy Holden on Border Ballads from the Yarrow and Ettrick Valleys. Combining photographs of present day landscapes and locations related to the ballads, we heard examples such as Willie Drooned in Yarrow, Dowie Dens of Yarrow, the Lament of the Border Widow, the Douglas Tragedy, and Tam Lin.