The meaning behind 'Musica Contexta'
If I had to give reasons why I founded Musica Contexta back in 1992, boredom and frustration would probably be at the top of the list. As a listener (and reviewer) I was bored by discs of Renaissance music in which the movements of a whole mass by, say, Palestrina, were simply sung one after the other. And as a performer, I was frustrated by stop-go concerts of three-minute miniatures. As a student, I remember one of the first Renaissance pieces I directed was Ne timeas Maria by the Spanish composer Victoria. The effect the music had on me was extraordinary – first love is like that – but in performance it was no sooner started than it was over, and on we went to the next piece and next composer on the programme: it felt wrong. Around this time, one Christmas midnight I heard on the radio a 'liturgical reconstruction' of a mass as it might have occurred in the English Chapel Royal sometime in the middle of the 16th century. Separated in time by Gregorian chant, each movement of John Sheppard’s Cantate mass sounded as dynamic and lavish as any music I’d ever hear: it felt right. A few years, and a few experiments later, when I set up Musica Contexta, I had no doubts about the line I wanted to take.
Musica Contexta translates literally as 'music interwoven', reflecting the group's primary aim of presenting Renaissance music in the context of its original conception and function.
Ever since our first performance, each time I have introduced Musica Contexta to the musical public – concert audiences, radio listeners or CD buyers – it has been with those words. Whilst they continue to sum up what we do, my eye is increasingly drawn to the words 'translates literally'. I may have first written those words without irony, but when I look at them now they seem anything but simple.
In translating the words 'Musica Contexta' from an old language (Latin) to a current one (English) what are we doing? We are moving something from a world of which we know indirectly to one we know directly. This is exactly what we do with the music we perform. Both acts are translations, then, but can we ever flatter ourselves that they are ‘literal’? Of course not. When we walk onto a spot-lit concert platform to applause, we are a world away from the experience of the original performers – even before we have sung a note. Similarly, when you put one of our cds on, or drive to one of our concerts through a neon glow, your experience of the music is bound to be different to that of the original listeners.
So let us be clear about one thing. We do not fool ourselves that we are in the business of recreating historical events. Yes, our programming tends to place Renaissance polyphony in the same kind of aural context it was first heard. And yes, an extension of this is that we pay a great deal of attention to performance practice issues - how we think the music was first sung. But we never delude ourselves that we are singing as it was sung, or indeed being heard as it was heard. In other words, we are in the business of compromise. However beautiful we may find it, Renaissance music is a foreign culture. To appreciate it most fully, we make an effort to travel towards it.
We present the music in the way we do not out of historical curiosity, or to make a religious point, but for the simple reason that we think it is magnificent music, and our encounter with it works best when meet it half-way.