The term early music mostly refers to Medieval and Renaissance compositions, and it’s easy to imagine it as haunting choral melodies echoing off the vaulted ceilings of a stone cathedral in the 15th century. Other-worldly? Yes. Imposing? Pretty much. But this week, one of Charlottesville’s early-music ensembles, Mira, is taking a different approach to the tradition by staging a Saturday afternoon sing-in.
Though early music continues to attract fans, it has never quite garnered the mainstream following of Romantic or other classical traditions. Locally, however, there is a rich tradition of early-music ensembles. “I called some of the singers that I knew [who] wanted more early music, and they brought in a few others, and the word got out,” says Mira founder Raven Hunter. That was 10 years ago, and, according to Hunter, “The core of the group has been together the whole time. We have a huge repertoire, so when a new member comes on board, there needs to be a deep commitment.”
As a group, Mira performs compositions that are polyphonic—featuring two or more independent vocal melodies—and unaccompanied by instruments. Like past Mira concerts, the sing-in event will feature a performance by the ensemble, with one major change: Attendees of all ages and levels of experience will be invited to join in the singing.
In fact, embracing the amateur as part of the performance is a fitting homage to the roots of early music. For centuries, inclusivity was an integral part of the form, until a move to professionalize it began in the mid-1900s. Since then, the collective, participatory nature of early music is often lost in modern performances that feature trained choral singers.
Although “it can seem fairly difficult to singers who are not used to singing unaccompanied, or who are used to many singing vertical harmonies,” according to Hunter, there will be a variety of ways to enjoy the sing-in. “There will be places for confident singers on the stage, and people who want to sing from the audience or just listen, [they] can do that, too,” she says. Either way, the performance will be immersive and unlike most that you’ve attended in the past.
The ensemble’s members are known as Mirans, a term that, like the group’s name, plays off the Latin word miraculis—or, as we write it, miraculous. Hunter herself is also heavily involved in the local music community, ranging from her roles as a performing musician to those of music director at a local church and a certified therapeutic music practitioner. The other singers in the ensemble number somewhere between 10 and 20 at any given time.
“Many of us enjoy the variety of music that Raven chooses,” says one of the original Mirans, David Slezak. “There are beautiful four-, six-, and eight-part pieces with roots in church music. But one can always expect some lighter English country dance pieces, even drinking songs.”
Though ensemble members are especially interested in English and Flemish compositions from the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, they have been known to perform works by more contemporary composers, such as Benjamin Britten. “Programming is and always has been very exciting for me,” says Hunter. “We do some secular music, of course…a madrigal here and there.”
Selections for the sing-in will be taken from The Oxford Book of Tudor Anthems. Originally published in 1978, the songbook is an essential resource on early music and includes a variety of compositions. Songs will include “Ave Maria,” “Justorum Animae” and “Sing Joyfully.” “There is something about the music of this period that is so very spirit-centered. The world was still focused on what, to my mind, is more real—a mystical approach to music,” says Hunter.
Though Mira has performed in the Washington National Cathedral, the group is committed to offering local performances for the Charlottesville community as well, and is hopeful the sing-in might become an annual tradition. “We’re hoping that this might bring the music of this period to a wider range of singers,” Hunter says.
Copies of The Oxford Book of Tudor Anthems will be available to borrow at the event on a first-come, first-served basis. The songbook is also widely available by special order through your local bookseller, or occasionally found in used bookstores. Free choral and vocal scores of select compositions are also available on the Choral Public Domain Library.