Music from the distant past deemed worthy of scholarly investigation and revival tends to be either sacred or courtly–works originally written and performed for the elite. The focus of the Newberry Consort’s season opener, however, is on the popular music of Paris in the late 1400s and early 1500s, when a thriving professional class, rejecting the ossified allegories favored by aristocrats, demanded its own, more secular entertainment. What became popular was the theater, which eventually encompassed monumental mystery plays with casts of hundreds, one-man street vaudevilles, and morality plays and farces mounted by minstrels. Music–especially chansons that introduced bawdy ditties and characters–played an essential part in such productions. The verses for most songs addressed quotidian concerns from money to sex to war, usually by way of the ironic juxtaposition of erudition and vulgarity exemplified by the writings of Rabelais; they were set to simple, jaunty melodies derived from street and folk sources. The esteemed Newberry group will present a sampler of vocal and instrumental numbers as they would’ve been performed by French minstrels of the time; much of the program is based on the findings of University of Chicago musicologist Howard Mayer Brown. “O rose bella/He Robinet” is offered as an example of the “combinative chanson,” a song in which a text about chivalrous love is followed by a text about earthy desires. Also in the same genre is “Soubz les branches,” which, according to consort member Mary Springfels (lute, vielle, viols), is a “spectacular little piece with a particularly raunchy text.” Springfels, David Douglass (rebec, violin, viol), and countertenor Drew Minter (harp) will be joined by tenor William Hite and Tom Zajac, who’ll play bagpipe, tabor, and other instruments that lend the common touch. Saturday, 8 PM, Grace Episcopal Church, 924 Lake, Oak Park; 708-386-8036. Sunday, 4 PM, Newberry Library, 60 W. Walton; 255-3700.


Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Robert Lewin /Jennifer Girard Studio.