Charting the future of medieval music

September 28, 2000

Arthur Nead

In a town known for jazz and rhythm-and-blues, two members of the Tulane community have endeavored to explore and nurture the sounds of medieval, Renaissance and Baroque music. Together, they lead Musica da Camera, an internationally known ensemble that has deep roots at Tulane.

The group, which has been together for 34 years, was founded by Milton Scheuermann Jr., adjunct professor of architecture. Its co-director and principal vocalist is Thaos St. Julien, a library technician in the Howard-Tilton Library's Maxwell Music Library. In explaining the longtime success and energy of Musica da Camera, Scheuermann and St. Julien point to two major influences: New Orleans and Tulane.

New Orleans has been called many things by both its friends and detractors, but one description not usually applied to the city is "medieval." Yet St. Julien maintains that the city has many qualities in common with the medieval world, and, as such, turns out to be a good place for musicians who enjoy playing early music.

"We're in a city where it doesn't matter if you're Jewish, Protestant or Catholic-saints are all around you," said St. Julien. "And we have spaces here-churches-that are evocative of medieval and European spaces, so we have a context for this music."

Complementing the visceral and spiritual virtues of the city are the intellectual merits of the university. "One of the other things that makes us who we are is the Tulane music library," said St. Julien. "There is no way we could perform without the library," agreed Scheuermann. "Eighty-five to 90 percent of the material we have performed was obtained through the library."

According to St. Julien, the group, which comprises up to seven musicians at any given performance, focuses on music "composed from the years 1000 to 1400. These centuries encompass the late medieval and early Renaissance periods in Europe. Music of this era includes troubadours' ballads, love songs, religious compositions, dances and more, composed mainly by musicians of England, France, Spain, Germany and Italy.

The music and lyrics of these compositions are not readily available and frequently must be uncovered through detailed research. Library resources that St. Julien and Scheuermann rely on include scholarly editions, transcriptions and facsimiles of original manuscripts.

"There are many collections at the library that we use, and which are being continuously added to," said Scheuermann. "We get queries and questions about early music from all over the world," said St. Julien. "There is scarcely one of them we can't contribute to based on the Maxwell Music Library. It's an extraordinary collection."

St. Julien and Scheuermann also have benefited from interdisciplinary collaboration at Tulane. "Early music is an interdisciplinary thing," said St. Julien. "You can't look just at the music. You've got to look at the language. There's the question of what something means and how you interpret it."

Lyrics for early music were written in archaic versions of European languages, and these need careful translation if they are to be understood and correctly performed. When they are developing new programs, St. Julien and Scheuermann consult Tulane faculty members who are experts in early French, Spanish, Russian, English and German. They have provided invaluable guidance for Musica Da Camera, according to St. Julien.

Importantly, the musicians play on historically correct instruments. Each member owns his or her instruments. To expand the capabilities of the ensemble, Scheuermann has built quite a few instruments. He based these on existing antiques, or else patterned them on images of instruments in medieval paintings or sculptures.

Among the many instruments he has made are a harpsichord, a citole (medieval guitar), two vielles (medieval fiddles), harps, regal (reed organ), lyre, two hurdy-gurdies, hammer dulcimers and psalteries. St. Julien, an accomplished singer with training in opera, founded and is the director of Vox Feminae, an early-music vocal group. It frequently performs together with the mainly instrumental Musica da Camera, providing it with a lyrical counterpart.

The result of all this scholarly preparation is a busy performing schedule. Musica da Camera currently stages three major productions each year, with four performances of each, and also hosts a guest artist series.

"When you add these to the other presentations such as school performances, concerts and so on, we do something like 25 to 27 performances a year," said St. Julien. The group also has just recorded its fifth CD, "Les Motets d'Arras" (The Songs of Arras). This fall, the ensemble's cycle of appearances will begin with a performance of "Wave, Leaf and Stone: Images of Medieval Song" at St. Joseph's Abbey, Covington, at 3 p.m. on Sept. 24. All performances are free to the public.

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000