Saturday, June 8, 2013


In the summer of 2005, musicians came from all over the US and Canada to the Early Music Institute at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge to perform the works of Guillaume Dufay (1397? - 1474) under the direction of some local big names in early music and Alejandro Planchart, a world-class Dufay scholar.  In three intensive weeks we learned and performed a four-part motet and a mass, both based on the plainchant Ave Regina Coelorum. Congratulating us on how well and how quickly we learned these pieces, Planchart maintained that they were written to give a run for its money to Dufay's choir at Cambrai Cathedral, one of fifteenth-century Europe's best.

The local singers that made up the choir were expected to be expert sight-readers. Now, I couldn't, and can't, sight-read my way out of small town church choir. My disreputable little secret, as I told everyone who would listen, was that I had sung both these pieces before -- largely memorized them in fact. Even though that was twenty-five years previously, with a baby, a divorce and remarriage, and lots of music intervening, once I know something that well I don't forget it readily. I dug out my old book of music from the Ockeghem choir of San Francisco in the late 1970s and perhaps even my copy of the motet from the Longy early music program in 1971. I don't part with music readily either.

Head start notwithstanding, it was all I could do in this company not to become separated from my section and fall on my face. For those three weeks I sat on the edge of my chair, exercising performance-quality concentration for an hour and a half a day.

In order to do that, I first had to get there. You can't park at Longy. If you can get within half a mile, its out of the settled order of nature and you can't expect to do it again. In this Institute I learned that (1) Crippled hip and all I could walk half a mile, and back again as well; (2) Taking a bus from Belmont to Harvard Square and back didn't require anything I couldn't do; (3) The little fold-up chair that makes it possible to wait for a bus fits nicely into the green canvas music bag;
(4) It is possible to study complicated music while waiting for a bus, without any way of checking pitch.

I learned some things about Dufay as well, and got through it all without disgracing myself. After years of hoping against
hope to get another crack at those two pieces before I die, I found them as satisfying as I remembered.