A performer’s reflection on the Spirit of the Renaissance

The Case Western Reserve University Music Concert Series features free, open to the public performances ranging from jazz to baroque ensembles. Most performances have been held at the Florence Harkness Memorial Chapel, including the Spirit of the Renaissance show as a part of the 2023-2024 season.

Spirit of the Renaissance provided the series with a combined effort of the Early Music Singers (EMS) and Collegium Musicum groups. Last fall, Maura Sugg, a PhD candidate in the musicology program, provided her talents in this show through her vocals and the recorder. 

Sugg’s shared her experience as a part of the ensemble and the significance of its music:

What does the Spirit of the Renaissance concert bring to the CWRU Music Concert Series?

This concert was a special opportunity to display the variety under the umbrella of “Renaissance music.” While the term might bring to mind lively madrigals, lute songs or slow music for church, those components are only a sliver of the era’s variety of instruments, styles, emotional effects and ensemble sizes at play. 

How did the dynamic of the groups combine to balance their myriad of talents?

Up until the dress rehearsal, the EMS and the Collegium rehearsed separately, and the directors worked out the logistics for us to follow.

EMS rehearsed and polished the large ensemble repertoire. The community members’ experience and graduate students’ technical knowledge helped accelerate the sight-reading and learning processes. 

Collegium divided up its time into periods for each individual piece. Those of us learning new instruments would meet outside of rehearsal to work on technique. The Collegium also spent time with Goya learning about Renaissance improvisational processes, which we featured in the Estans assis piece.

Do you have a favorite piece of music from this concert?

Josquin’s Ave Maria will always be at the top of my list. It has been a mainstay in music history because it pulls together many elements of Renaissance style and text-setting. To me, there is something almost mystical about the experience of listening to and singing it. Its tight, precise construction makes it seem both delicate and grounded. Some words I associate with this piece are buoyancy, clarity, fluidity, radiance and openness. 

As a PhD student and course instructor, how does the Spirit of the Renaissance relate to the types of music that you’ve performed, studied and taught?

My interest in Renaissance music began when I joined a few ensembles as an undergrad in 2013, and now I’m working on a dissertation about Tomás Luis de Victoria, one of the composers featured in Spirit of the Renaissance.

It might seem like I live in two separate worlds by performing and studying Renaissance music while teaching the history of rock and roll, but they have more in common than I first realized. In the Renaissance, composers widely used stock melodic and harmonic gestures, just as contemporary musicians often use standard chord progressions. 

Another major parallel is the use of familiar tunes to add layers of meaning and build community. In the Renaissance, existing pieces would be reworked into Catholic mass. 

Today, covering and sampling are common processes which involve collaborations of producers, singers, songwriters, etc. that create the intertextual network in today’s music world.