Long before tiny pocket computers delivered an endless stream of any band’s music directly to individuals, musical groups were often formed only for special occasions.
Savannah’s The Goliards, an ancient music ensemble, only plays a handful of concerts each year. Over the last 18 years they have continued the musical traditions of medieval Europe, guided by founder and fiddler John Hillenbrand.
The Goliards will stretch their muscles a bit with their next concert, slipping into the Renaissance era with an exploration of the music from the plays of William Shakespeare. The show is set for 4 p.m. June 3 at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.
“This is the most modern music we’ve done,” Hillenbrand said. “When I started the ensemble, we were not going to do anything more recent than 1400. But we’ve crept into the Renaissance over the last few years.”
The concert’s inspiration came from an erudite collection of 155 ballads, narratives, drinking songs, love songs and rounds from or mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays. Musicologist Ross Duffin, a professor at Case Western Reserve University, took eight years to put the book together, titled, “Shakespeare's Songbook.”
“He’s gone to the trouble of looking up every single reference to any particular song that appears in all of the works of Shakespeare and published a book with the music and everything cross referenced,” Hillenbrand said. “Virtually all of these songs were popular songs of the day. The kind of thing people would sing in pubs. There’s very little art music in this concert.
“There are a few pieces that are contemporaneous with Shakespeare’s lifetime. Most of the songs that are used in his plays or are referred to in his plays are monophonic — they exist without any instrumental accompaniment. That makes it an interesting thing for a performer. That means we have to come up with our own accompaniments and hope that they’re intelligently informed and illustrious of the way things might have been at that time. Nobody was making recordings in the year 1600, so we can only guess at how things sounded. That’s what my group has been doing.”
Hillenbrand writes his ensemble's own accompaniments. For this concert, though, he was a bit out of his element, by about 200 years. Fortunately, a lot of the music was composed after the printing press was invented, which means Hillenbrand could draw on original manuscripts to help shape his arrangements.
“The melodies have an incredibly long shelf life,” Hillenbrand said. “A couple of the melodies that are used in this particular program were written in the last quarter of the 16th century and were anonymous, but were being performed well into the 18th century. In fact, a couple of them were used in 'The Beggar's Opera.’”
For this show, Hillenbrand will be on the fiddle, despite normally performing on the vielle, a medieval predecessor to the violin. The ensemble will also feature Anne Acker on harpsichord, vocalist Cuffy Sullivan, Savannah Baroque’s viola da gambist Marcy Brenner and a new soprano, Sheila Berg.
“We’ve worked with her before. She has a beautiful voice and is very charismatic when performing and is really good with accents. Which is fairly important for this program," Hillenbrand said.
Continuing essentially extinct music for a modern audience keeps Hillenbrand on his toes, and he hopes to keep his fellow ensemble and future audiences interested.
“The music speaks directly to me,” Hillenbrand said. “I hope that I infused my accomplices, or victims if you will, with enough enthusiasm to continue doing it. I love digging through moldy old manuscripts and come up with something that’s never been performed before or may have been performed before, but not in the last 800 years or so. Sometimes it’s fun to reinterpret things that have been, in my opinion, not correctly transcribed or not correctly interpreted.
“What I am enthusiastic about with this show, is some of the melodies are really cool,” he continued. “Some of them had incredible shelf life. They might have a tribal remembrance for people who hear them.”