I have long wanted to use Metamorphosis as a theme for BREMF, even though I know some had worried that its meaning in the context of music might not be clear enough to audiences. So maybe I should introduce the subject, and my reasons for choosing it.
The idea of things undergoing transforming change has long fascinated the human race. The Roman poet Ovid 43 BC–17/18 AD (darn it we missed his 2000th anniversary last year!) is most famous for his 15-volume collection of fantastical stories written in epic poetic meter, the Metamorphoses. In each of the stories, based on ancient Greek and Roman myths, people are transformed into animals, plants or even inanimate objects such as streams and rocks. These stories have been so popular that not only did they provide the plots for countless plays, operas, oratorios and cantatas throughout history, but the idea was revisited in 1915 by Franz Kafka in his novella Metamorphosis. This, in turn, inspired numerous plays, books and films including The Fly (1985). Even the aliens created for so many current science fiction films are so often a blend of human, insect, reptile and other images that have haunted our psyche for millennia.
Metamorphosis has a purely scientific meaning as well of course. We are all familiar with the transformation of a caterpillar into beautiful butterfly, and that clear concept has inspired this year’s festival image, but music can also undergo structural and functional change without losing its core ‘soul’. In a way, every performance transforms the written score in some unique way, but structured adaptations, re-scorings, ornamentations, improvisations, arrangements and re-workings of existing works into new pieces has, along with Ovid’s stories, informed the programming for this year’s festival, and the range of events on offer is tremendous!
Tales from Ovid are threaded through the festival from family events – Perseus, Andromeda and the Sea-monster (12 October); through Dramma per Musica’s lunchtime concert, Metamorphoses – stories from Ovid in 17th-century works, and Italian ensemble, La Fonte Musica’s dazzling exploration of the theme in 14th-century Italy (both 26 October); to famous works by Handel, including Apollo and Daphne and extracts from Semele and Acis and Galatea, performed by The BREMF Players and Singers (9 November).
Transformed music ranges from Hildegard’s ancient and haunting melodies and visionary art, brought into the 21st century with new compositions and contemporary lighting and projections (8 November); through renaissance polyphony including Tallis’s Spem in alium reworked for 11 voices and Gombert recomposed by Monteverdi (27 October); a masterclass by Gawain Glenton on wildly ornamented versions of Italian madrigals (2 November); improvisations on popular 16th-century basslines in Musical Alchemy with young artists Improviso (9 November); historic fusions between Scottish folk and baroque music played by Ensemble Hesperi with a Highland dancer; to The Art of Moog – Bach played on synthesizers by four leading baroque musicians, paying tribute to Wendy Carlos – and later on by a jazz trio (both 3 November) thus showing the enormous universality and resilience of Bach’s glorious music.
We also see metamorphosis as a result of historic events and dynamic people. This year we present two plays with music. Burying the Dead (31 October) with script by Clare Norburn and performed by Ceruleo, reflects the life and music of Henry Purcell. In his short life he witnessed London transformed through both the Great Plague and the Great Fire. Female composer Barbara Strozzi (b.1619) was an extraordinary but misunderstood women. Long branded a courtesan, the real Barbara is finally beginning to emerge from centuries of patriarchal and unquestioning prejudice. Her Father’s Voice (1 November), a play by Henry Bauckham, presented by Fieri Consort and Wise Child Theatre, re-examines a passionate, gifted and successful woman whose achievements have done much to change perceptions of historical female composers.
Which brings me to nuns: those anonymous, industrious, creative and mysterious women whose sublime voices poured out through the walls of so many convents in so many Italian renaissance cities. Two intriguing musical manuscripts by the same copyist, one commissioned by a Florentine convent, feature in our opening concert by Musica Secreta. Darkness into Light (25 October) also brings into the light a stunning new discovery hidden in plain sight within one of these manuscripts: the complete Lamentations for Good Friday by Antoine Brumel. Only two non- consecutive verses and a short ‘Jerusalem’ section were thought to have survived, but Laurie Strass’s discovery has transformed a fragment into a whole and revealed a masterpiece.
In our final event, the Feast of Fools (10 November) social metamorphosis rules – at least for a short while! This popular medieval celebration reversed all of the rules for a few days and possibly allowed some letting off of steam for people living in a political system that was repressive and feudal. We may no longer live in feudal times, but they are certainly troubled, with society at war with itself and a political leadership with which many are disillusioned, especially the young. A dream team of leading musicians will try and keep order with the throng of our own Community Choir, a chorus of local schoolkids and the wildly wonderful dancers of Streetfunk, led by JP Omari. Any resemblance to parliament will be purely coincidental!
Deborah Roberts, BREMF Artistic Director