Modern Renaissance Time Travel by Nancy Jorgensen

At 6 p.m., arrivals march through my door. A trumpet dangles from Hal’s shoulder; a wooden recorder balances in Jo’s palm; wind chimes swing from Sandy’s wrist. My adult daughter Elizabeth whispers in my ear. “Mom, I don’t know anybody who does this.” 

Someone pushes Rehorst gin at me, a straw taped to the bottle. “For courage.” I consider a long pull but glance at Johann Hummel on the piano rack and decline.

I invited friends and family to a musical house party—an evening of concertos and galliards; folk songs and tambourines; wind chimes and flutes. We will play for each other, create our own entertainment. Musicians outnumber audience. Instruments outnumber people.

In my house filled with antiques and heirlooms, I resurrect an age-old practice. Six hundred years ago, music house parties were common. A gathering of friends, a blazing fire, music and song. Ladies in bodice, skirt and ruff. Gentlemen in doublet, hose and hat. Four or six or eight singers, one per part, weaving syncopated threads in a maze of pitch and rhythm. Lutenists plucking, singing poetry. Instrumentalists, in trios or quintets, combining flutes and reeds. To play a fretted string or quaver a tune implied gentility and education. 

I skipped lunch today, my stomach full from the stone that sat there. My palms are damp. I lecture myself: musicians have entertained each other for centuries. But I wonder if women in the 1500’s sweated through their linen shifts, nervous about a mistake. Did men doff their jerkins as performance anxiety crept in? No, I decide, the musically cultivated played for amusement. Nothing for them to be nervous about—me, either.

            Guests mill around my living room where the Steinway is half open. Rows of chairs—black Windsors, white straight backs, caned-seat ladderbacks—define the space. Next to the piano, a collection of wooden recorders—a three-foot bass, a keyless tenor, two pearwood altos and a maple soprano—are speared on dowels, pointing to the ceiling.

 I ignore my anxiety to lift the lid on two pots of sausages. A cloud of fennel and green peppers exhales into the room, a precursor of the post-concert meal. “Time to start the music,” I say and guests squeeze through narrow aisles to find a seat. 

Two of tonight’s musicians are new friends. A few months earlier, I veered onto the county park’s wood-chipped path where June’s sun penetrated an oak canopy. Mosquitos whirred my head and ankles. A string of sweat trailed my spine. As I tipped forward, descending a hill, a couple about my age walked toward me—the man wielding walking sticks, the woman dodging them as they swung forward. “The Kacaneks!” I said—half question, half hello.

Hal was once music department chair at the local college. Jean ran the music outreach program where I accompanied beginning violinists scraping “Go, Tell Aunt Rhody.” Our conversation revealed retirements for all and Jean suggested we renew our musical collaboration. A week later, they walked to my house. Hal tuned his trumpet and we sight-read the Hummel concerto. My fingers stumbled on the piano keys, slower than my eyes, as we barreled through allegro tempos. Jean warmed her clarinet and played Ralph Vaughn Williams while I arpeggiated the ethereal accompaniment. Both pieces are on the program tonight.

Jean plays first. I adjust the piano bench, flick the lamp switch and unfold my score while she sighs warm air into her clarinet. I strike the key that vibrates at 440 Hz and she blows a perfect match. After my intro, Jean dives into a chalumeau range like chocolate mousse—dark, rich, luscious. I follow her with rolled chords and counter melodies, listening for her respiration, and when she inhales, so do I. We glide through phrases, ever-changing dynamics a distraction for my nerves, and my shoulders relax as I focus on the phrases. Her final piece is quick-tempo with a button and the crowd applauds—another ancient tradition that once involved snapping or, in ancient Rome, waving one’s toga.

            Two of tonight’s musicians are longtime friends. For thirty years, our trio has played renaissance villancicos, medieval organum, Susato dances and Telemann concertos. Old music for old friends. A few times each month, we huddle around a music stand with krummhorn and cornamuse, a collection of mismatched recorders, a psaltery, dulcimer and percussion instruments. We did book club before book club was popular—except our books are music and we read in real time, creating sounds from the page. 

            Sandy, Jo and I each grab a recorder. When my daughter calls out, “Can you say what those are,” Sandy, in her confident septuagenarian voice, summarizes the 500-year history of woodwind instruments. Then, we chiff the opening chord. The tone is sweet and warm, like cinnamon and sugar, and we are transported to the Renaissance—open harmonies, pleasant dissonances; roving keys, syncopated rhythms. We sustain a fermata and transition to a set of colonial tunes transplanted from Europe to America. The titles, like double entendre in madrigals, are suggestive: Joan’s Placket is Torn. The Parson in the Peas. Flora Gave Me Fairest Flowers. The crowd snickers as I announce each piece.

Jo dangles percussion for the crowd to grab, simple tools like wind chime and finger cymbal. My daughter and her friends snatch drum and tambourines, sway to the beat, and we are immersed in another era—court musicians in command performance for a royal feast. Or a merchant’s guests, piping musical diversion before a banquet.

Amid another round of clapping, we return the recorders to their stand while Hal (an outlier among our female performers) tunes. I execute the introduction’s sixteenth notes at ♩= 126, glad I didn’t pour the Rehorst. Hal heralds the opening—a fanfare. His eight-beat trills elicit exclamations. He slows for the middle movement and then steams to the finale. 

He accepts applause and fields questions about embouchure, ornamentation and the keyed trumpet while I slip away to place kale salad next to sausages, cheese boards, buns and blueberry pie. A simple menu—no more complicated than a 1500’s repast. 

On this mid-summer night, we forego air conditioning, windows open to the scent of summer grass—another timeless pleasure. My guests line up with plates in hand. I stand behind my daughter as she dollops whipped cream on her pie. 

“What did your friends think of the performances?” I say.

“It’s not what they expected, but they loved it.”

“You know, I did some research and house concerts are all the rage now. Everyone is doing them.” I don’t mention that most feature contemporary music. I do mention age-old traditions: the need to create, to communicate through art, to restore the spirit through music. 

The evening ends with conversation, guests playing musical chairs to create new groups. Slowly, the party enters a diminuendo until only the musicians remain, reviewing successes and bobbles. For a few hours, we recreated long-ago pleasures of the 16th century—minus linen dresses and animal skin cod-pieces. 

Hal and Jean and Sandy and Jo collect their instruments and hug me on the way out. When the house is quiet, I open my computer and research corsets, bum rolls, farthingales. Shifts, stockings, petticoats. Linens, satins, brocades. Maybe next time.

Nancy Jorgensen is a musician and writer. Her choral education books are published by Hal Leonard Corporationand Lorenz Corporation. Her memoir of daughter Gwen Jorgensen’s journey from CPA to Olympic Champion is due in 2019 from Meyer & Meyer Sport. Shorter works appear or are forthcoming at Prime Number Magazine,Smith Magazine, Cagibi, Coffin Bell and elsewhere.

7 thoughts on “Modern Renaissance Time Travel by Nancy Jorgensen”

  1. I absolutely love this! Hal was my high school band directir and Jean was my private clarinet clarinet teacher. I love them both dearly and am thrilled that after close to 30 years, I found them on fb. I can totally see them in this beautiful wnvironment of music you have created and I am sure they love it! Wish I lived closer! Thanks for sharing!

  2. Beautiful word pictures! I almost feel like I was there, and would love to participate (or attend) some time. Hal & Jean are dear friends who directed me to this article; I just may press them to spread this wonderful party my way.

  3. I grew up in that scene! So grateful! Nancy, what a rendition! Thanks for capturing it here. I do treasure those early days playing for craft fairs, watching you ladies exchange instruments and make artful decisions, all in costume to boot! I am so very proud, and not surprised that your daughters are, too. That early education primed me for what is now a life in community that is brimming with early music, surprisingly, and I sing with a woman who owns about 30 recorders, a harp and and a harpsichord! Thanks again!

  4. I was delighted to be a musician participant in this Modern Renaissance Time Travel event. Nancy’s literary piece brought more focus to some of the evening’s elements I had missed, or of which I was only vaguely aware. Participating in the music and the socializing over a meal uplifted my spirit! Kudos to Nancy for such a fun and descriptive article!!

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