A Tribute to Barbara Thornton

Barbara Thornton died on November 8, 1998 of complications arising from a brain tumor. She was far too young, only 48 years old.

Barbara founded the group Sequentia with her partner Benjamin Bagby in 1977, and was one of the most gifted singers not only on the medieval-music scene, but in the classical music world in general. I was fortunate enough to have interviewed her in 1994 for my book Inside Early Music, and again, during her last year, for an article that ran in The Los Angeles Times (it is available at my website; click here to read it). I can only hope that something of her extraordinary personality comes through those pages.

The following tribute was written not by me, but by the musicologist Paul Attinello. Paul posted it to the ams-l, the email discussion list of the American Musicological Society. He granted me permission to reprint it here. It captures perfectly my own response to hearing Barbara perform at the University of San Francisco for a group of undergraduate students. After saying a few words to the students, Barbara began singing unaccompanied, in a long-extinct Romance language. The students could not have been more spellbound. No singer I've ever heard in concert - from Schwarzkopf to Fischer-Dieskau to Ray Charles - has been more intensely gripping. Barbara did not have the advantage of a communicative text to help hold the audience, but she didn't need it.

Anyway, here is Paul, who says it so well that I will not even try to add more:

"Just a small tribute, from a non-Early Music specialist, that Barbara Thornton also managed to touch my musical life, and pretty deeply too...

" I remember being powerfully struck by some of her Hildegard and Philippe le Chancellier recordings: an extraordinary voice, so that I was surprised to realize that it was a woman singing. And on all of those recordings there were unexpected and wonderful gems, like the second 'Luto carens' on the Philippe CD.

"Even better, at AMS a few years ago, Sequentia performed in public.... When Barbara came out, she was frankly amazing. A calm woman, but as ruthlessly confident as an army with banners, who took the stage with an unquestionable completeness that I don't remember seeing anywhere else... at one point she was singing a long (and I mean LONG) strophic monody which in anyone else's hands would have been terminally boring, and I remember thinking: I could listen to her do that all night.

"She didn't move much, because there was no need to; she was totally concentrated on the song, and wasn't self-conscious of being watched in any way.

"It was sort of as though she wasn't singing for us, the audience, but past us to something or someone much more important - the composer perhaps, or history, or God, I couldn't say what. And we were extremely privileged to eavesdrop.

"A good memory for me."

--Paul Attinello, November 16, 1998 , Hong Kong

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