Mary Springfels: Medieval Mania from a "Terminal American"

by Bernard D. Sherman

Reprinted by permission from Early Music America, Summer 1999 (vol 5, no. 2)

Bernard D. Sherman is the author of Inside Early Music (Oxford, 1997). Many of the articles and reviews he has published about music can be found here.


Those who work to bring early music to public schools may wonder, sometimes, if it's worth the effort. Mary Springfels is a one-woman answer.

The gambist, who heads the Newberry Consort, discovered early music in the 1960s when the New York Pro Musica performed at her high school in Van Nuys, California. Her immediate feeling, she says, was "That is the best thing I have ever heard in my life!"

When Springfels went off to UCLA to major in English, she became what she calls an "early-music maniac." She bought her first viola da gamba, joined the university's collegium, and studied privately with the New York Pro Musica gambist, Judith Davidoff, whenever tours brought the group to California. Springfels graduated in 1969, flew to the other coast, and joined the New York Pro Musica herself. After five years with the group, she left for Belgium to study for a year with gambist Wieland Kuijken, a leading figure in the Netherlands scene that dominated historical Baroque performance at the time.

But Baroque music has turned out to be a fairly small part of her repertory. "I've done a fair amount of Baroque sonata and continuo work," she says, "but I've never had either the drive or the temperament to be a Baroque soloist." (She jokes that she's "not the right kind of alpha female.") She says, "I'm more by temperament an ensemble person. I prefer being there with three or four of my friends, and I enjoy the process of ensemble music-making more. And it's very different from solo music-making," which involves less give and take.

"Also," she says, "a huge hunk of my heart is in medieval and Renaissance music." Her initial response to the Pro Musica, a medieval/Renaissance group, was no fluke: she still thinks that the music of those eras is the best thing she has ever heard. The preference has set the direction of her career.

Landing at a Library

That career was on unsure footing when she returned to New York from Belgium. "It was a year of trying to break back into the freelance scene. I was no longer working for the New York Pro Musica - as a matter of fact it died during the year I was studying, so we were all out there scrambling for work." Soon enough, though, she found a niche in a roiling early-music scene and "did a ton of freelancing."

Did her career lose something because she returned to the US, when American early music performers have often gained prominence in Europe? "That's an impossible question!" she answers. "In terms of recording and high-profile groups, maybe. However, I'm a terminal American and can't imagine living in Europe. I was really ready to come home by the time I was done studying with Wieland."

The decision to return paid off in 1982 when the Newberry Library in Chicago, one of America's handful of privately endowed humanities libraries, hired Springfels to serve as its first musician-in-residence. She began a series of "Early Music at the Newberry" concerts, and from the participants formed The Newberry Consort in 1986.

The group's core membership consists of Springfels and two other names familiar to early-music lovers: the violinist David Douglas (who also heads The King's Noyse), and the countertenor Drew Minter (a leading figure in Baroque opera performance). They are often joined by what Springfels calls "chronic guests," such as the sopranos Ellen Hargis and Christine Brandes, and the instrumentalist Raphael Mizraki, whom Springfels calls "a wonderful and interesting jazz musician who plays the oud."

The Consort tends to focus on late-medieval and early-17th-century music. Much of its programming has been inspired by the Newberry Library's collections of rare books and manuscripts. Some concerts of music related to magic, for example, have included long-lost pieces that Springfels discovered in the Newberry collection.

The library also provides Springfels with regular opportunities for synergy with scholars in related disciplines. Interacting with them is not explicitly in Springfels' job description, which, she says, is "quite lovely and vague"; but, she says, "one of the most exciting things about the library is the people who come in and out of it." These include Renaissance historians and Medievalists, who are "friendly and love to talk about their work. Things kind of seep in and I get ideas." Springfels adds that the visiting scholars "get very excited when they see their ideas turned into a concert."

Springfels spends, she estimates, an average of 25-30 hours a week at the library, a Romanesque building of pinkish stone just north of the Chicago Loop. But her work with the Consort benefits the Library in a number of other ways. The Consort not only provides music for conferences, but also helps fulfill a goal that is part of the Library's charter and has been receiving renewed emphasis in recent years: that of connecting to the surrounding community. Hundreds of music lovers come downtown to the Library for the Consort's performances, and similar numbers come to its concerts in the suburbs.

Telling Stories

Connecting to the audience is a goal close to Springfel's heart. "I think the big problem with late medieval music," she says, "is getting people as close to the music emotionally as we feel that we are."
Though Springfels tries to avoid what she calls "popularizing," she says, "We try to reach out to [the audience] as much as possible, by trying to communicate."

Where is the line between popularizing and communicating? Springfels answers that it's a matter of debate: "Probably some people would feel that we're not pure enough, other people would feel that we're too pure. I've gotten both reactions from people. But I think that you can entertain without pandering.

"Where I think the line becomes very hazy is that while we want to acknowledge a reasonable limit to people's attention spans, some of our favorite repertory is the hardest to listen to. We compromise by not playing an hour of the hardest music ever written, but playing 15 minutes of it and breaking it up with other things, so that you can really focus on the things that are challenging to listen to." She gives as an example the 17th-century English composer Matthew Locke. "I adore his music, but boy, is he a hard listen for somebody who's not playing."

She tries to help audiences listen by talking about "what to listen to in the music, because it's hard for even sophisticated listeners to pick it out otherwise." And much of her repertory involves the telling of a story, which can also get the audience involved emotionally. Trying to tell a story in a foreign tongue poses obstacles of its own, but Springfels takes a pragmatic route past them. "If part of the aesthetic experience is identifying strongly with the text, we do it in English. One experiment that seemed to work very well was when we did a big story-song, a late medieval Arthurian adventure. We had somebody translate it into poetic English-very funny poetic English-and it was hilarious."

Purists might regard a translation into funny English as crossing the line into pandering, but Springfels disagrees. "I think that the primary experience for medieval listeners was in their own language. What they heard was something that they could catch on the word-to-word, witty level. If you're missing that experience you're missing two-thirds of the piece.

"My old friend Ben Bagby and I have gone around and around on this. He'll say, 'When I first heard an Icelandic saga, I was profoundly moved.' And I think there's a level on which he's absolutely right. But I think, strangely enough, it is not an 'authentic' experience, but a uniquely 20th-century experience to sit there with a translation, letting something go by you."

She also takes a pragmatic approach to controversies about performance practice. An example is the question of whether medieval musicians used instruments to accompany secular polyphony (she is sure they sometimes did). In the Arthurian piece, she says, "We gave people four of the five possible ways the piece could have been done in the Middle Ages. We accompanied each little section according to current theories of what was done."

Is Small Beautiful?

Another aspect of reaching the audience, Springfels-style, almost precludes the audience's being too large. Says Springfels, "Especially when we do 14th-century music, which is small-scale and very intricate, I can't imagine doing it for more than 300 people because the hall would be so big that you would literally require amplification. When things are that complicated but played on a smaller scale, you need just the right hall."
The right hall is not just a matter of size, but also of acoustics: "Obviously we want some warmth of sound, but for intricate polyphony you have to hear every line. Most churches favor high voices over instruments. So we look for a slightly dryer acoustic.

"Also, we like to get physically as close to people as possible. So a small recital hall or a tiny chapel is perfect for us. A place where we can eyeball our audiences"

That kind of contact relates to another ingredient in Springfel's recipe for communicating. She says "You have to develop a personal relationship with the audience, which we do by talking to them, and also by getting to know them. It's kind of village-like in Chicago. We know most of the people who come to the concerts because they've been coming for years. And when they do or do not like something they tell us!"

The Consort has appeared elsewhere in the USA from New York to Seattle - although the audiences rarely exceed 400 - and also in Europe at Florence, Utrecht and Regensburg. But compared the New York Pro Musica in the 1950s and 60s, Springfels faces a vastly more challenging marketplace, one that is unlikely to produce unmanageable crowds. The Pro Musica would tour the country for eight weeks at a time by bus and truck and was represented by Columbia Artists Management (CAMI), the outfit that now promotes Mstislav Rostropovich and Anne-Sophie Mutter. Today, says Springfels, "Very few big management firms out of New York will take on an early-music group. Small independent manager cannot get the big college gigs that CAMI or Colbert can get for the big artists. So it's becoming a smaller market for guaranteed big names."

To make matters even more challenging, the big names in America, she says, tend to be unaccompanied vocal groups like the Tallis Scholars, the King's Singers, the Hilliard Ensemble, and, of course, Anonymous 4. "I think there's less of a market for any kind of combination of voices and instruments. People aren't used to hearing instrumental music from the period as serious music."

Workshops and the Role of Amateurs

To damp the effects of the shrinking market, Springfels has her modest Newberry salary (which gives some predictability) and several other sources of income as well. She is in demand not only as a touring performer and accompanist but also as a teacher.

She has for years done "a ton of workshop teaching" around the country. "Amateurs are fascinating people to teach," she says. Why so? "Because their brains are so far ahead of their fingers. They often have inner visions of how pieces should go. What you're doing is facilitating getting the fingers to work in the right way to match what's in their heads."

Springfels, who studied the cello as a child, adds that "the whole process is very self-conscious for an adult amateur, who usually did not have childhood training. You need to think through everything; nothing is intuitive. Kids don't think through everything, they just kind of do it. So you have to intellectualize things for amateurs. It's fun to rethink what physically happens when you play an instrument if someone hasn't been studying as a kid."

Teaching has had another reward for Springfels: it has made her more optimistic about the American early-music scene. "What I see is, for any number of reasons, a shrinking market for national work but a growing market for local things." That local market is made of enthusiasts, many of whom play early music themselves. Says Springfels, "Most of them, I find as I do seat-of-the-pants demographic surveys of my classes, are in the sciences-lots of doctors, computer people, space scientists, weaponry experts. These are also the people who play-they often go from amateur to audience. They find a lot of pleasure in the orderliness of amateur viol music, consort music. These people are core audience members at concerts all over this country."

An Early-Music "Mom"

Where, exactly, around the country? "I would say the big areas of activity for amateur early-music making are the Seattle/Vancouver area, the Bay Area, New Mexico around the defense industry, Boston, and New York." And, she adds, "The Midwest is beginning to blossom."

She elaborates. "There is really the beginning of a pretty serious scene in Chicago," says Springfels. "The Baroque fiddle scene is turning into something anybody could be proud of. And we have three first-rate viol players - John Mark Rosendaal, Craig Trompeter, and Erica Rubis." She recently formed a viol consort, with Rosendaal and Trompeter, called the Second City Musick. "I do not direct it; I'm just in it, like a member of a string quartet. We're seeing how it fits into our lives. We do it partly for fun and partly as a serious adventure. We're going to fringe at the Boston Festival and see how it goes."

Of the burgeoning amateur scene in Chicago, Springfels says, "It's happened only in the past four or five years. There are now some young people, people in their 20s, who are still discovering this music, still getting thrilled about it and about the instruments - and it feels fabulous. I certainly feel like an early-music mom at this point."

She's "trying to nurture these people along," and that has led Springfels back full circle to classrooms, if not high-school ones. She teaches part-time at another Chicago-area institution, Northwestern University. She says, "that is turning into big fun. Once again, it's a scene burgeoning there: good students who are going to be professional early musicians."

One of her Northwestern students, she says, "reminds me a lot of me at that age - interested in history and art history and gamba, and not quite sure what to do with herself. She's like the kind of person I was. It's great fun to be around."

Discography :

The Newberry Consort has made numerous recordings for Harmonia Mundi, including:

Anonymous , Camphuysen , Comperario , Gibbons , Hove , Huygens , Kempis , Merula , Norcombe , Petersen , Schop , Vallet , Van Eyck
The Golden Dream
17th-c. Music from the Low Countries
HMU 907123

Anonymous , Cornago , de la Torre , de Triana , Gijòn , Isaac , Urrede
Missa Mapa Mundi
HMU 907083

Anonymous , Neidhart , Tannhäuser , Unverzagte , Wolkenstein
Wanderers' Voices
Medieval Cantigas and Minnesang
HMU 907082

Anonymous , Bologna , Ciconia , Landini , Padova , Zacara da Teramo
Il Solazzo
Music for a Medieval Banquet
HMU 907038

de Selma y Salaverde , Falconiero , Hidalgo
Ay Amor!
Spanish 17th Century Songs & Theatre Music
HMT 7907022

Various Composers
Les Tres Riches Heures du Moyen Age
A Medieval Journey from Early Christian Times to the Renaissance
HMX 290649.54

Banister , Butler , Locke , Schop , Simpson , Wilson
Musick for Severall Friends
Seventeenth Century English Musick.
HMA 1907013