There is nothing wrong with refinement in the performance of early music, but there are other values to be observed and cultivated in that vast array of material. We have every reason to believe that some people got drunk and brawled in the streets around Christmas time, even in the exalted atmosphere of the Renaissance, and that there was plenty of music around to suit their less exalted tastes.
True, Palestrina wrote music that brought earth close to Heaven in its simple serenity. Venetians of the period could be awed by Giovanni Gabrieli, floating vocal and instrumental sounds antiphonally across the vast spaces of St. Mark's Cathedral. But the refined art of these composers and others (still unsurpassed for its beauty and sophistication) was hardly the whole story of music in the Renaissance. And the rest of the story deserves attention, too.
The Palestrina-Gabrieli aspect of Renaissance music was splendidly presented this weekend at the National Shrine by the Oratorio Society, aided by a brass ensemble and the Washington Capella Antiqua. The program was superbly chosen and performed with awesome polish. Robert Shafer directed his vast performing forces precisely and with a fine sense of the problems and opportunities presented by the Shrine's acoustics.
Meanwhile, at the Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church, the Baltimore Consort gave a program Saturday night that focused largely and vividly on the other side of Renaissance Christmas music -- holiday joy in the streets and taverns. There were only two singers and six instrumentalists who doubled as a chorus when one was needed. The music was less elaborate than the Oratorio Society's and frequently more demotic -- including a final number, "Hey for Christmas," that sounded suspiciously like "The Irish Washerwoman." Religious music was included -- notably some Scottish songs with an exquisite Celtic lilt and some charmingly simple organ variations on Christmas tunes that were already old favorites even in the Renaissance.
The performance had a strong orientation to folk music styles, and in its sometimes rough-and-ready way it seemed precisely right. It was an exhilarating evening, and it gave a vivid impression of what Christmas must have been like, four centuries ago, for ordinary people who found no contradiction between reverence and having a good time.