The Utrecht Festival of Music
There were settlements in Utrecht before the Romans came; the land begins to rise out of the fens here where the river divides, and even the fiercest storm tides spared the sandy heaths to the west. The Frisians and Franks followed the Roman lead of building below the ford (literally "uut trecht" in Old Dutch), and thus a town was born. By 635 Dagobert I, King of the Franks, founded a church there; for 13 centuries there have been bishops or, since 1559, archbishops in Utrecht. By the time Henry IV built the Maria church in the 11th century, the city was a thriving medieval trade center, while the saenredam painting on our cover reveals the beauty of a structure torn down in the 19th century, the Romanesque cloister still remains on the Mariaplaats. Henry's internal organs are still to be found in the crypt of the cathedral.
The middle ages are uniquely alive in this city: the Janskerk was also begun in the 11th century, and nearby is the University Library where the Utrecht Psalter is kept. A work of incalculable beauty and craftsmanship, it is one of the most influential manuscripts of the era. Knights returning from Crusade brought devotion to St. Catherine of Alexandria to the city; the old Catherine church remains in name only as the "Hoog Catherijne," a huge shopping mall. However the Catherine Convent, however, was reopened in 1978 as a museum of the medieval treasures of the Netherlands, and is one of the handful of great centers to experience the European middle ages.
Growth and expansion continued: churches and houses of trade were built; between 1320 and 1382 the huge cathedral tower was added with its magnificent carillon and 465 steps, the tallest ecclesiastical structure in the lowlands. With the 17th century Golden Age, Utrecht developed its world-class University. Arts and trade thrived. The ancient city walls, built in 1130, were not breached by the peacetime necessity of expansion until just over a century and a half ago; the city was the last in the lowlands to move outside its medieval confines.
With the rebirth of interest in early music by mid-20th century, it was natural that the Dutch would not only be at the forefront in terms of scholarship and performance, but that a great festival should be created to showcase this newly-rediscovered musical treasure. And the natural home for the festival was Utrecht. By 1998, the 17th Holland Early Music Festival at Utrecht, basic thematic structures had fallen into place. A composer would be celebrated; as the 900th anniversary of the birth of the great German mystic, composer, artist, and abbess Hildegard von Bingen occurred in 1998, and the Festival had always been a place where her music was heard, it was a fortunate choice to bring back the Gothic Voices, who in their Feather on the Breath of God recording first brought Hildegard to world visibility.
Sometimes broader themes are explored: War and Peace is a big topic, and never far from the minds of European musicians old or new: events in the former Yugoslavia as seen through the veil of old music are often discussed in late night coffeehouse sessions at the Festival. To have the Janequin Ensemble sing Janequin is sensible; the Battle of Marignano was the last time the Swiss fought and lost a battle, and Janequin appropriately gives us the point of view of the victorious French. The Spain of Philip II is living history for the Dutch; both their time of greatest suffering and fiercest rebellion occurred during his reign: it was in Utrecht in 1579 that seven northern provinces led by John of Nassau declared the Union that would lead to independence for the Netherlands; the music centering on the death of Philip four centuries ago in 1598 tempers the beauty of Requiem masses and motets with the memory of people glad to see the passing of an oppressor.
Certainly one of the most interesting and controversial parts of the Festival is a recognition of music outside of the strictly European mold. It is often part of what we call world music, usually not mainstream but of a living tradition. This year, After Crusades looks at the cross-pollination of Islamic cultures with Christian lands; the evidence is clear for Alfonso el Sabio in his court; what Sr. Marie does in her speculative reconstructions is almost outside of the realm of scholarship into a land of spirit: only she would suggest to us what Arabic music of the pre-Mohammed Christian tradition might have sounded like.
Finally, Florence on the Elbe gives us a chance to hear the Baroque music that has been such a specialty of the Dutch; the nice twist at the 1998 Festival was a recognition of the music from the Saxon court of Dresden, with its influence by Italians (like Lotti) and its under-appreciated composers, exemplified in typically superb performances by the Freibourg Baroque Orchestra with music of Pisendel.
Since the Festival's inception, Radio Nederland has been recording and presenting these concerts. The American radio program Millennium of Music had been a featured part of the schedule at WETA in Washington since the year before the Utrecht Festival was founded; some of the Utrecht concerts had appeared on the program as early as 1987. When Millennium became available to a national audience in 1990, it was an obvious choice to formalize the arrangement and regularly present Utrecht concerts throughout the United States. In 1996, Radio Nederland Music Director Hans Quant suggested to me that the strictures of Millennium (the thousand years of music before the birth of Bach) eliminated the chance to hear some of the very best material from the Festival. Thus, ÒThe European CenturiesÓ was born. Adding festivals from Flanders, Norway, Finland, and even the Smithsonian Institution (featuring Dutch performers!) to the wealth of music from Utrecht, The European Centuries has become a prime location for live performances of music from 1650-1850 with an emphasis on original instruments. Millennium currently is heard on over 150 stations nationally, while European Centuries is heard on around 40 stations. Both are distributed by WCLV/Seaways Productions, and are both fed via satellite and are made available by special arrangement on CD or Dat for stations without satellite capacity.
Over the years, the most characteristic response to these programs is not the breadth of audience, but the intensity and devotion of a core audience for whom this music serves a unique function: performances of integrity, presentations of intelligence and clarity, and music that enriches the mind and nourishes the soul.
- Robert Aubry Davis