Let’s Make a Festival12:34, 2nd June 2017
As the York Early Music Festival turns 40, Adrian Horsewood learns about its origins and talks to some of those who have played key roles over the years
There are many cities the history of which can be glimpsed just below the surface, by careful observation or intelligent sleuthing; the City of London, for example, still retains its essentially medieval higgledy-piggledy geography, where roads of all shapes and sizes are arranged in what scarcely seems like any order at all, sporting names that conjure up trades and activities from centuries long past.
However, apart from churches and a handful of important civic buildings, as one walks along the ghosts of London’s medieval streets, one’s senses are continuously assaulted by architectural modernity, with seemingly brand-new towers being torn down to be replaced by even newer ones; on a map the City of London might look as if little has changed since before the Great Fire, but the reality is, sadly, less romantic.
So it comes as rather refreshing – and evokes a much more direct relationship with the past – to find that on disembarking from a train at York and beginning to walk towards town, one’s view is of a cityscape that retains many of its old structures and, hence, much more of its historical charm. Here, medieval churches (York has more surviving than any other city in England apart from Norwich) stand beside buildings that are perhaps only a few centuries younger, and which are lovingly preserved with nary a chrome girder or block of gleaming marble in sight.
Therefore, it seems entirely fitting that one of the U.K.’s oldest and most influential early music festivals should have its home in York, surrounded by streets and edifices that positively exhale history; and 40 years after it all began, there is every sign that early music is thriving here as never before.
John Bryan – professor of music at the University of Huddersfield – is currently one of the York Early Music Festival’s four artistic advisers, and has been involved with the festival from the very beginning. (In fact, Bryan is giving a talk on the history of YEMF at this year’s event, but kindly agreed to share his memories and reflections in advance of the event.)
‘The first thing that happened was a phone call from Richard Phillips, who was the music officer at the Yorkshire Arts Association – in those days there were regional arts organisations, but these were later subsumed by Arts Council England. Richard knew about the Landini Consort, an ensemble I played in which we had formed as students at the University of York, so he simply rang me up and said, “You will help me run an early music festival in York, won’t you? Just put up a few posters and sell a few tickets?”
‘Basically, he had had the idea that York needed an early music festival, and was rounding up local suspects to help him get it off the ground! My response was, “Yes, of course I’d like to help – but can I do a concert in it, too?”
‘Richard had also been talking to Anthony Rooley, another Yorkshireborn early musician, and so there were three of us, really, who put together the first programme.’
And so the York Early Music Week (sic) was born, with the first instalment taking place in April 1977 – ‘we didn’t settle on the July date for a couple of years,’ recalls Bryan – with funding from the Yorkshire Arts Association and commercial sponsors. ‘The opening concert was actually my Landini Consort, doing a programme that probably you wouldn’t hear today: we started with troubadour songs, and then did some Machaut secular songs, leading into late 14th-century Mannerists, and then Burgundian music with Dufay and Morton. So it was all sort of French, to some extent, but over quite a wide time range; in those days, I think a lot of groups like ours tried to cover a lot of different repertories, with a multitude of instruments – we had crumhorns, cornamuse, shawms, recorders, gemshorns, rebecs, viols, medieval fiddle, lute, citole, psaltery and percussion, as well as two singers!
‘This was very much on the David Munrow model, with the Early Music Consort of London, who ranged from early medieval through to late Baroque. I think most of us have become a bit more specialised in the intervening 40 years; there are far fewer groups that try to play every instrument they own in every programme, but that was the big attraction of early music for audiences in those days – all these wonderful instruments and different sounds they hadn’t heard before.’
The following year, buoyed by the success of the first festival, the administrative triumvirate went big and organised a three-week event – one week for each of medieval, Renaissance and Baroque/Classical repertoire – that saw some performances taking place in venues outside of York, thus marking it out early on as a county-wide event, a quality which it still boasts now. ‘But then after that,’ Bryan says, ‘we realised that we couldn’t possibly sustain that level of activity, and finances were starting to become more difficult, so we homed in on the idea of a week in the summer, and the first full week of July was pretty much agreed on from there onwards.’
Another important figure whose involvement with YEMF goes back almost to the very start is Delma Tomlin, the festival’s administrative director. ‘I started life in London, but came up to Yorkshire in 1982 to run a number of arts organisations and have never moved away since! I actually sang in the 1983 festival, but it then didn’t take place in 1984, which was when I was asked if I could come on board to help put things on a surer footing.’
(And that, in no uncertain terms, is exactly what she has done ever since: as well as her work at YEMF, Tomlin founded the Beverley Early Music Festival in 1988 and established the York Early Music Christmas Festival in 1997, and was awarded an MBE in the 2008 New Year’s Honours List for ‘services to the arts in Yorkshire’.)
Perhaps the single most visible product of Tomlin’s years of leadership in York is the National Centre for Early Music, created from the disused shell of the medieval St Margaret’s in the Walmgate district of York with the help of an Arts Council Lottery Fund grant; it opened in 2000, only three years after Tomlin began to put plans into motion, and is now a thriving, vibrant hub for early music that attracts performers and visitors from all over the world.
‘The NCEM was the culmination of a vision I’d had for many years,’ Tomlin remarks. ‘Having had experience of running many different types of venue – drama, music, art – I knew very clearly what I wanted to see in a tailor-made centre for early music; and it’s thanks to a wonderful team of experts that it all came together and happened so quickly. We got to a point in the 1990s when there was only so long that the festival could carry on asking for the use of this church or that guild hall to put on concerts – not to mention trying to provide for the needs of our audiences! – and so it became absolutely crucial to have such basic things as heating, flooring, good lighting, toilets, a bar, offices.’
Tomlin clearly – and justifiably – takes great pride in all that the NCEM and YEMF do, but it’s telling that the most emotional she gets during our conversation is at the mention of Brexit and its potential impact. ‘Frankly, I’m terrified: all of us have worked so hard for so many years to create and cultivate healthy working relationships with artists and colleagues in Europe and further afield, and now it’s all in danger of disappearing.’
Tomlin has been involved with REMA/ Early Music in Europe since 2004, and joined the board in 2008; through this she has played a leading role in the founding and promulgation of eeemerging, a largescale pan-European project to promote and mentor new talent in early music.
‘We will do all we can to keep these relationships going, to ease the bureaucratic strain on performers – particularly for young artists coming over to take part in the International Young Artists Competition every two years. They are not just colleagues; they are friends, and we will not let us be cut off from one another.’
It has long been the case that the arts flourish in times of political strife – perhaps as people pour their troubles and worries out into creative pursuits as a means of protest or escape – and while musicians all across the U.K. are entering a period of extreme uncertainty, it’s cheering and consoling in no small measure to know that the universal human values of cooperation and collaboration are still being celebrated and cherished in York.