Mary Anne Ballard
of the Baltimore Consort
ancient pop

Mary Anne Ballard is a pop star.

But the "pop hits" she performs were working their way up the charts a good three, four, half-dozen centuries ago.

"I was once standing in a McDonald's about 25 years ago - you know, I don't eat at McDonald's any more - when I heard in the muzak over my head a version of a very popular German Christmas tune called 'Quem Pastores Laudavere,' " Ballard says.

"Now, this was a Latin-texted piece that existed before Martin Luther. But everybody would recognize it today," she says. "In fact, it was such a popular Christmas tune in Germany, say around 1600, that instead of calling a tune a 'carol,' they would call it a 'quempas.' "

Ballard plays viols and rebec with the Baltimore Consort, an early music ensemble that has been touring and recording for 31 years.

This holiday season, the consort is performing "Wassail, Wassail," a concert of Yuletide carols and dance tunes. Their tour includes a stop here in Lancaster, Pa., at St. James Episcopal Church, as part of the church's Early Music series.

The show features vocals, lute, cittern, viol, crumhorn, pipes, recorder, rebec, harp and percussion.

"It's upbeat, but not relentlessly upbeat," Ballard says. "We also like pieces that tell stories, or ballads. For instance, 'Lord of the Dance' tells the entire life of Christ in four verses."

Ballard is the group's musicological adviser, which means she has a lot of input into what they learn and perform.

"We do a Christmas concert every year," she says. "And each year, we delve into our existing repertoire, add new pieces and put others into the deep freeze for a year."

Some of the selections this year are "wassails," which come from an English oral tradition that resembles trick-or-treating, she says.

"People would go door to door singing for wassail, which is an alcoholic Christmas punch," Ballard explains.

"The wassails that have been collected in some cases date back centuries," she says. "It's a way to time travel. You can visualize people coming to the door and singing these songs."

The concert also will feature German and Spanish carols, French "noels," English country dances and 19th-century Appalachian shape-note singing, she says.

"We're in the business of reviving the music of the past, and we're tapping into traditions that have been around for a while," Ballard says. "Our repertoire for Christmas is unlike any other concert we do ... because Christmas has maintained an uninterrupted tradition.

"While some of our tunes are Christmas music that you would recognize as modern carols, many of them are very old and have gone through transformations over time," she adds. "One of the cool things about doing 'popular' music of the Renaissance is that, when people really liked the tune and it made its way into the oral tradition, it traveled around. You could find the same tunes in France or Germany or Italy, with different texts."

The song "Greensleeves," for instance, was so popular that more than 100 broadside ballads were set to the tune, Ballard says. "It was one of the three most popular tunes for setting ballads in Shakespeare's time. ... You'd pick up a broadside and it'd say "sung to the tune of 'Greensleeves.' "

The consort's Christmas show has evolved over the past 31 years, Ballard says, and it represents a broad range of music, both in terms of national origin and chronology.

"We've got some folk pieces that didn't rise to the surface until the early 19th century. We have some pieces that are known to have existed in the 15th century," she says.

"Pieces can work for different reasons. Some just have a drop-dead beautiful melody. Another might have an interesting character that you might not see right away until you start to imagine how it can be arranged."

The consort has a mix of melody, harmony and rhythmic instruments, she says, "so there's lots of interesting texture."

Pieces are often "arranged by committee," she says.

"The people who play the harmonic instruments decide what the bassline should be. They let the rest of us know. If you play a melody instrument - well, the melody is there, so you can play it straight, or you can create an ornamentation, or you could write a counterpoint.

"Then we'll sit down and play it all together and see if it works."

Ballard also performs with Galileo's Daughters, Brio and the Oberlin Consort of Viols. She has taught early music performance at Peabody Conservatory, Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania, where she founded the Collegium Musicum.

And she rarely has the urge to grab a Fender electric violin and play music written since the invention of the automobile, she laughingly admits.

"We're just suckers for gorgeous melodies," she says.

[ visit the artist's website ]

interview by
Tom Knapp

31 December 2011

what's new