The Madison Early Music Festival has explored a range of programmatic themes in its 13-year history. The last two years' focus on North and South America has been a refreshing stretching of the boundaries of what is traditionally thought of as defining the category of "early music," and perhaps no concert in this year's festival stretches that boundary more than the one given by the Newberry Consort.
In a program titled "Beautiful Dreamer: Music of Lincoln's America," David Douglass (violin) and Ellen Hargis (soprano), joined by Paul Hecht (narrator), Michael J. Miles (banjos and guitar), and David Schrader (piano), worked through a repertoire of mid-19th century songs and instrumental works that reflected experiences of pioneer life on the plans, minstrel shows, religious experiences, pianistic showmanship, and the Civil War.
The pieces ran the gamut in style. In some numbers, Miles and Douglass went to town showing off their instrumental prowess. Douglass fiddled faster and faster through several choruses of "The Devil's Dream," giving a nod to old story of the devil giving musicians special gifts. Miles's banjo and guitar playing were a reflection of the importance of those instruments in a number of southern and southeastern American folk and popular traditions, and he had a fine singing voice as well. Toward the end of the concert, he pulled out a fretless, wood-framed banjo for a few numbers, including Stephen Foster's "Beautiful Dreamer"; this instrument had a lower, warmer sound that was truly lovely.
Hargis sang many of the more sentimental songs, and her trained voice was a good reminder that 19th century recitalists almost always mixed classical and popular materials in the same concert. Schrader largely held a background position during the songs, but had his turn in the spotlight with several solos. Among these was "The Banjo," written by Louis Moreau Gottschalk, a Louisiana-born virtuoso pianist whose compositions often drew on vernacular styles but were designed to reflect his own abilities.
Especially moving were the narrated passages drawn from 19th century newspapers, magazines, diaries, and the like. Among other things was a poignant description of the physical and social costs posed to a newly married young woman leaving her home, family, and friends on the east coast to go settle on the plains. With such narrative contexts, we are reminded of the very real cultural reckoning that informed even partially comic songs like "Sweet Betsy from Pike."
If there was a quibble to make, it's that nearly all of the music on the program was familiar. Individually, each song was a cogent choice for the program, and there is obviously pleasure at being able to internally sing along with those tunes that we know well. Nevertheless, I couldn't help wishing that they had also thrown in a few pieces that were less well known. In that way, the performers could have affirmed the fundamental familiarity of the music while also expanding the knowledge base of the audience.
Despite that, I respect their choice to end with Stephen Foster's "Hard Times Come Again No More." It is a song that nearly always puts a lump in my throat and, in its content, challenges the monolithic image of Foster as always and only a southern apologist. Judging from the number of people around me who sang along to the chorus, there's clearly something about this music that is "ours," and for that reason, it's our job not to forget it, in all its wonder and complexity.