THE GOLIARDS, founded in Atlanta in 1998, have been exploring and studying the work they performed for two decades now. Focused initially on music from before the 14th century, the ensemble currently consists of rebec and vielle player John Hillenbrand, vocalist Cuffy Sullivan, organ and sinfonye player Anne Acker, vocalist and viola de gamba player Marcy Brenner, and vocal soloist Sheila Berg.
When the group relocated to Savannah, it notably staged some incredible work including songs by Torlough O’Carolan, The Sibyls, The Message of Gabriel, and most recently Shakespeare’s Music. One longstanding performance they’ve done is Christmas with The Goliards – a concert that features a variety of work including 13th century hymns of praise and even a restructuring of The Coventry Carol that features 14th century cadential intervals.
This year’s Christmas performance is set for Sun., Dec. 23 at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, with an impressive set of music planned. The latest incarnation of The Goliards, largely led by Hillenbrand, boasts a unique and diverse cast of musicians with varied backgrounds.
“All of the musicians working for me now are pretty accomplished, but they’re mostly in baroque music. That was a much more popular aspect of the early music movement, so that’s where their expertise lies. But we’re gradually trying to move in a more improvisatory mindset. We’re not quite there yet, so I pretty much do all of the arranging for everything that we perform,” Hillenbrand says.
The musician explains that when he moved to Savannah, it occurred to him that there weren’t many musicians in the city who were rooted in early music as he was.
“I recruited people on the basis of people being good musicians instead,” he says. “So we expanded our time period into the Renaissance. In fact, the first concert we did here in Savannah was all 15th century music. The last concert we did was music from Shakespeare’s time, and that was as recent as 1610 or 1615. That’s about as modern as we’re going to get.”
As for the music in this year’s Christmas performance, Hillenbrand explains that the music is split into two sets consisting of a variety of pieces.
“The first set consists entirely of anonymous pieces. The first piece is actually earlier than the 13th century, and is a Gregorian chant upon which the others are based,” he says.
“It has a very likeable, although simple, melody that just had an incredible shelf life. We don’t know when it was composed – we think it was around the ninth century. By the 13th century, people were still using the basic melody as a skeleton upon which to hang more modernized music.”
The four pieces that follow that Gregorian chant are all based on it melodically. That particular chant, “Ave Maris Stella,” traveled well throughout its centuries-long life – making its way into pieces like “Quen a Omagen de Virgen,” which is from the Cantigas de Santa Maria collection that originated in the late 13th century in Spain. The Goliards will be performing that piece instrumentally.
The show also features a number of carols and ceremonial music played traditionally at Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Hillenbrand describes some of that music as “joyous” songs that are “fairly inconsequential but fun to play.”
The concert concludes with “Ave Mater, o Maria,” a popular polyphonic conductus from the 14th century that was written in dedication to the Virgin. It’ll be a fitting end to a show that aims to showcase the true lineage and roots of music and spread some spirit at the same time.