Oberlin’s Early Music Ensemble Revels in Tradition

Eilish Spear, Staff Writer

Oberlin’s Collegium Musicum has a history of bringing medieval, Renaissance and early baroque music to the Oberlin community and has developed an impressive following. The group will perform its holiday concert tonight and tomorrow night in Fairchild Chapel at 8 p.m., featuring tradition liturgical works from the Christmas and Advent season and a 20th century musical take on a 16th century text.

Early music performance has undergone a great deal of turbulence and change over the last 60 years, and Oberlin has been at the forefront of its evolution since its resurgence. Groups dedicated to early music performance developed around the world during the counterculture revival of Renaissance music in the ’50s. In Europe, the movement was largely carried by professional musicians, but in the United States, colleges and academic institutions took the reins. Oberlin was revolutionary in its commitment to offering degrees for the study of early music and was one of the first places where students could receive studio instruction in the area.

Many Collegium groups in the middle-and late-20th century were treated as one-size-fits-all ensembles, where a single group would perform instrumental and vocal music with an emphasis on the period instruments themselves rather than the music being performed. What makes Oberlin’s Collegium distinctive is that it is an entirely vocal ensemble, something that director Steven Plank considers very important.

“Everybody ought to sing,” he told the Review. “Regardless of [your] musical direction, singing is one of the most wonderful ways of developing all kinds of things related to your musicianship.”

Collegium is comprised of a diverse array of voices whose members are a cross-section of the Oberlin community, including College students, organists, orchestra players and more. “You can pretty much name it,” Plank said. “It’s a dream ensemble for me in every way.”

This weekend’s program has a holiday bent with a twist. “There are sub-themes, too, that make this particularly fun — the way musical or textual material gets reinvented,” Plank said.

Several of the pieces the ensemble is performing are extensions and evolutions of existing works. Ludwig Senfl’s “Ave Maria,” for example, is based on the work of the same name by the legendary 16th century composer Josquin des Prez. But the concert will have more than just 16th century pieces; Morten Lauridsen’s setting of the liturgical text “O magnum mysterium” was written in the late 20th century.

To Plank, adding pieces outside of the Renaissance strengthens the listening experience. “I think you hear pieces differently relative to what’s around them,” he said.

The issue of garnering public interest in the arts is particularly difficult for early music. In an era with infinite access to every kind of entertainment, it can be challenging for musicians to attract an audience for 16th century motets. Plank, however, thinks that the history of the music, the spaces in which it is performed and the reasons for which it is performed all contribute to Collegium’s unique allure.

“It has the appeal of unfamiliarity,” Plank said. “But the best of it … is the attraction of sound itself … not the intellectual idea, not the theoretical construction, but the sound [is] so intoxicating.”

Historical perspective, too, is important to Collegium Musicum. “[It] brings historical curiosity into sound,” Plank said. “Here’s a chance to dwell in not only what it sounds like, but to change yourself and your relationship to history.” Plank believes that a personal connection to history is essential to a well-rounded education.

The community forged by Collegium is well established, as College senior and chorus member Claire Coleman attested to the Review. “I’ve sung with a lot of choirs, and there is something truly special and magical about Collegium that brings members back to visit years after graduation,” Coleman said. “You can look at the number of people who returned for the Collegium reunion last year as proof.”

Double-degree senior Noel Warford, a fellow group member, emphasized this bond. “[Collegium] has been one of the constant pleasures of my life,” he said. “The musicianship of the ensemble is unparalleled … Professor Plank’s selections are exquisite and his programs flow like wine.”

Plank finds joy in his meticulous artistry. “We have a remarkably good time in doing this,” he said. “This is music-making that is coming out of a kind of unprompted need to do it. This doesn’t meet a requirement. Nobody has to do it; they are there because they love to do it. And being able to provide that — what could be better?”

Very little, according to Coleman. “I will miss Collegium more than almost anything else about my Oberlin experience,” she said. “There is nothing else like it.”