Many people think of the Renaissance as a flowering in the visual arts, but in fact all of the arts went through vital changes during this period of European cultural rebirth. Even food changed during the Renaissance—surviving recipes from the period indicate a shift away from the boiled grains and blancmange of the Middle Ages to more refined wines (viticulture took a huge leap forward in the Renaissance), meats with complicated sauces, and even exotic New World imports such as potatoes. In short, it was the kind of European food that we’re used to in the 21st century. Wealthy noble families such as the Medicis and Gonzagas in Italy, the Burgundian dynasty in France, and the Tudors in England, competed to hire the best cooks, along with the best painters, best sculptors, and of course…the best musicians.
Unlike painting or sculpture, cooking and music are ephemeral arts that have to be recreated for each occasion. In a world where we can listen to music on demand from a dozen different sources, we often don’t appreciate how special music could be in an era when live performance was the only way music was ever heard, and no performance could ever be captured or replayed. Music was often present at great feasts and celebrations, and no feast characterized this “seize the moment” idea better than the annual festival of Martinmas, celebrated in early November.
The feast day of St. Martin of Tours, a Roman soldier who converted to Christianity and become a monk, Martinmas became an important celebration in Germany, the Baltic states, and especially England and Scotland. It marked the end of the harvest and the beginning of winter, and to this day is often celebrated with a great feast not unlike the American Thanksgiving spread; the original idea was to eat any surplus food that couldn’t be stored for the winter. Martinmas was one of the four Scottish “quarter days”, when leases were signed, seasonal workers were hired or released, and debts and tithes were paid—a way to get your household in order before the winter cold. Elizabethan Englishmen (and women) gathered at court for Martinmas festivities might very well have heard the same music that Seven Times Salt will be playing at the Gardner. The music of 16th and 17th-century England is ideal for a fall feast; it often contains elements of both joy and melancholy, and while the sound of our early instruments may be unusual to modern ears, the emotional content of the music is easy to understand, even 400 years later. We’re looking forward to being part of the celebration!
Daniel Meyers proudly wears the title “Renaissance man”, but refuses to wear tights except under extreme duress. A musical polyglot who performs on over a dozen different early and folk instruments, he has also worked as a professional chef, arts administrator, and late-night overhire stagehand. He has a mild obsession with all kinds of bagpipes. You can contact Dan at email@example.com.