And so it was in December when the ensemble offered a glimpse of how Christmas Eve might have been celebrated in early 16th Century France. The townspeople would have gathered in their modest church with a small choir and a band of instrumentalists to commemorate the most important event on the liturgical calendar. The Mass would feature music composed in the lush, polyphonic style of the late 15th and 16th Century Flemish composers. (In this case, Thomas Crecquillon’s chanson Pis ne me peult venire.s)
This liturgy, though, would not be the straightforward affair it is today. Rather, its movements would rub shoulders with noels and motets. The text would be brought to life with dramatic vignettes — a true “multimedia” event.
A most interesting aspect of the program — at least to amateur and professional musicologists — was the revelation of a treasure trove of rare manuscripts housed in the Free Library of Philadelphia. One of these collections is a beautifully illustrated group of French noels known by the uninspiring moniker Lewis E 211. Dating back to 1520, its pages contain beautiful and accurate renderings of instruments, including numerous bagpipes, shawms, recorders, pipe and tabor and hurdy-gurdy. They are played by ordinary people and some anthropomorphic animals.
Members of the audience got an introduction to this collection in the pages of the beautiful and informative program compiled by Joan Kimball, Piffaro’s artistic director.
This is music meant to be performed, and who more qualified to do the honors but the knowledgeable virtuosic musicians of Philadelphia’s resident Renaissance Band. Piffaro was joined in its effort by the elegant vocalisms and highly animated performance of the six-voice ensemble Les Canards Chantants. Mark Jaster and Sabrina Mandell created dream-like vignettes with nothing fussier than their expressions, some costume changes and a few props.
No doubt little of the music on this program sounded like Christmas music to most in attendance, but for those with a sense of musical adventure, it made for a very fine musical experience.