Early rising…

Chris Butler is the director of the London International Festival of Early Music (LIFEM) and the owner of the Early Music Shop, a niche retailer specialising in the manufacture and sale of medieval, renaissance and baroque musical instruments. Here he writes about this month’s LIFEM, and how the shop and event are intertwined and sustain each other

Photo: Anna McCarthy

There can be very few ‘grown-ups’ of a certain age whose first musical memory from their early school years isn’t the humble descant recorder. Largely absent in the 18th and 19th centuries, the recorder traces its origins to the middle ages and is commonly found in the works of the great composers of the renaissance and baroque periods, only falling from prominence following the emergence of the clarinet as a standard orchestral instrument from 1800 onwards.

Today the recorder, in a multitude of sizes, materials and pitches, is at the heart of the early music industry and historically-informed performance movement, and finds its collective voice at the annual London International Festival of Early Music, LIFEM, which this year opens its doors in Blackheath between 9-12 November.

The festival, produced by Ann Barkway with me as festival director, is a celebration of ‘all things early music’ combining a makers’ exhibition with performances, masterclasses and competitions that draw audiences and participants from around the world. The recorder will be in very good company alongside lutes, theorbos, crumhorns, viols, rebecs, harpsichords, spinets, virginals, clavichords, serpents, sackbuts, gemshorns, curtals, shawms, rauschpfeifes, hurdy gurdys, vihuelas, gitterns, bagpipes, harps and drums. The list is as exhaustive as it is exotic. Visitor participation is encouraged and the exhibition is a very hands on affair giving members of the public the opportunity to play and hear instruments that would otherwise be mere words on a page.

To emphasise that this is no ‘museum piece’ more than 50 makers from as far afield as Italy, France, Germany, The Netherlands, Japan, Israel, the US and Argentina will exhibit their extraordinary craftsmanship to a growing number of enthusiasts and performers. The history and performance techniques of early music, loosely time-lined at 1800 and before, is widely taught, and ensembles from four of the UK’s leading music schools and conservatoires, Chetham’s School of Music, the Royal Academy of Music, the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire and The Purcell School will all be given performance platforms at this year’s festival. The focus on youth continues with the biennial Young Ensemble Competition, the winners of which will return to give a recital at LIFEM in 2023.

LIFEM is not new to the international festival scene. This will be its 49th outing in venues across London, the first of which was the Royal College of Music, attended by the late David Munrow, whose unique enthusiasm for early music helped to create an institution that has been held annually ever since. Its current base affords ample space for exhibitors (Blackheath Halls) and a performance space at St Michael and All Angels that is perfectly set up for live music and the recording and filming of concerts.

Key to the development of LIFEM is the business and financial support of the Early Music Shop (EMS), a mature business that we acquired in 2018, but with a history as a family business going back to 1903 – making it one of the oldest continuing music retailers in the country. Today, it employs a dozen staff and has two retail outlets in the equally iconic locations of Salts Mill, Saltaire and Snape Maltings, Suffolk. During the pandemic its online business thrived and now accounts for more than 50% of annual revenues. Ann and I both have a background in commercial music publishing and have been able to transfer those skills to the ‘business’ of early music which has provided growth and employment for EMS and the sector as a whole.

The relationship between EMS and LIFEM has always been close, but LIFEM attained independent charitable status in 2020 with a mission to advance the appreciation of early music by providing an annual festival. It is a complex event with many moving parts, not least the international dimension, and takes no public funding, preferring to work with corporate partners and a growing friends’ network.

The influence of renaissance and baroque repertoire is well documented in the works of 20th-century masters, and composers as diverse as Stravinsky, Webern, Britten, Birtwistle, Nyman and Max Richter have all drawn inspiration from the past. LIFEM’s mission statement has extended that creative line and there have been landmark world premiere commissions and performances in recent years. 2022 sees the premiere of Nitin Sawhney’s Early Transitions, written for The Brook Street Band (pictured below, photo by Dan Bridge) and programmed alongside those giants of music history J S Bach and George Frederic Handel. In the words of the composer, “‘Early Transitions’ is an exploratory piece that straddles both western and Indian traditions using ideas from Karthik dance, Hindustani rhythmic patterns and a particular raag known as ‘Kirwani’ which is very similar to the harmonic minor scale.’ Its premiere and all other concert performances in 2022 including those being given by Solomon’s Knot, Charlotte Schneider, PIVA and Taracea, will be filmed for deferred broadcast on Marquee TV.

LIFEM22 takes place 9-12th November at Blackheath Halls and the church of St Michael and All Angels. Full details and tickets at www.lifem.org