Friday, August 20, 2010

The Music of Asteria

In an era where one rarely listens to music written before one's own generation, Medieval and Renaissance music is an acquired taste. For a historical fiction author, that taste is indispensable to acquire. A knowledge of the music of the period is as essential as a knowledge of the food, the architecture, the clothing, or the religion.

This week I had the privilege to hear some very high quality Medieval and Renaissance music live. I traveled to Ashland, Oregon with my parents to see two plays at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF): Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night. It was my third trip to OSF, and as usual, the productions were excellent with high-quality acting, creative sets, and lavish costumes. Each night before the play, OSF offers free concerts in the park outside the theater, and at one of the concerts we were treated to a Medieval/Renaissance group called Asteria.

Asteria is a highly talented duo consisting of Sylvia Rhyne (soprano) and Eric Redlinger (tenor/lute). Both classically trained and acclaimed performers, they put lots of research into making their singing historically authentic. Some of the songs in their repertoire are available only from rare troubadour manuscripts in the south of France. The lyrics from their performance in Ashland were all Medieval French.

The program I watched was entitled "Flower of Passion - Thorn of Despair: Chivalry and Courtly Love in Medieval Burgundy." Before each number, Sylvia and Eric tried to enlighten the crowd about the basics of courtly love and Medieval polyphony. Then they launched into the beautiful interweaving melodies with clear, measured tones.

As I said before, Medieval and Renaissance music is an acquired taste. Despite the superior quality of the performers, the Ashland theater-goers showed only mild enthusiasm. One elderly lady sitting near our group commented at the end of the concert, "Well, that was forty-five minutes of the same thing." I sometimes feel like making that same comment after listening to forty-five minutes of popular music on the radio.

Not everyone in my family enjoyed the music equally, but one thing that made Asteria intriguing to us all was my mother's relationship with Sylvia Rhyne. As soon as the ensemble took the stage, my mom recognized Sylvia as a high school friend of hers that she had lost touch with long ago. Sylvia grew up in the Portland area and she and my mother used to sing together in high school ensembles. They reunited after the concert and, going out for coffee the next morning, were able to catch up on the past thirty-five years. 


  1. have you tryed Sting's Songs From The Labirynth?
    or Instruments of the Middle Ages and Renaissance by David Munrow The Early Music Consort of London?

  2. No, I haven't listened to either of those yet. I checked out some videos of Songs from the Labyrinth on YouTube. Looks interesting! Thanks.


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