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Collegium Musicum
UMR's madrigal dinners:
a holiday tradition for 30 years

by Jim McCarty

Each year the University of Missouri-Rolla presents Collegium Musicum, a celebration of Renaissance music performed by students, faculty and community volunteers. Above: singers in costume rehearse for the madrigal dinners.

If the University of Missouri at Rolla isn’t well known for its support of the arts it’s not the fault of the folks who hang out at Castleman Hall, the first home specifically built for the performing arts at UMR. The university, best known for its engineering program, has more than its share of culture centered around the hall, which offers an art gallery, theater and music classrooms to round out the education of its students.

This time of year the hall resounds with a buffet of music that puts the listener in a holiday mood. The frantic pace of rehearsals signals the beginning of a holiday tradition on the campus.

For the past 30 years UMR’s “Collegium Musicum” has kicked off the holiday season for Rolla residents by hosting an elaborate Christmas madrigal dinner. Part feast, part theater and part Renaissance-era concert, the madrigal dinners welcome the holidays in Old World fashion, says Joel Kramme, the group’s director.

“It’s supposed to be a recreation of a Renaissance feast in the great hall of either the nobility or the wealthy merchant class, whatever you want to call it,” he says. “In this day and age madrigal dinners tend to take on an aura of humor. It’s been part of it but it has kind of taken over. So it gets kind of schmaltzy.”

The madrigal dinners, set for Dec. 4-6 this year, begin with a musical invitation to the feast from one of the performers. The guests are ushered in to the sound of processional music. They are invited to toast the wassail, a traditional English drink made with cider and spices. And then they toast the boar’s head as it is carried in by a procession.

Jenny Compton gets advice from Joel Kramme, director of the Collegium Musicum. Kramme has been leading the groups of gifted musicians and instrumentalists for nearly 30 years.

Song and dance continue as the meal’s various courses are carried out by wenches, more performers dressed in period costumes. During the meal, guests are entertained by storytellers, fencers, mimes, jugglers and singers. The meal ends with a 30-minute concert featuring the madrigal singers.

“It’s a lot like theater, a dinner theater really,” says Stephanie Boyll, a business major from Houston, Mo., who performs as the head wench. “The music is just fabulous. The thought and care put into it is just amazing. I like all of it, the costumes, music, the whole etiquette, the lifestyles, the social classes.”

The dinners got their start when Joel left the university to do graduate studies. His replacement hailed from Indiana University where they had a madrigal dinner. “He thought it would be a good thing to start here,” Joel recalls. “When I got back I continued and added the instrumentalists.”

He says the Collegium Musicum has its roots in the 17th century when amateur musicians came together for the performance of serious music. The most famous was the Collegium founded at the University of Lepzig that Johann Sebastian Bach later took part in.

The Collegium’s present-day revival started in England in 1858 and spread throughout the world. Once most universities had a group like UMR’s devoted to music from the Medieval, Renaissance or Baroque periods. However few collegiums exist today, especially on small campuses like UMR.

A grant from the chencellor’s office provided the funds to do things right. Today’s UMR Collegium has more than $100,000 worth of unusual reproduction instruments, most made in Europe.

Collegium Musicum cast member Katie Reed rehearses.

Don’t expect to recognize the instruments being played by “Ye Grayte Noyse” as the three instrumental groups of the Collegium are sometimes called. They play authentic reproductions of instruments common to Bach’s time period.

The “Waytes,” for example, play the sackbut which at first glance appears to be a modern trombone. “It’s the equivalent of the modern trombone but it comes in three sizes,” Joel says. “There is a tenor, modern trombone size. That is joined by a smaller version called the alto and a larger version, considerably larger, called the bass sackbut.”

The alto sackbut is a mere 2 feet long while the bass instrument is close to 8 feet in length. The musician needs an extension handle to reach all of its slide positions. By using an alto, two tenors and a bass sackbut the group offers a four-part ensemble that can play most of the music of that period.

Sometimes the Waytes are joined by a musician playing a shawm, a Middle-Eastern instrument once used to call the faithful to prayer in Muslim countries. They also might use a cornetto, which is a wind instrument made of leather-covered wood.

The “Court Minstrels” play woodwind instruments like recorders, or straight flutes. They also play krumhorns (a double reed instrument that is the ancestor of today’s oboe) and curtal (the 16th century predecessor of the modern bassoon).

The third ensemble is called “Private Musick.” Its members play stringed instruments including the viola da gamba, a six-stringed instrument held between the legs and played with a bow. “Bach wrote some incredible music for the bass viola da gamba,” Joel says.

These three groups are joined by the “Madrigal Singers,” three or four groups that rehearse separately. They sing traditional Christmas carols such as “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “Hark the Herald, Angels Sing” but with six- to eight-part harmony.

The "Waytes" horn ensemble plays the sacbut, a medieval trombone-like instrument that comes in three sizes, from 2 to 8 feet long.

“Other music in the course of the evening would not be something most people would recognize unless of course they had gone to the Renaissance Festival in Kansas City or any other Renaissance festival,” Joel says.

Altogether, 28 to 32 musicians make up the Collegium. While most are students, some faculty members, former students and faculty spouses also take part so the group has some carry over from year to year. The script for the dinners is new each year, although the elaborate stage, featuring real stained glass, gets reused.

Known for its host of near-genius students, UMR offers a madrigal dinner that is first class. The many gifted students are naturals on their unusual instruments. The Collegium Musicum gives them a chance to blow off some steam after the pressures of difficult engineering classes.

Tickets for the Dec. 2-4, 2004 dinners, available at the Performing Arts Office, 127 Castleman Hall, cost $25 for the general public or $20 for students. A special $5 price is available for students who want to attend but not eat. For more information call (573) 341-4185.

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