Bruce Saunders on the origins of the new Bristol Early Music Festival


03 April 2019



The Bristol Early Music Festival is a new three-day event, developed and brought to you by Bristol musicians. We spoke to choral recitalist Bruce Saunders, Chair of the planning group behind the festival, to find out how it came to be…


What inspired you to create this festival for Bristol?

I directed an early music choir in London for many years and regularly collaborated with early music instrumentalists there. When I came back to Bristol five years ago, I was delighted to discover that there were excellent local early music players to work with, and so I developed Nova, the specialist early music vocal group. Out of these new relationships, the idea emerged to bring these groups together, and a Festival – in a City of Festivals – seemed the best way to do it.

Why should more people pay attention to this era of music?

The Festival covers an exciting and important period in the evolution of music. Six hundred years ago, composers started taking ancient monastic plain chants, weaving lines together in new experimental patterns, and putting two, three or more voices together – working out what sounded good largely by trial and error. They were inventing the rules which would become the foundation for music by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and all who followed.

I love this music because it’s cleverly made by composers who were often also mathematicians. The intricate structures they create, often using many voices, can be astounding. And from the 15th century, they were becoming aware of themselves as artists, creating a new kind of music. People who love modern music will find their appreciation greatly enriched when they explore its roots.

For people new to this period of music where is a good place to start? 

Renaissance composers to look out for include: Ockeghem, Josquin des Pres, Lassus, Victoria (not forgetting English favourites Sheppard, Byrd and Tallis), followed into the early baroque period by Palestrina, Monteverdi, Schutz, Purcell and Vivaldi, as well as a host of people, like William Lawes, writing smaller scale music for people to sing and play at home.

The famous professional groups like The Sixteen, the Hilliard Ensemble and the Tallis Scholars have recorded a vast repertoire of early English and European vocal music. Listen too to younger groups like Stile Antico or the Gesualdo Six, and for instrumental music try any of the groups led by Jordi Savall or ensembles like Florilegium.

And finally, what can people expect from this festival?

Whether people come to listen to the three evening concerts or come to take part in the daytime workshops, I want people to discover that there is a whole world of old music that is completely new! I hope everyone who comes to the Festival, whether as listeners, singers or players, will go away saying ‘I want more of this ’. There is so much to discover.


The Bristol Early Music Festival will take place from 3 – 5 May 2019 at All Saints, Pembroke Road BS8 3ED. The weekend programme includes concerts, workshops and exhibitions, and there is something available for all ages and abilities. For more information and to book tickets, please visit the festival website.

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