A History of Eastern Early Music Forum


EEMF cannot claim to be the earliest of the regional fora to be founded, having been beaten to that by NWEMF and SWEMF. However, the origins can be traced back to an inaugural meeting at the Colchester Institute in June 1981, where Dr Peter Holman, then Senior Lecturer at the Institute, and John Wellingham of Dartington College were the speakers. Peter then left to work in USA and management of the embryonic forum passed into the hands of various local musicians, many of them active or former professionals, teachers or instrument makers, including Alison and the late Michael Bagenal, Alan Turner (harpsichord maker, also deceased), Marjorie Harmer (viol player and cellist), and Anne Jordan (wife of Brian, renowned music retailer of Cambridge).

   After about a year there was a crisis because of other commitments, and because of the geographical difficulties of our large area, but a reorganisation saw things moving again. The register of members then stood at about 60. Committee offices changed hands often; publisher and musicologist Clifford Bartlett came on board early, as did wind player Stephen Cassidy. There was always an intention to produce a quarterly newsletter, and some of the early editions contained quite learned articles, as well as extensive diaries of concerts in East Anglia. It reached epic proportions under editor Ann Elliott, who, with Marjorie Harmer, has kindly provided much of the information on which these notes are based. In the early days forum activities naturally concentrated on viol consorts and a string orchestra, as these were the skills of the committee, and there was also the occasional early wind workshop. It’s interesting to note that there was a musical picnic and playing day at Thetford for which the entry fee was 75p a head! There wasn’t much for singers at the start, but that has been more than adequately compensated for in recent years, as described below. One name that looms large in the early list of tutors is that of Philip Thorby, of whom more anon.

   A great expansion of membership took place over the three-and-a half decades of EEMF’s existence, such that the register of members now stands at about 260. This has led to a considerable extension in the range of activities, much of which is due to the indefatigable Selene Mills, an arts administrator with an extremely wide circle of contacts who has organised annual events for many years. One significant innovation was the Epiphany Party, which still takes place annually in Beccles, Suffolk, and could be called EEMF’s flagship event. It is a day for players of all renaissance wind instruments and singers, with organ continuo, at which the polychoral works of major and minor renaissance or early baroque composers such as Palestrina, Heinrich Schütz, Michael Praetorius, Gabrieli, Benevoli and Marenzio are given a good outing under the authoritative direction of the implacable tutor Philip Thorby, whose immense knowledge, drive and enthusiasm for this period are now legendary in Early Music circles at home and abroad. An important additional feature of the Party is the delicious lunch prepared in part to recipes of the period by Jennie Cassidy, who with husband Stephen undertook all the organisation for many years, but who now gratefully has culinary assistance from the membership in general.

   Another important annual event was the series of liturgical weekends in Cambridge directed by Michael Procter, an expert in renaissance polyphony.  These always attracted a large crowd of a cappella singers desirous of spending a Saturday exploring some of the choral masterworks of the sixteenth century and at the same time preparing a Mass for liturgical performance in a local church on the Sunday morning, followed by a convivial lunch. In addition to this, a number of themes have been explored by the forum. There have been workshops on Spanish and Mexican music and dance (Andrew Lawrence-King and Steve Player), opera weekends such as La Dafne, L’Orfeo and Ruggiero (Philip Thorby), music for recorders and viols (Margaret Westlake), medieval and traditional song (Belinda Sykes), solo and group singing masterclasses in Cambridge and Ipswich (John Potter and Richard Wistreich), Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 in Norwich (Philip Thorby), a klezmer day (Ilana Cravitz and friends), a viol masterclass (Amit Tiefenbrunn), a choral workshop on Lalande (Jeffrey Skidmore), workshops on Bach and Charpentier in Suffolk (Peter Leech), renaissance polyphony singing days (David Skinner and David Allinson), a Victoria workshop (Roger Wilkes) and other events too numerous to mention.

   Particularly worthy of mention is the annual baroque choral/orchestral workshop taken by Peter Holman usually at the converted Baptist chapel that is the charming home of our member Michael Taylor (warmest thanks to him for his hospitality) in the village of Elsworth near Cambridge. This event draws together people from all over the country for a day of cantatas, odes, operas or oratorios, often by Purcell, Handel, Draghi, or Arne. This long-running series shows every sign of continuing well into the future as it is a day where old friends are reunited in a special musical atmosphere. Visiting tutors have included Catherine Mackintosh, Paul Goodwin and Gary Cooper.

   Occasionally we organise joint workshops with Thames Valley Early Music Forum at Waltham Abbey, Essex (Philip Thorby again!) and we assist them to recruit new members at the Early Music Exhibition every November in Greenwich. Indeed we are accustomed to seeing many TVEMF members at our workshops and we are grateful for their support.

   We have also been glad to provide some financial support for Cambridge Early Music’s Summer Schools (another of Selene’s enterprises) in order to provide bursaries for young ‘rising stars’ who may not otherwise be able to take advantage of the tuition on offer there.

   We continue to maintain an actively updated website www.eemf.org.uk with details of our own activities, free adverts for Early Music concerts in East Anglia, a list of courses both locally and further afield, and a gallery page. Anyone wishing to post details on the site should email webmaster@eemf.org.uk.

   What of the future? We face changes due to the retirement of our long-serving Chairman Clifford Bartlett, who has been succeeded by Francis Knights, former Director of Music at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge. We are lucky to have Francis on board as his background in Early Music as a teacher, performer and organiser is long and distinguished. Clifford has become Honorary President, and Peter Holman has been appointed Patron. In 2014 the sad death took place of Selene Mills after many years of illness which she strove bravely to overcome, and we mean to set up a permanent memorial to her. As a result of that and the impending retirement of Paul Williams, our loyal Treasurer, some new recruits to the committee and reallocation of responsibilities have been needed. The committee keeps as busy as ever with planning and management, and is determined to maintain a full programme of attractive workshops and to provide a good service to the Early Music world of our area.

Robert Johnson

An earlier version of this article appeared in the NEMA Early Music Yearbook 2010.