Zamus Festival
The Cologne Festival of Early Music

Some crazy theatre play was performed at the Cologne Festival Of Early Music with Camille Saint-Saëns’s “Carnival of the Animals”. Adrian Schvarzstein, a clown, actor and director of circus and theatre transformed the original music into a funny stage event.
Some crazy theatre play was performed at the Cologne Festival Of Early Music with Camille Saint-Saëns’s “Carnival of the Animals”. Adrian Schvarzstein, a clown, actor and director of circus and theatre transformed the original music into a funny stage event. | Photo: Zamus / Michael Rathmann

Cologne is looked upon as the centre of early music in Germany. In no other city are there so many ensembles for music of this period. But there has been a Festival of Early Music in Cologne only since 2010 – 56 years after the debut concert by the legendary Cappella Coloniensis on 18 September 1954, which inaugurated the era of historical performance practice.

After this starting shot in 1954, a remarkable diversity of early music performance developed in Cologne. In 1937 Reinhard Goebel founded his ensemble Musica Antiqua Köln, as a counter-model to Cappella Coloniensis. In 1982 the ensemble Sequentia produced in Cologne a television version of a radio recording of the Ordo virtutum by Hildegard von Bingen and thereby sparked a renaissance of medieval music. In 1985 Concerto Köln was founded, initially as an initiative of students from the Cologne College of Music, and very soon became one of the most important orchestras for historical performance practice. Two years later the lutenist Konrad Junghänel launched the vocal ensemble Cantus Cölln. These and many other ensembles found stimulating surroundings in Cologne, where the West German Broadcasting Corporation (WDR) proved a very significant supporter in the role of producer and organizer, and still is today.

All these ensembles have so far carried the brand “early music” and the name of Cologne out into the world, but too little into the city itself: this is the conclusion, at any rate, to which representatives of the Cologne early music scene came and were thus inspired to organize on their own in 2010 the first Cologne Festival of Early Music. The festival should also be seen as an expression of the efforts of a scene whose members stand in competition to one another to unify itself. There were already of course early music concerts in Cologne and its environs before: the Brühl Castle Concerts with their Haydn Festival, the Early Music Festival at Knechtsteden, the Romanesque Summer in Cologne, the Cologne Forum for Early Music, the WDR 3 Radio House Early Music Concerts, the concerts of Christoph Spering’s Chorus Musicus, Peter Neumann’s Cologne Chamber Choir, and yes, even Concerto Köln itself, which in addition to its international engagements, tried out its own series in the city’s Börsensaal. But in 2010 the Cologne early music scene recognized that, along with the diversity, there should be a joining of forces lest a competition for funding and performance opportunities establish itself in which each ensemble stood against the other.

The Centre for Early Music

In 2011 the unification efforts of the Cologne early music scene led at last to the founding of the Cologne Society for Early Music and, in 2012, the opening of the Centre for Early Music (Zentrum für Alte Musik / Zamus) in Cologne- Ehrenfeld. Zamus is basically one floor in a dilapidated building in the so-called Helios compound. It works wonders – provides members with offices, rehearsal halls, instruments and consulting services. The Centre, the only one of its kind in Germany, is funded by the City of Cologne, the Ministry of Family Affairs, Youth, Culture and Sport of the State of North Rhine-Westphalia, the RhineEnergy Cultural Foundation and the favourable conditions offered by the company Bauwens, the owner of the Helios compound.

In the person of the dramaturge, director and author Thomas Höft, Zamus now has a managing director who has the ambition to develop the Cologne Festival of Early Music into its chief activity. This he has been doing since 2013 by transforming two structural disadvantages into advantages. First, Cologne lacks a suitable venue for the performance of early music: the Philharmonic is too large, the broadcasting hall of the WDR is a production studio, that of the German World Service is located too far away and the Romanesque churches of the city are not designed for the playing of chamber music. Höft therefore went to his neighbour, the operators of the Balloni Halls in Ehrenfeld, an event location for business and private events that is often used by the film, literature and pop music scenes. But for early music? In 2013 Höft summoned up the courage and the idea worked. Suddenly, a new audience came to listen to early music, for the old industrial architecture of the Balloni Halls possesses a modern flair. The audience accepts the related acoustic shortcomings.

Second, the Cologne Festival of Early Music is a low-budget festival. Even if local savings banks have been added to the list of Zamus’s backers in 2014, the Cologne musicians, who perform about half of the annual 10 programmes, can be paid only scanty fees and one seeks in vain the big (and expensive) names amongst the foreign guests. There are no operas or large orchestra productions, but there is much that is entertaining and unconventional. And in the most recent edition of the festival, whose motto was Carnival!, Höft allowed himself to be guided, within the realm of possibility of course, by his ambitions in music theatre.

The 2014 Zamus Festival

The 2014 festival opened with Adriano Banchieris’s collection of madrigals, Barca di Venetia per Padova. Here the presentation of cunning stylistic copies that Banchieri made of the music of his seventeenth century contemporaries was turned into an amorous comedy. Höft, who according to the programme notes served as the narrator, adroitly guided with word and direction the five soloists of the Rheinische Kantorei (conducted by: Hermann Max), almost with no props, through the twenty musical episodes. It was mainly about listening and only a bit about seeing; yet Höft still succeeded in presenting an attractive mini-opera.

In the Cologne Schnütgen Museum, which houses medieval religious art, the performance of a dice-players’ Mass was mounted. In some places in the Middle Ages, fools took command in the time between Christmas and Epiphany and celebrated spoofs of the Mass. At the 2014 festival the professor of Gregorian musicology Stefan Klöckner and his ensemble Vox Werdensis slipped into this role. Their dice-players’ Mass was rigorously reconstructed from original sources (including the Carmina burana) and rendered homage to St. Decius, the messiah of dice-players. The performance was certainly theatrical, if only because the strictly historical Mass liturgy was used as the background for irony and fool’s antics.

There was also foolery and so theatre in what was advertised – in pure irony? – as the “theatre sensation” of a performance of Camille Saint–Saëns's Carnival of the Animals. Adrian Schvarzstein, clown, actor and director of circus and theatre, illustrated what the composer painted in music in the form of circus mimes as funny as a circus, with people imitating, for instance, the movement of kangaroos. But the real music theatre took place more in the auditorium than on the stage. Schvarzstein transformed the Halls into a rubbish dump. The audience had first to let itself be bemused and so become a part of the whole.

Three examples – that show how much can be made of little and how a new audience gained. In 2014 the festival had around 3,200 visitors, an increase of a good quarter over last year, when the motto was a similarly attractive “Strong Women” and the concept of early music as entertainment music was tried out for the first time. Thomas Höft summed it up: “We want early music to reach the popular segment”.