In 1993, Eric Hartley – an Englishman living in Luxembourg –persuaded a few fellow singers in the Grand-Duchy to join him in setting up a sextet whose original aim was to sing works from a very specific repertoire: 16th century church music from England and Scotland. In this he was enthusiastically encouraged by historian and music-lover Jamie Reid-Baxter. With the line-up Soprano, Mezzo-soprano, Alto, Tenor, Baritone and Bass, Eric reasoned that it would be possible to sing enough of this repertoire to keep the group occupied for some time. Composers whose music was regularly featured included Taverner, Tallis, Byrd, Fayrfax, Carver, Ludford and Sheppard.
The ensemble debuted with weekday lunchtime concerts in the Kirchberg chapel on the fringes of Luxembourg City, before eventually moving on to its usual venue, St John’s church in the Grund, rue Münster, at a more central location in the city, and to other times of the day and week. It has also performed in churches and chapels in Soleuvre, Rindschleiden, Girsterklaus, Olingen, Niederanven, Mondorf and elsewhere in Luxembourg City, as well as at Bourglinster castle, and has ventured as far afield as Trier in Germany, not to mention occasionally appearing in non-church settings such as the European School of Luxembourg and the European Investment Bank. It is still looking for opportunities to perform elsewhere in the Grand-Duchy, particularly in the north.
The original members were Eric Hartley (baritone and director), Nicki Crush, Ria Favoreel, Marita Thomas, Mick Swithinbank and Edward Seymour. The first to leave, rather unexpectedly, was Eric himself, when his personal circumstances required him to move back to England. As a singer, he was replaced by Jim Foulkes (1996-2006) and then Alan Carlisle (2008-present). Mick took Eric’s place as director. After 2000, when Nicki Crush left the group, she was succeeded by several other sopranos over the next 10 years: first Ann Ramsay, then Baiba Rozenbaha and Mireille Wagner. Since 2010, when the Art of Music was enlarged to seven members by recruiting two sopranos simultaneously – thus also expanding the available repertoire – both Jennifer Schofield and Magdalena Matenko have been members. The alto region, or thereabouts, has been occupied by Ria Favoreel (1993-2013), Marita Thomas (1993-2006; 2013-present) and Nigel Heavey (2008-present). Founder members Edward Seymour and Mick Swithinbank are still with the group.
Other singers who have performed with the Art of Music on occasion include: Teija Immonen, Barbara Hall, Colin Buckland, Henry Wickens, Horatiu Dragan, Jeannot Goergen, Tom Osborne, Nancy Coons, Karin Muller, Ian Kent, Kristina Mascher, Miguel Turrión, Jonathan Grocock and Chris Vigar.
Gradually, a few changes of format were introduced into the concerts. Initially, Renaissance polyphony was interspersed with instrumental interludes on the virginal (small harpsichord). These interludes were later replaced by the singing of Gregorian chant. The repertoire also soon diversified into mainland Europe, with occasional excursions also into pre-Renaissance music, from the Middle Ages, as far back as Perotin. There have even been a few forays into the 19th and 20th centuries and into secular repertoire, but the insufficiently explored and inexhaustible repertoire of Renaissance religious music remains the group’s true raison d’être.
It was in October 1997 that Josy Peschon first recorded an Art of Music concert, since when he has recorded every concert that the group has given in an acoustic of which he approved, the most successful from this point of view being the Eglise St-Jean in Luxembourg City and Soleuvre and Olingen churches. Thanks to Josy’s efforts, the Art of Music won first prize in the classical section of the first ever ‘Prix musique en ligne’ competition organised by the French performers’ rights organisation Adami in 2001, the criteria being a combination of performance quality and recording quality/mixing. The winning entry was a recording of Josquin’s ‘Tu solus qui facis mirabilia’.
As well as Josy’s arrival on the scene, another new departure for the Art of Music in October 1997 was the decision to sing music by Hildegard of Bingen. Although her music was less well known then than now, there was a suspicion that the following year – the 900th anniversary of her birth – everybody would be singing it, and the Art of Music wanted to get in first. It need not have worried: in Luxembourg in 1998, conferences were held to discuss Hildegard’s herbal lore and her writings on the healing properties of gemstones, but no one, as far as could be ascertained, paid any attention to her music, with its remarkably individual melodic style (and its frequent tendency to use a vocal range of nearly two octaves within a single piece!). The ensemble has regularly returned to her music over the years.
The main concerts are usually given in March and September/October. As a rule, each concert is organised thematically. The most recurrent themes have been Lent/Holy Week and veneration of the Virgin Mary, for both of which a vast repertoire is available. Others have included the Renaissance tradition of lamenting the death of a specific, named composer; the Office and Mass for the dead; All Saints (including Victoria’s Gaudeamus Mass); Advent and Christmas; music from England and Scotland; music from Spain and Portugal; the Song of Songs; the life of Jesus; music for troubled times; the frescoes in Rindschleiden church; Catholic and Protestant musical traditions in the 16th century (a programme consisting entirely of settings of psalm texts, but as musically varied as any other programme, if not more so); Josquin, Willaert and the Franco-Flemish school (including settings of Virgil texts); Renaissance music from the German lands; Cristóbal de Morales, 'The light of Spain in music'; 20th anniversary concert, including an arrangement of Tallis’s ‘Spem in alium’ for 11 voices.