Let’s start with the song “Leu chansonet e vil,” by troubadour Giraut de Bornelh, from a very influential 1970s recording called Chansons der Troubadours by the Studio der frühen Musik, under the direction of Thomas Binkley.
The Founding of the Studio
For many American music students listening to the Norton Anthology back in the 70s, the music you’re hearing would have been the first piece of medieval instrumental music they ever heard: “Istampita Palamento,” played by the Studio der frühen Musik, directed by Thomas Binkley, and some of his students and colleagues at the Schola Cantorum in Basel, Switzerland. And when I say “many American music students in the 70s,” I include—myself.
If I remember correctly, I bolted out of my seat after class to find out from the professor—who was that? WHAT was that? Fourteen years later, I decided to go back to grad school, walked into my audition at the Indiana University School of Music, and the person responsible for that recording shook my hand and said, “Hi, I’m Tom Binkley.”
For around 35 years, Binkley was one of early music’s foremost performers, scholars, and educators, particularly in the area of medieval music. His recordings with his colleagues in the Studio der frühen Musik—Andrea von Ramm, Sterling Jones, and at different times, singers Nigel Rogers, Richard Levitt, and Willard Cobb—brought to the table a completely different approach to medieval music than anyone had done previously, as we will hear.
He also became an important teacher of historical performance practice in Switzerland, California, and Indiana, where he founded the Early Music Institute in 1980, (now the Historical Performance Institute). Those who came in contact with his teaching were by turns inspired, provoked, skeptical, convinced, stumped, enlightened, delighted, provoked, and challenged—sometimes all at once—a state of mind that many of us students came to refer to as being “Binked.” But one thing was sure: we never heard or played that music quite the same way again.
On this week’s edition of Harmonia we are commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the passing of groundbreaking medieval music performer and scholar Thomas Binkley. We’ll listen to some of Binkley’s enormously influential recordings and celebrate his contribution to the world of early music, in terms of his own music-making and the profound effect he had on hundreds of students, many of whom went on to become prominent early music performers and scholars themselves.
We’ll also listen to a conversation recorded at the studios of WFIU in Bloomington, Indiana in 1992, when Binkley was interviewed by English violinist John Holloway. That interview was first broadcast on Harmonia in 1995, shortly after Binkley passed away at age 63.
In this first cut from the interview, Binkley tells about the founding of the Studio der frühen Musik.
Binkley: “The Studio began its work in 1959…and those of us who can still remember a little bit about 1959…”
Holloway: “It strikes me that it would be very interesting for an audience listening now to know where you found your guidance…”
The Studio starts recording
Binkley: “…Initially we began recording as the result of a letter I wrote to Telefunken…”
The transition from performing group to teachers
Binkley: “When we started our professional career, I think we were one of the few really professional musical groups in Europe at all. We didn’t teach…”
Many, many of Binkley’s students from the Schola went on to become acclaimed performers of early music in their own right. Early Music listeners may also have recognized, in that particular recording we just heard, the voice of Montserrat Figueras, who performed for many years with Jordi Savall and Hesperion. Sadly, she’s also passed away, in 2011.
We’ve been listening to an excerpt from a program about Thomas Binkley that first aired shortly after he passed away; this week we are rebroadcasting portions of that program to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of his passing.
Instruments and ideas
Holloway: “Are there performances that are on record of the Studio that you think particularly …”
Binkley: “…One of the things that I noticed about my own work, previous work, is that I seem to be associated with ideas concerned with Arabic influence…the accompaniment of monophonic songs, and various things…that really do not reflect…”
“…what governed my instrumentation and use of instruments was simply that: I always asked the question, “what does the instrument want to play?” And DID it. If you ask that question, much of the subsequent discussions are pointless.”
Tom Binkley made over 50 recordings, many of which were award-winning, in addition to scholarly writings and the founding of the Early Music Institute at Indiana University. His willingness to sail into uncharted musical waters and take risks changed the way medieval music is performed. His legacy is also carried on by the hundreds of students and colleagues who were influenced by his work.
When I began producing Harmonia, I was still a student of Binkley’s, and he was supportive of it. I have always found it ironic that Harmonia became a nationally syndicated program two months after he passed away. A couple of years before, when I’d told him that I was a little worried that doing this radio program might interfere with my graduate work, he said, “You should do it anyway. You never know where it might lead.” That was Tom—do it anyway, take that risk, and think for yourself.
Break and theme music
:30, Troubadours, Trouveres, Minstrels, Studio der frühen Musik, Thomas Binkley, Das Alte Werk/Teldec 1995, D.1 T.9. Jacques de Cambrai: Retrowange novelle (excerpt of 6:17)
:60, Troubadours, Trouveres, Minstrels, Studio der Frühen Music, Thomas Binkley, Das Alte Werk/Teldec 1995, D.1 T.3. Anonymous: Saltarello (excerpt of 3:02)
:30, Troubadours, Trouveres, Minstrels, Studio der frühen Musik, Thomas Binkley, Das Alte Werk/Teldec 1995, D.1 T.1. Peire Vidal: Baron, de mon dan covit (excerpt of 9:44)
Theme: Danse Royale, Ensemble Alcatraz, Elektra Nonesuch 79240-2 1992 B000005J0B, T.12: La Prime Estampie Royal
The writer for this edition of Harmonia is Angela Mariani.
Learn more about recent early music CDs on the Harmonia Early Music Podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes or at harmonia early music dot org.
“The Several Lives of Tom Binkley: A Tribute,” by David Lasocki, (Early Music America, Fall 1995, pp. 16-24).
“Thomas Binkley, 1931-1995,” David Fallows, Benjamin Bagby, Barbara Thornton and Wendy Gillespie, (Early Music,Vol. 23, No. 3, Iberian Discoveries III (Aug., 1995), pp. 538-540).