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Fiori Musicali: beautiful music in the heart of Northamptonshire

Peter Dennis talks about one of the county’s cultural hidden gems… 

Among the finest of Northampton’s cultural secrets is Fiori Musicali. With a passion to bring alive early music while being as authentic as possible and a desire to share it with a wide, contemporary audience Peter Dennis spoke to founder and director Penelope Rapson.

Established in 1983 Fiori has quickly become one of the principal providers of classical and early music concerts outside London and we are blessed that of their 30 concerts each year the majority are held in historic venues in Northamptonshire. I began by asking Penelope about her early musical memories and how they influenced her current work with Fiori: “My mother sang Mahler and my father played Beethoven and Schubert, even some Hindemith! So there was a musical language I imbibed early. Then at Oxford joining the Schola Cantorum, reading music under the tutelage of the late David Wulstan and rubbing shoulders with Jane Glover, Andrew Parrott and Emma Kirkby were all key in steering a course towards a musical career and one that would specialise in historical performance practice, from the rich polyphony of the English renaissance to the genius of Mozart and Beethoven.”


It was this study of historical performance practice that sparked a search for authenticity that permeates almost every aspect of Fiori”s work. From venue to instrumentation much energy is expended on ensuring that performances are as true to their original intention as possible. With a repertoire that encompasses the late renaissance to the early romantic period and beyond I wonder what are the problems faced when preparing music from the 15th century with manuscripts that are lost or incomplete? “The pursuit of authenticity is addictive and many of Fiori”s performers are scholars in this area. Every period of music has its own conventions, the things composers didn”t bother to write down because it was just the way everyone always performed the music. We have also on occasion needed to study manuscripts abroad. Prior to our recording of the Zelenka C minor requiem we visited libraries in Dresden and Prague to study the original sources.”

Fiori Musicali bring their concerts to some of our finest historical venues. The 13th century Church of St. Mary at Fawsley and St. Michaels Church, with its medieval ruins, at Church Stowe regularly hold Fiori events. They also perform at the All Saints Church at Holdenby, which is now sadly redundant and under the care of the Church Conservation Trust, therefore Fiori concerts breathe life into this building with its beautiful Gothic architecture. The effect of early music played on authentic instruments in historic venues is often breathtaking. How easy is it to source original instruments and what do you look for in a venue?


“History, aesthetics, a good acoustic and a warm welcome. It also helps if the place is easy to access, warm, comfortable and keen to help draw in an audience.  And of course we play on historical instruments. This in turn means we need to think carefully about where we perform. Modern instruments have been developed so that their sound will fill larger concert halls. Historical instruments by contrast are most suited to smaller acoustics and historic buildings. Gone are the days when authentic music performances were the poor cousin of modern instrument performances. Nowadays the UK”s principal music academies all have specialist courses in authentic performance, many of them tutored by players who perform regularly with Fiori.”

Generally believed to have started around 1400 the renaissance was a period of enormous creativity both musically, with a wide range of styles and genres, and also in terms of a polyphonic approach to music which saw multiple, independent lines performed simultaneously. What attraction does this era hold for Fiori?

“The order and discipline of renaissance choral writing is a constant fascination. Through the music of such English Tudor composers as Tallis, Byrd and Sheppard (and Palestrina in Italy) you can only wonder as mathematical and logical principles (which are at the root of this kind of music) are transmuted into music of sublime and ethereal beauty.”


This focus on authenticity does not mean rigidity. The baroque period (like the art movement it overlays) featured ornate music that was highly decorative and sumptuous. The years 1600 to 1750 were a highly creative period of experimentation and innovation. Scores were not entirely notated deliberately meaning they could be re-evaluated and reinterpreted ensuring every performance was unique, a theory to which Penelope agrees: “What the composer writes and publishes though is only part of the story. As performers we know that music from these earlier periods was often intended to be embellished and decorated. The performers job is never really done, and to be truly authentic every performance will be subtly different as we bring the music alive each time.”

For those who think classical music is not for them it is worth noting that the baroque period saw the creation of tonality which is an approach to writing music where a whole piece of music is written in a particular key and is a practice that is still employed in much western pop music today. Indeed The Doors” 1967 hit song “Light My Fire” was inspired by “Invention No. 8 BWV 779” by Johann Sebastian Bach. How do Fiori reach out to people who otherwise might never be touched by classical music?


“Fiori offer many ways to engage with the music we perform. “Zing Along Zadok” was a popular initiative offering the opportunity to learn a Handel Coronation anthem and sing it in a public concert with the Fiori Musicali Orchestra. “Mad About The Seasons” was another successful initiative. An Arts-council backed project, it involved photography and digital resources and engaged childern and young people and led to a number of multimedia performances involving actors, photography and music, all inspired by Vivaldi”s Four Seasons Concertos. We also have the Fiori Village Choir which draws in members of the community and of course ad hoc performances at weddings and funerals help to reach out to people who wouldn”t normally consider going to a classical music concert.”

Along with an annual concert in London another flagship event is a performance of Handel”s Messiah every Christmastime in the centre of Northampton which is a “must see” production in the Fiori calender. How do you make this most well known pieces of classical music unique? “Unlike many other performances Fiori”s Messiah uses small forces, the kind of numbers of performers that Handel originally wrote for, rather than the massed orchestras and choral groups that often perform this most famous of pieces! The result is something which is much more immediate and intimate, clearer and more incisive, and we hope, rather closer to Handel”s intention!” Despite the relatively small performing ensemble I can bear witness that Fiori”s interpretation of this quintessentially festive opera is anything but subdued as Penelope concurs: “With such iconic set pieces as the rousing hallelujah chorus, Fiori”s performances always raise the roof! Last year we were in the marvellous acoustic of the Catholic Cathedral in Northampton and we shall be there again on 21st December this year.”


Fiori is not only concerned with presenting the musical past accurately but they also keep an eye on the future by nurturing and championing young musicians: “Talented young performers have featured in some of our most memorable concerts and many well known musical names (John Mark Ainsley and tenor Mark Padmore to name but two) have appeared with Fiori Musicali not to mention international stars such as Emma Kirkby, James Bowman and Elizabeth Wallfisch. We have showcased students from the Purcell School and we have worked with the choristers at Ely Cathedral. We have also enjoyed residencies with Sulgrave Manor where education is priority and also with the National Trust. Fiori have also worked alongside Northamptonshire Music and Performing Arts Trust in projects to draw together the county”s young musicians and to inspire them with Fiori”s love and expertise for baroque.”

How would Penelope describe Fiori to those who are unfamiliar with the group? “Approachability, expertise, enthusiasm for the music we perform, immersion into the world of music we love and an opportunity to meet the artists. Our concerts always aim to set the scene, contextualising the composers we perform and placing them in the worlds they inhabited (Venice in the 18th century, Oxford in Tudor times, Bach in Leipzig in the early 1700s…). Fiori concerts are a captivating all round experience bringing alive our musical heritage for the people of today.”


It is true of all music that if it is not performed live then it will perish. Therefore do Fiori feel in any way guardians of early music? “Music lives only through performance. Once the CD finishes or the concert is over the music is gone. Fiori”s mission is to share these performances as much as possible. We believe that great music, with its roots in heritage and culture, inspires and enhances peoples lives and that everyone should have the opportunity to experience music of the highest quality.”

Fiori present concerts all year round in some of the county”s most spectacular venues. To finish I wonder if Penelope could tell me about her future plans? “We are very excited about our forthcoming liaison with Holdenby, one of England”s finest Elizabethan mansions, and we shall be holding our special pre-Easter concert at the church there on Palm Sunday 25th March, to top the bill on that occasion is Allegri”s ethereal and hugely popular Miserere. Then in April we are off to Budapest for one of Fiori”s Singing Weeks Abroad. Whilst there we will be recording a CD of music by Tallis including his extraordinary moving Lamentations. Our summer is packed full of great concerts. Distinguished violinist Simon Standage joins us at Stowe for Music by Mozart (April 8) and in July we perform at Thenford (July 5) and Castle Ashby (July 22), followed by popular haunts Fawsley (August 5) and Fotheringhay (August 18) where the highlight will be the sublime Grace Davidson singing Bach”s brilliant cantata for soprano, trumpet and strings Jauchzet Gott.”

For further details and tickets visit www.Fiori-musicali.com


I'm the editor and owner of The NeneQuirer.

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