Musicians of Piffaro bring back the masque…with masks

The renaissance band is staging a COVID-safe version of the elaborate 17th-century performance from a West Philly cathedral.

Renaissance band Piffaro perform their 17th-century English masque concert in the Episcopal Cathedral in West Philadelphia

Renaissance band Piffaro perform their 17th-century English masque concert in the Episcopal Cathedral in West Philadelphia. (Screenshot via YouTube)

After wearing face coverings since March when the coronavirus pandemic broke out, the musicians of the Renaissance band Piffaro decided to have some fun with them. On Jan. 5, known as the Twelfth Night of the Christmas season, they will present a masque.

Four hundred years ago, English royalty staged these elaborately produced entertainments that were part amateur theater, part dance performance, and part revelry. The masque was performed by and for the king’s court, with hired musicians and actors providing professional chops while masked courtiers did the dancing.

“Imagine the president of the United States throwing a masked entertainment and the people featured in the dance were the Secretary of State, the Education Secretary – you know, the whole cabinet,” said Grant Herreid of Piffaro. “It would be like that, all the main nobles of the court would be featured in the dancing.”

Piffaro, which specializes in authentically performed early Renaissance and Baroque music, is presenting its pandemic version of a masque: pre-recorded for an online streaming concert. The 45-minute video was recorded with a professional film crew over a five-day period in November inside the empty Episcopal Cathedral in West Philadelphia but without dancers. The six members of Piffaro played music written for 17th-century masques on period instruments.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

“A lot of that music for the dances survives,” Herreid said. “We decided to make an instrumental concert using our whole complement of wind instruments: We have the sackbuts and dulcians and shawms and recorders and crumhorns, along with lutes and citterns and lots of percussion.”

Whenever possible, the musicians donned masks sculpted and decorated to resemble animals and mythological figures covering their eyes and nose, mimicking the early English masque tradition. Those players on stringed and percussive instruments, which do not require the mouth like the woodwinds, wore COVID masks.

The musicians even briefly tried doing a masque dance.

“Grant did a great job of choreographing this,” said Piffaro co-artistic director Joan Kimball. “If anybody looked too closely at the footwork it would not pass muster, but it was fun to do.”

A traditional masque was meant to be fun. Performed exclusively for the court – not intended for the general public. The masque was a means for members of the court to show off their dancing skills.

Like anything inside the halls of the royal court, it was more than just fun. Masques hit their peak during the reign of James I. Renowned artists like playwright Ben Jonson and architect Inigo Jones were hired to write and design masques costing large sums of money, meant to aggrandize the sitting king or queen.

The basic plot stayed close to an established formula:

“The loose plots often involved some kind of chaos in the country, which would be resolved by the monarch,” Herreid said. “Something is wrong in Arcadia, and then the monarch appears and through his beneficence and magical powers was able to set things right. These were political in that they were all about praise and prestige, and the wealth of the monarch.”

The grandeur of the masque was ultimately its downfall. The opulence of the productions, accompanied by excessive drinking in the name of political propaganda, raised the hackles of the common people of England as the country was barreling toward civil war in 1642.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

While the masque spectacle cannot be held liable for the collapse of English monarchy in the 17th century, “it definitely stoked the energy,” Herreid said.

The Piffaro version of the masque does not have the scale of a production for James I. Slimmer budgets and a global pandemic has kept the Piffaro performance to just its core six members (with an added lute player for one song) playing in one of its regular concert venues.

Kimball said the interior of the Episcopal Cathedral lets Piffaro give the concert video a certain panache.

“About 15 years ago, they took all the pews out, so the seating is completely flexible,” she said. “We were able to use different parts of the sanctuary to make different scenes. The video is more than us on stage, but a little more drama.”

The video concert will be a ticketed streaming event on Jan. 5. Afterward, ticket buyers will be able to access it on demand for a week.

Get daily updates from WHYY News!

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal