Flagellant songs and the “dancing plague” don’t exactly sound like a good time, but Bay Area early music group Cançonièr promises otherwise.
“Choreomania: Music for the Dancing Plagues of Medieval and Renaissance Europe” opens Thursday in Palo Alto, and added shows are in Berkeley on Saturday and The City on Sunday.
“Many people think the medieval period was depressing and full of religious guilt,” says Tim Rayborn, a Cançonièr co-founder. “But there was also a lot of joy. There’s a tremendous amount of fun in this music.”
Cançonièr didn’t invent “choreomania.” The term refers to a still somewhat mysterious phenomenon first notably recorded in 1518 in Strasbourg, Germany, when an old lady named Frau Troffea started dancing spasmodically in the street for hours before napping and starting again, garnering followers and instigating a veritable citywide medieval flash mob.
“It’s a recognized condition,” Rayborn says. “There have been medical instances of people dancing spontaneously, particularly in non-Western countries. It is unusual, though.”
The Cançonièr program journeys from the 11th century into the early Renaissance, and crisscrosses Europe. Sacred and secular music from Saxony, France, Italy, Wales and the Low Countries are on the bill.
Flagellant songs come from the mid-1300s, when religious penitents walked through villages whipping themselves until they bled. The processions gained prominence during Europe’s Black Plague outbreaks. (The head-smacking-with-planks Pie Jesu scene from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” parodies the movement.)
But the music itself isn’t necessarily dreary, and many tunes in the program, like the Italian tarantellas, are secular, and were created for dancing.
“People often associate medieval music with Gregorian chants, but there can be a lot of beauty and complexity in it, and people are surprised when they hear the melody and the liveliness,” Rayborn says.
The program — loaded with humor, anecdotes and history tidbits — also offers listeners the chance to hear early string instruments like the vielle, citole and psaltery, numerous pipes and drums, and the dulce melos, an early keyboard.
“This was popular music made for a purpose,” Rayborn says. “It’s not snooty, high-end. These are popular dances that were enjoyed by regular people. There are a lot of catchy melodies that people can hook into ... I think people should give it a shot, they may be pleasantly surprised.”