The Manitoba University Consort: Medieval music from Canada’s heartland, 1963-1970

It’s hard to imagine, but one of the centres of the Early Music movement in the 1960s was in Winnipeg, Manitoba, on the Canadian Prairies. Manitoba is not often thought of as a place with its finger on the pulse. Sitting in the middle of the country, with a long distance (not to mention Lake Superior and a lot of rocky hills) separating it from the traditional centres of Canadian culture, it’s usually considered a backwater.

However, the province has long punched above its weight musically. Winnipeg, the capital, has played host to three important orchestras (one sadly defunct) and a world-renowned ballet company. There’s a strong history of chamber music, opera, musical theatre, and Gilbert & Sullivan productions. The province is served by three university music schools of solid reputation, three university-adjacent schools offering lessons to children and amateurs, and countless private schools and teachers. For decades, the province has played a key role in Canada’s musical development.

An important but little-studied example comes from the Manitoba University Consort, a group founded in the early 1960s by Winnipeg musician and bassoon teacher Christine Mather and featuring Peggie Sampson, the prominent Canadian cellist and professor of music theory. Aside from intersecting with important moments in the country’s musical history and touring internationally to unanimous acclaim, the consort was a pioneer of the performance of medieval, Renaissance, and early Baroque music using replica instruments, authentic performance practices, and transcriptions from scholarly editions.

Although the consort was a professional ensemble, it was centred in Winnipeg and drew its strength from the vibrant local musical ecosystem that existed at the time – which included the University of Manitoba’s new School of Music. The consort disbanded in 1970, but it set the stage for the ensembles that would develop in Canada in the 1980s, when the Early Music revival kicked into high gear.

The Manitoba University Consort with an array of instruments. Photo from the “Old Music from the New World” pamphlet.

The group played on replica instruments built by artisans in Germany, Switzerland, England, and a few from the United States, after originals mainly in European museums. Their impressive collection of instruments included around 20 recorders of various sizes, a lute, a psaltery, a portative organ, bells, crumhorns, a dulzian, a racket, shawms, and several viole da gamba.

“Most of the instruments belong to me and I believe they must be one of the largest and most complete collections in the world,” Mather said in an interview with the Ottawa Journal.1

Some of the other members owned their own instruments as well – particularly Peggie Sampson, who largely abandoned the cello after 1970 and launched a new career as a viola da gamba soloist.

The ensemble’s repertoire covered the 12th to 18th centuries, and featured music by the big name medieval and Renaissance composers (Machaut, Landini, Dufay), some more obscure figures (Oswald von Wolkenstein, Louis de Caix d’Hervelois), and even a few Baroque stalwarts (Bach, Telemann, Buxtehude). They covered the gamut from instrumental music to accompanied songs, and from solo works to full ensemble pieces. The majority of their repertoire is represented on their four CBC recordings (see Discography). Continue reading