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Music 1607: Class has timely Jamestown tie

Griffioen demonstrates the playing of a Colonial instrument. By Stephen Salpukas Teaching about early American music does not generally draw much attention, noted Ruth van Baak Griffioen, assistant adjunct professor of musicology and director of the Early Music Ensemble at the College. “I teach early music—medieval and baroque. Normally, who cares what I teach or when it gets taught?” she said.

This year is different. Griffioen is teaching a class on the music of 1607, a class that could not be any more relevant as the country and especially the Williamsburg area prepare to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the settlement of Jamestown Colony.

“It’s so fun to be teaching something so current and so local,” she said.

Coincidentally, Griffioen noted, the course was approved exactly 400 years after the very date on which the settlers left for the new world. “[The amount of time] from the approval of the course to the end of exams [corresponds with] the entire time it took them to make that trip,” she said.

The coincidence inspired Griffioen to make a large map of the Atlantic Ocean for her classroom so students could track the settlers’ journey “in real time.” Each week the students can see the progress of the ships as they use historical records related to the voyage to mark the vessels’ locations.
The class also takes advantage of the significant local resources in the field of early Colonial music. Due to the availability of those resources, Griffioen structured the course to be very hands-on. “Everyone I need to talk to is right here,” she said.

Field trips and lectures by local experts constitute a majority of the class time. One class featured an “old instrument zoo” during which musicians specializing in 17th-century instruments demonstrated their craft. Another class had the students learning and demonstrating dances of the period. The students also visited Jamestown Settlement, which offered them a unique perspective on their work. “You have to stand in one of those ships to understand why they weren’t bringing harpsichords over the first day,” said Griffioen.

Staff members of the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA), which oversees the archeological operations at the James Fort site, gave the class a behind-the-scenes tour at that historic location.

“Artifacts tell the tale,” senior staff archeologist Danny Schmidt told the group. To hear the tale, the students visited the Archaearium, the site’s museum that features some of the nearly one million artifacts that have been recovered from James Fort.
Music-related artifacts are rare, Griffioen explained. “[Instruments are] underrepresented because they are not made out of materials that survive over time. Violins, recorders—that kind of stuff doesn’t survive except by tremendous luck,” Griffioen said. The few displays of music-related artifacts at the Archaearium represent “the foundations of early American music,” she added.

One of the rare artifacts is a brass mouthpiece. The mouthpiece, Griffioen explained, is one of the oldest pieces of brass found thus far at the site. She pointed out the mouthpiece’s flat playing surface to the students and contrasted it with that of a modern trumpet. The “chiffy” sound one heard from trumpets of that era came from that type of mouthpiece, she said.

Visiting the site of the original fort and seeing the artifacts that have been discovered there “puts everything into context,” said Rachel Blake, a graduate student at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. “The cultural context gives [the course work] additional value.”

The timely class in terms of the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown has been a unique experience for both the students and their instructor. “I’m usually teaching J.S. Bach. He never gets in the news,” Griffioen said.