ingénu/e catches up with Katharine Blake, founder of the
Classical chart topping choir Mediæval Baebes have been described, quite correctly in my opinion, as unique. Formed in 1996 by musical director, composer and producer Katharine Blake, they have released 10 studio albums, won an Ivor Novella Award for their performance on the BBC serialisation ‘The Virgin Queen’ and received two Emmy nominations and a Royal Television Society award as the featured artist alongside composer Martin Phipps for the theme tune of ITV’s hit TV show ‘Victoria’.
As they are due to perform at the Loxwood Joust in August, ingénue asked Katherine about the Baebes’ origins and music.
2021 marks the 25th anniversary of the group. What was the genesis of the idea to form the group all those years ago?
The band was originally formed by a group of friends, initially just for fun. I think they all initially thought I had gone a bit crazy, when, determined to share my love of early music, I coerced them into singing some simple mediæval tunes, which I believed would work well with untrained voices. It wasn’t long before I started writing my own compositions, inspired by the mediæval period, using Middle English texts.
Not long after that our first album Salva Nos was released which reached number 2 in the classical charts and received a silver disc. It all happened so quickly and felt like a dream.
What was your early life musical background that led you to be so knowledgeable regarding ancient music?
I have always loved early music, and have fond memories of going to concerts at The Wigmore Hall as a child, the home of early music excellence. I was educated at The Purcell School of Music, a full time music school. My first instrument was recorder, which has a broad repertoire of renaissance and baroque music. It was singing in the choir though that really inspired me, and influenced my future musical world. I was also lucky enough to perform the works of Hildegard Von Bingen, the 13th century visionary nun, in the early music group Synfonie, which was a big inspiration for starting Mediæval Baebes.
It seems that not only do members have to be excellent singers, but also have to sing in various languages and occasionally play relevant, early instruments. How easy or difficult is it to find someone who is ‘the right fit’ to join the ensemble?
Mostly new members have been recruited through word of mouth. It does indeed require quite a skill set! You have to sing and harmonise in a variety of ancient languages, off by heart, whilst performing choreography, and making it all look easy! Some of the singers also play recorders, string instruments and the hurdy-gurdy.
How did you celebrate winning the Ivor Novello Award in 2007 for best television soundtrack for the BBC production of The Virgin Queen?
Our collaborations with Martin Phipps, The Virgin Queen composer, have been a very happy marriage. More recently he composed music for the hit TV show Victoria which features Mediæval Baebes singing the popular theme tune, which was double Emmy nominated and went on to win best title at the Royal TV awards.
What is the future for the group and the concept? Is there a plan to ‘pass on the torch’ to a new generation of Mediæval Baebes?
I can’t imagine not being the musical director of Mediæval Baebes. Over the years there have been a myriad incarnations. I’ve actually lost count of all the members. I think it is one of the strengths of the group that so many women have been involved in this unique collective. It has kept the energy of the band exciting and fresh, with each new member bringing their own energy, skills and sensibility.
The torch has already been passed on to some of our offspring. 21-year-old Polly Harley, the daughter of founding member Ruth Galloway, and the first Mediæval Baebey sings on our most recent and 10th studio album, ‘Prayers of the Rosary’ which also features my 12-year-old daughter Rosa Marsh. I recently formed a family band, Mediæval Baebes Trio with Rosa and my multi-instrumentalist partner Mike York, so we could keep the fans entertained with streamed gigs during lockdown. I was totally upstaged by my daughter!