The DaPonte String Quartet, from left, Lydia Forbes, Myles Jordan, Kirstin Monke and Dino Liva. Photo by Scott Sell

To honor Maine’s bicentennial, members of the DaPonte String Quartet decided to trace the musical history of the place to reflect the influences of people coming and going over time. The musicians settled on a program that predates Maine statehood and includes songs from the Wabanaki and music imported from Europe, courtesy of noblemen, naval captains and religious missionaries.

“Maine is home for us, and we feel very connected to the place,” said Kirsten Monke, a violist. “Everything we play, we examine from the point of view of history and how the composer was responding to events in his or her environment, so this was a natural for us.”

The DaPonte will present “Maine’s 200th: Music of Early Maine” throughout March and across Maine. The tour begins Sunday in Brunswick and includes stops March 15 in Newcastle, March 19 in Portland, March 21 in Rockport and March 29 in Belfast. There’s also an April 23 concert at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland.

In addition to Monke, the quartet includes Ferdinand “Dino” Liva and Lydia Forbes, violin, and Myles Jordan, cello. Percussionist Eric LaPerna will accompany the quartet.

Music has been part of everyday life in what we now know as Maine for centuries, Monke said. It played an important role in indigenous communities, and European sailors sang sea songs as they worked. Sea captains and men of state brought musical tastes home from Europe, and French Jesuit missionaries spread musical liturgy in Catholic churches across the land. Boston bookstores sold collections of dance tunes that made their way up to Maine.

Monke is friends with the noted anthropologist Harald Prins, who loaned her a copy of notated songs by Micmac chief Henri Membertou, who died in 1611. Membertou shared these songs with a French explorer, who wrote them down and published them. Later, a French monk gave them, in effect, four-part harmonies, Monke said.

Eric LaPerna joins the DaPonte String Quartet. Courtesy of DaPonte String Quartet

As the opening number of the program, the DaPonte will interpret the songs of Chief Membertou with strings. “We thought the lower octave of the violin creates a very human vocal quality, so that is where we begin, with the melody alone,” Monke wrote in an email. “We read about percussion instruments used at the time – shakers made from animal horns, split cane that could be tapped against the hand, and a long stick with the ‘dew claws’ of a moose strapped to it, which apparently made quite a rattling noise. So we have used some percussive rattles to try to emulate these cadences, along with the beat patterns that were described. The result is very beautiful.”

A young colonial bachelor’s dance book, which was found in Topsham, also unearthed a few more songs. The book belonged to Joseph Merrill, who in 1795 wrote down the names of his favorite dance songs and their accompanying steps. The notebook survived, and Jordan arranged one of the songs for a quartet. “It gives you an idea of what you might have heard at a formal dance on the midcoast,” Monke wrote. “Dancing masters used to arrive from Europe and ride by horseback from town to town with a miniature fiddle in their coat pocket, with which they’d offer instruction in the latest dance craze of the time.”

They’ll perform a hymn called “Captivity,” written by Supply Belcher of Farmington, and songs from the Spanish court of the early 1500s.

LaPerna has musical roots with most members of the quartet. He knows Monke from their time together in the Bowdoin Middle Eastern Ensemble, which LaPerna directs. He also performed with Jordan and Forbes in the early music ensemble Ensalada. He will add what he describes as “cool Arabic-style ornamentation” on Juan del Ecina’s “Four Songs from Canconiero de Palacio.”

Monke said people who attend the concerts should expect variety and surprise.

“All the English and French music is so wonderful, either achingly beautiful or almost like Renaissance rock ‘n’ roll, especially with the addition of percussion, which makes a sarabande a really sultry and sexy dance,” Monke wrote, referring to a triple-meter Spanish dance song. “I have to say that almost every piece on this program has got me at one point or another saying, ‘Oh, this one’s my favorite.'”

Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: