Everything You Need to Know About the Academy of St. Martin In The Fields

Sep 9, 2019

“What’s with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields?”

That was the first thing out of my uncle’s mouth when I got to his house over Labor Day Weekend. He’s an avid WCRB listener, and has noticed that we play that one particular group a lot. Like, a lot.

In fact, we spin least a few recordings of the ASMF every day on WCRB. You’re most likely to hear them in the morning, when Laura Carlo, Jay Fondin, or myself put on one of their Baroque classics. But you might also hear them playing Gounod for the Symphony at 8, joined by Pepe Romero for a lunchtime guitar concerto, or taking you through the night with a Handel suite for our Midnight Masterpiece.

It’s not just us, by the way. Turn on any classical radio station and you’re guaranteed to hear the ASMF at some point or another, probably conducted by Neville Marriner. This phenomenon was parodied back in the 80s by cartoonist Charles Rodrigues in the magazine Stereo Review. A man listens to his radio announce “the Academy of St Martin in the Fields,” while his parrot chimes in, “Neville Marriner conducting.”

So, back to my uncle’s question. What’s with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields? What does that name even mean? And why do we play them so much? Here are all of his and your questions, answered!

What exactly is the Academy of St Martin in the Fields?

The Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields is a chamber orchestra based out of London. It was founded in 1958 by violinist Neville Marriner as a small group dedicated to Baroque music. The group mimicked the smaller ensembles that were popular in the 17th and 18th centuries. Rather than conducting from the podium, Marriner led from his seat as first violinist.

The ASMF began a series of concerts in its namesake church in 1959 (their first was on Friday the 13th!), and got their first recording contract in 1961. Since then, they’ve released hundreds of albums and toured around the world. Marriner ended up moving up to the conductor’s podium and had a long and distinguished career as a conductor. He led the ASMF for over 50 years before handing the reins over to violinist Joshua Bell, who has been the music director since 2011.

The ASMF has changed considerably from its start as a 12 person string group. It’s still smaller than the usual symphony orchestra, but has bulked out by adding winds, brass, and percussion. It also no longer plays strictly Baroque music, widening its scope to just about everything. Joshua Bell has brought to the ensemble a renewed interest in new music, and the ASMF recently added Sally Beamish as its composer-in-residence. There’s also the ASMF chamber ensemble, which tours and records in its own right.

Why a chamber orchestra?

In music as in life, bigger is not always better. Orchestras in the 1700s were actually often a lot smaller than the ones we usually see today. Throughout the 1800s, orchestras grew and grew in size in response to the bigger sounds that composers and audiences loved. That’s all well and good when you’re playing Mahler or Wagner, but it’s a bit heavy for Vivaldi.

Chamber orchestras are the lighter, more intimate cousins of the big symphony orchestra. Their smaller size gives the music they play a very different feel, which can be a fun breath of fresh air. Often, they go without a conductor for a more collaborative, democratic feel. Plus, they’re sized more like the groups that Handel, Haydn, and Mozart would have written for.

The ASMF is one of the best-known chamber orchestras out there, but there are plenty of others. You’ll hear the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and the English Chamber Orchestra pretty regularly on WCRB, and the Boston-based group A Far Cry has been making (Grammy-nominated!) waves recently.

What’s with the weird name?

Most visitors to London will at some point pass by the church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. Situated just off Trafalgar Square in Westminster, it’s very much not “in the fields” today. However, there has been a church on the same site since at least the 13th century, at which time Westminster was a rural town outside the limits of London with plenty of fields to surround the church.

When the ASMF was looking for a venue to host its first concerts, one of the members suggested the church, where he was the music director. Not only is it a beautiful venue, it was rebuilt at the same time that Handel was dominating the London music scene, making it the perfect fit for a Baroque-focused group. The original members decided to use the church’s name for their new group, and the rest is history.

You can still see the ASMF playing at its namesake church in between world tours. If you’re headed to London, be sure to check out its concert listings.

But why “Academy?”

You cannot study at the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, that’s true. But “Academy” doesn’t just mean a school, even if that’s the most popular way we think of it. It’s also used for a general group or society of people gathered around a common cause. For example, the Oscars are awarded by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, hence why they’re called the “Academy Awards.”

“Academy” is a pretty popular name among other Baroque ensembles. You’ll hear the Academy for Ancient Music, the Chamber Academy of Potsdam, and other musical “academies” alongside the ASMF on WCRB. Some are involved in some kind of teaching, like the Academy of St. Cecilia. Others just like the name.

Why is the ASMF so popular with classical radio stations like WCRB?

The ASMF is one of the rare ensembles that boasts both quality AND quantity when it comes to recordings. Its discography on Discogs.com lists 753 albums, which blows just about everyone else out of the water. If you’re looking for a Baroque masterpiece or Classical gem, the ASMF has probably recorded it.

But again, it’s not just quantity. The musicianship and sound quality of ASMF studio is top-notch, and it recruits some of the best musicians from around London, the UK, and the world to play with them. Marriner became a highly sought-after conductor in his own right thanks to his work with the ASMF, and its guest soloists and conductors are very well-chosen.

So the ASMF has become a really great resource for classical radio stations. We know that its recordings are excellent, and it has recorded so much that there’s always something fresh to listen to. At the end of the day, we’re just looking for good music. For over 60 years, the Academy of St Martin in the Fields has provided us with exactly that.