Our Music, Our Community
The Natural Rhythm of Music
Curated by Barry Marshall
May 22, 2023
Imagine yourself walking into a barn surrounded by the sights and sounds of farm life and animals all around you. Now imagine that within this barn is a symphony, playing live music not despite the activity of those animals, but in harmony with it. This is the experience that Michael Schmidt, conductor and farmer, delivers to delighted guests at his Symphony in the Barn in Durham, Ontario.
Michael immigrated to Ontario with his family from Germany in 1983. Within just a few years, Michael had acquired a farm and had begun spreading his love of music throughout Grey County and the surrounding regions. In April 1985, Michael organized and led the week-long first Saugeen Bach festival, which was made up of professional and talented amateur musicians to celebrate the birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach, the classical composer and musician. The event was an inspiring success – Michael succeeded in igniting the spark of interest in classical music in the community. In an interview following one of his performances, Michael said, “When you draw people’s musical talents together to play and sing something, it’s rather like running a farm where you do your best to harmonize with the many forces of nature.” Symphony in the Barn’s performance of Schubert’s Death & Maiden Mvt. II illustrates how naturally the sounds of evening life on the farm blend with the concert.
Symphony in the Barn performing Schubert’s Death & Maiden Mvt. II. Performed in 2012 by young professional musicians. Audio courtesy of Michael Schmidt.
Around 1994, Michael found himself in hot water when his production and sale of raw milk drew the attention of the provincial government and the Ontario Milk Marketing Board. At that time, as it is today, selling or disseminating raw milk in Ontario was illegal. Because of the myriad of legal difficulties Michael had fighting the government on the ability to produce raw milk, he lost two thirds of his farm operation. Soon after the devastation of the raw milk fight, Michael began Symphony in the Barn, with the hope of doing something creative in the wake of destruction. “I was in a complete state of confusion and depression. So, I said, let's fill the barn with music instead of trying to figure out how to survive. I think that was the basis of Symphony in the Barn. Symphony in the Barn just resounded, and it had nothing to do with the milk - it was a response to how people were hungry for something like that.”
In August 1995 Schmidt held the first performance on his own property under the title of Symphony in the Barn: Haydn's The Creation. Michael’s rendition of Creation was a celebration and recognition of Indigenous heritage and spirituality. The symphony was performed alongside the Council Fire Drum and Dance Troupe. The purpose of the event was to bring two cultures together, in the spirit of accepting each other's differences. Michael remarked, "I remember thinking of this one important thing, this connection with Native Peoples and how do we have reconciliation? In 1995 nobody talked about this. Politically it was insignificant to recognize the need for reconciliation. It was at the beginning of the mission of Symphony in the Barn. We also performed an opera from Mozart, setting the opera in the time of the pioneers coming and being confronted with how to bridge the gap with Native Peoples. We held water ceremonies and had compositions based in Native culture. At Symphony in the Barn, before all of the discussion around reconciliation, we were doing work to bridge the cultures." The performances Michael created with Council Fire Drum and Dance Troupe, and other First Nations groups, helped to bring together two disconnected parts of rural Ontario with the universal power of music.
It was clear to Michael that Symphony in the Barn was something truly special from the moment he started it. It provided a sensational experience for patrons unlike anything else. “I have experienced in my conversations with people from the city, that even when it's outside and in a rough but beautiful environment, the sense of comfort is replaced by the awe of the beauty, and the recognition that nature and classical music and being part of it is such a profound experience for them that they discover classical music in a new way. During a performance people’s senses are activated in a different way because most have some connection to rural life, and then they remember ‘oh it's just like so-and-so's farm,’ and in a way, it's breaking down barriers. That was, for me, such a priority - how can we bridge the divide? There is a certain honesty in the smell and experience people have when they come to Symphony in the Barn.” Michael’s Symphony continued to inspire and connect people with every performance.
Influenced by the biodynamic teachings and music of Rudolph Steiner, Michael took a holistic approach to farming that was not too common in Ontario when he arrived. Biodynamics is the modern predecessor of organic agriculture – both have a similar approach to the relationship between soil, plants, and animals. Michael integrated scientific understanding with a recognition of spirit in nature. A story in the Sun Times from April 1985 called Michael’s biodynamic approach “radical.” Today, biodynamic farming is becoming more common. On Michael’s farm, there is a natural synergy between the biodiversity on the farm and the symphony. “We have dynamics in music and biodynamics in agriculture. It is a subtle art to work with nature and not fight with nature in order to get what we want.” It is like listening to the music of nature and responding to it in harmony. And sometimes, nature responds quite literally. At Michael’s first presentation of Haydn’s The Creation, the audience had the pleasure of hearing cows in the yard mooing along with the vocals. “If people can come earlier, they can see the cows milked or the pigs being fed, then afterwards the orchestra walks on stage. Like with everything else, it is not a show, it is a real-life experience. You see shows in Toronto, but here, the music comes alive through the real experience of the farm. All the fakeness is gone. Everything has its charm; it's original, not staged.” Michael says the response he hears most from visitors to his farm is that the experience was “magical.”