What is early music?

    The term “early music” refers to both a repertory (European music written before about 1800, including medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, and early classical music) and an approach to performance (“historically-informed performance” including the use of period instruments).

    Early music practitioners seek to discover and perform music from times past, to explore a repertory of music that is otherwise little known. From Gregorian chant to the music of Bach and Mozart, the repertory spans a millennium, from roughly 800-1800.

    Early music specialists also aim to recreate the sound-worlds of earlier times through the use of period instruments and techniques. They base their interpretations on the accumulated evidence of original instruments, manuscripts, first editions, and the remarks of theoretical and instructional treatises, rather than on “received tradition” passed on by previous generations of performers and teachers.


    History of the Early Music Movement

    The revival of interest in early music can be traced all the way back to Felix Mendelssohn, who “revived” the music of Bach (the St. Matthew Passion in 1829) after several decades during which Baroque music was not regularly performed. The idea of historically-informed performance goes back to the work of Arnold Dolmetsch in late 19th-century London, who began making copies of viols, lutes, harpsichords, and other old instruments, and studying Baroque-era treatises for information on how music was performed in earlier times.

    In the early 20th century, early-music pioneers like Wanda Landowska (harpsichordist in Paris), Safford Cape (American choral conductor in Belgium), and August Wenzinger (cellist/gambist in Basel) began to teach and record early music. It was not until after World War II, however, that the modern “early music movement” really began to take off. In the United States, Paul Hindemith led an active Collegium Musicum (early music performance program) at Yale during the 1940s, and Noah Greenberg founded the New York Pro Musica in 1952. In England, Alfred Deller founded the Deller Consort in 1948, and Thurston Dart taught a generation of early music students in Cambridge in the 1950s. Nikolaus Harnoncourt founded the Baroque orchestra Concentus Musicus Wien (Vienna) in 1953. Gustav Leonhardt gave his debut as a harpsichordist in 1950 and began teaching at the Amsterdam Conservatory in 1954; Frans Brueggen began teaching recorder at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague in 1955. So in many different countries, at about the same time, an interest in historically-informed performance of medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque music developed.

    The movement grew exponentially and internationally in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, perhaps peaking in the early 90s with the ascent to the top of the Billboard Classical charts of Anonymous 4’s recordings of medieval music. To mention just a few of the more influential early groups: in America, the Boston Camerata (founded 1954; directed by Joel Cohen since 1968) and the Waverly Consort (founded by Michael and Kay Jaffee in 1964); in England, Musica Reservata (founded by Michael Morrow in 1960), the Early Music Consort (founded by David Munrow in 1967), and the Consort of Musick (founded by Anthony Rooley in 1969); in Germany, Capella Antiqua of Munich (founded by Konrad Ruhland in 1956), and the Studio der fruhen Musik (founded in 1960 by American Thomas Binkley). Baroque orchestras boomed in the 1970s: La Petite Bande (Sigiswald Kuijken) was founded in 1972; the English Concert (Trevor Pinnock), the Academy of Ancient Music (Christopher Hogwood), and Boston Baroque (originally called Banchetto Musicale, Martin Pearlman) were all founded in 1973; Tafelmusik (Toronto), Les Arts Florissants (William Christie), and the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra (Ton Koopman) were founded in 1979, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (San Francisco) in 1981.


    Authenticity and Turf Wars

    In the 1970s, it was common to see recordings labeled “authentic performance” on “original instruments.” In the 1980s a number of scholars (Taruskin, Dreyfus, et al) challenged the notion of “authenticity” on various grounds. It is impossible to create a truly historically authentic Baroque performance 300 years after the fact, because among other things, contemporary audiences, venues, values, and contexts are so different. Also, in some cases the desire to create historically authentic replicas (a 20th-century “modernist” idea) had led to rather boring, inexpressive performances—the opposite of “authentic” performances in the sense of performances that were truly imagined, created and owned by the performers. The term “authentic performance” has now generally been replaced by “historically-informed performance,” while “original instruments” has been abandoned in favor of “period instruments.”

    There were also a number of mainstream classical performers and music critics who criticized the early music movement in the 1970s and 80s for out-of-tune, amateurish performances. While some of this criticism was undoubtedly justified, some of it was a result of unfamiliarity with Baroque pitch and historical tuning systems other than equal temperament. And much of the criticism arose from a “defense of turf” on the part of mainstream classical performers who were afraid of losing the Baroque period, in particular, to another group of performers.


    Early Music Goes Mainstream

    Now, in the 21st century, the turf wars have largely subsided. To a great extent, early music has been accepted as part of the mainstream classical music world. “Early music” is now considered part of the continuum of art music, as is “new music” and even jazz (which is no longer “popular music”). Historically-informed performances represent a choice; in this postmodern world, listeners can choose to hear the Goldberg Variations on harpsichord or piano or synthesizer, and few will claim that any one of those performances is morally superior to another. But we at Early Music America, and thousands of performers and millions of listeners, believe that early music provides a valuable way to understand history and human culture and that historically-informed performances provide important musical insights and experiences.

    ---Maria V. Coldwell, former Executive Director, EMA


    Short Bibliography

    Books about Early Music in general

    • Haskell, Harry. The Early Music Revival. (Thames and Hudson, 1988; Dover, 1996).
    • Sherman, Bernard. Inside Early Music: Conversations with Performers (Oxford University Press, 1997).
    • Haynes, Bruce. The End of Early Music (Oxford University Press, 2007).


    The Authenticity Wars

    • Butt, John. Playing with History. (Cambridge University Press, 2002).
    • Kenyon, Nicholas. Authenticity and Early Music (Oxford University Press, 1988).
    • Taruskin, Richard. Text & Act: Essays on Music and Performance (Oxford University Press, 1995).


    Books about Performance Practices

    • Duffin, Ross. A Performer’s Guide to Medieval Music (Early Music America Performer’s Guides to Early Music; Indiana University Press, 2000).
    • Kite-Powell, Jeffery. A Performer’s Guide to Renaissance Music (Early Music America Performer’s Guides to Early Music; Schirmer Books, 1994; 2nd edition, Indiana University Press, 2007).
    • Lawson, Colin, and Stowell, Robin. The Historical Performance of Music: An Introduction(Cambridge University Press, 1999). (discusses Baroque and Classical music)

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