EARLY MUSIC: That Other Music Revival
Today New York has a flourishing early-music scene, but just 60 years ago that was not the case. This March alone, concerts were performed here by resident ensembles with names like the New York Baroque Dance Company, the Cerddorion Vocal Ensemble, Musica Viva, the Cisraritanian Consort of Viols, and the New York Continuo Collective, whose notes for a concert I attended describe their goal as to “examine the rhetoric of text, gesture, ornamentation, and phrasing to create a common language for realizing this highly improvised music.”
That statement does not quite tell us what makes early music different from the later classical music of the 18th and 19th centuries, so I tracked down the leader of Continuo, lute master Pat O’Brien, in his teaching studio near the Morgan Library and Museum on the east side of town to find out just what makes early music—well, early.
Reading through a number of books and articles that he recommended, and listening to judicious examples of “historically informed performances” of the music of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and Baroque periods, I developed a comparative understanding of early music.
If you listen to the classical music station WQXR or take out a subscription to the New York Philharmonic, you will hear a repertoire that generally begins in the late 18th century and ends in the mid-20th. The core of the repertoire is the music of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Wagner, Verdi, Berlioz, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and Stravinsky, as well as Liszt, Chopin, Mussorgsky, Vaughan Williams, Ravel, and many others. What unites all of these is that the musicians performing their music continue a pedagogical genealogy that goes as far back as Beethoven or Mozart, or perhaps a little further. Then it stops.
There is a near-consensus among musicologists that, despite the fact that European art music has been a going concern for a thousand years, it experienced a great discontinuity from just a few decades before the Industrial Revolution. If music before 1800 was a painting in full color, only the sketchy outlines of its masterpieces seem to have survived past that year.
The event that first heralded this change was the end of the Baroque period, with the death of J. S. Bach in 1750. That is when the tradition of performance practice and teacher-to-student interpretation seems to have died out, or been transformed. We can get a simple understanding of the contrast between early and later European art music if we compare the musical world of Europe in 1600 to that of 1850—one date clearly in the early period and the other thoroughly modern.
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Posted on 05/03/2012 12:51 PM by Geoffrey Clarfield