“Early Music,” or “historical performance,” describes music composed before our time, performed with historically appropriate instruments and performance styles. From Gregorian chant to the music of Bach and Beethoven, from the exotic shawm and vielle to the more familiar baroque violin and harpsichord, the repertoire of this art form spans a millennium. More than 1,000 early music ensembles from Hawaii to Maine give thousands of performances each season to millions of listeners; their recordings and broadcasts reach an even larger audience.
A distinguished past
'Historically informed performance’ can be traced back to the work done by Arnold Dolmetsch and his coterie in late 19th century London. Antiquarian, organologist (i.e., instrument maker), scholar, and performer, Dolmetsch found a champion in no less influential a critic than George Bernard Shaw (writing pseudonymously as Corni Bassetto, for the The Star and The World in London), yet he never found – and, in truth, probably never sought – a broad-based public following.
Our modern-day movement towards ‘historically informed performance’ is rooted in Amsterdam, Basel, and Vienna, where, immediately after the Second World War, a notable group of musicians addressed themselves to reinventing music of the past, and specifically of the Baroque, in stylistically appropriate manners. Leaders of the movement included conductor Nicholas Harnoncourt (who founded the Vienna-based orchestra Concentus Musicus) and three Dutch musicians who were active as soloists, chamber musicians, and teachers: harpsichordist and organist Gustav Leonhardt, recorder virtuoso Frans Brueggen, and cellist Anner Bylsma.
These artists were in a vanguard that, first, rehabilitated instruments and instrumental techniques, and then, informed by often fresh scholarship, created a sound world and emotional ambiance that animated a repertory from Monteverdi to Handel (from roughly 1600 to 1750). They restored to music an emotional presence and intellectual relevance that had been lost to a modern-day audience. Among the most significant roles these artists collectively played was that of mentor to a younger generation of aspiring musicians, many of whom sought musical alternatives to the standard, and standardized, work provided by most symphony orchestras. Any genealogy of contemporary period-instrument musicians would have a family tree whose branches all stem from Amsterdam, Basel and Vienna. Musicians came to these cities not only from throughout Europe, on whose soil this music was created, but, in larger numbers, from America. Significantly, and unlike earlier American artists who studied in Europe and stayed there to pursue their careers, these period-instrument players came home to make new opportunities for themselves and their colleagues.
A reawakened interest
In 1981, the eminent music critic Andrew Porter eloquently described the movement’s rationale and rewards. “Let me start with an assertion,” said Porter, “that has underlain much of what I’ve written in The New Yorker during the past eight years: ‘Music sounds best the way its composer wrote it,’ and by ‘best’ I mean most expressive, most beautiful, most enjoyable...My contention—and not only mine, but that of once hundreds and now of thousands of people the world over—is that music can only be made accurately, truly, fully, on the instruments and by the techniques for which it was composed. And techniques and instruments cannot be separated...”
“Let me try an analogy,” Porter continued. “Imagine that fifty years ago there were no paintings by the Old Masters to be seen—no Leonardos, no Rembrandts, no Raphaels in our museums and art galleries, but only reproductions of them executed in water colors, poster paints, or even acrylics. All would not have been lost; you would still have been able to appreciate form and composition; and if the copies were faithful, there would still be much beauty to admire. Well, that’s how it was in the world of music once. But now, thanks to the loving revival of old instruments and the loving revival of old techniques, we are brought face to face, ear to ear with the originals once again.”
“One important thing must be said,” Porter concluded. “This movement does not represent a retreat into an ivory tower, a turning of one’s back on modern life and all that it has to offer. Rather, it represents a living of modern life in the fullest and richest possible way, by experiencing the great heritage of our past as something fresh and alive within us, so that it tunes and tempers our perceptions of the way we look at, listen to, and think about the present.”
Mr. Gelles was formerly Executive Director of Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra.