Why ‘early music’ has had its day

In tune with the past? 
In tune with the past? Glydenbourne's revival of Cavalli's opera La Calisto

The most influential trend in classical music of the past 50 years is on the wane. Ivan Hewett explains why

‘Early music” is a force  to reckon with. No trend has been more influential in classical music in the last half-century. Whole festivals, record companies, promoters, performing groups and concert series are devoted to it, and the leading figures of the movement, such as John Eliot Gardiner and William Christie, rival mainstream classical stars in terms of selling power. More than that, musicians who work within early music claim a special authority that other classical musicians feel a need to defer to. You could even say that early music, which started out as a subversive movement, has taken over much of the field. But the signs are that its long reign is over. Having been the latest thing for so long, early music is beginning to feel distinctly dated. Why should this be?

Before we look into the reasons, we need to explain the term “early music”, which is a puzzling one. You might think it refers to the vast treasury of renaissance and medieval work and, at first, the early music movement’s aim was to rescue this older sort of classical music from oblivion. Opera was a prime focus, with pioneer figures like Vincent d’Indy reviving Monteverdi operas in the 1910s and 1920s. A late example of this trend was David Munrow who, in the 1960s, revived Renaissance composers such as Praetorius and Susato using those funny-looking wind instruments with odd names, like serpents and crumhorns. At around the same time, Glyndebourne gained kudos for its revivals of such early operas as Cavalli’s La Calisto. 

But then early music took a different turn, focusing on the classical music people already knew, or thought they knew: Bach, Rameau, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven. What this brand of early music devotees discovered was that performers of this music had got it all wrong. Put simply, they were playing 17th- and 18th-century music with the performing habits of the romantic era. Playing Bach on the instruments and with the playing styles suited to romantic composers like Brahms was – they said – a travesty. We had to “scrub the music clean” of its thick romantic crust, so we could finally see it in its true colours.

It was in the 1960s, led by such pioneering figures as Nikolaus Harnoncourt in Vienna and Denis Stevens in England, that early music took off. By the 1980s, the movement was riding high. Musicians who are now the grandmasters of the movement were getting into their stride, in many cases by founding their own orchestras, kitted out with “authentic” old-style violins and oboes and “natural” (ie, valveless) horns. Gardiner founded the English Baroque Soloists, Roger Norrington set up the London Classical Players, Dutchman Frans Bruggen created the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment was formed. Promoters queued up to book them, which put the more established, conventional orchestras’ noses seriously out of joint. They felt they weren’t allowed to play Bach and Mozart any longer. They hadn’t done their research properly, they weren’t playing on the right instruments, so their way of playing that music was simply wrong.

Since those heady days, four things have conspired to take the wind out of the sails of early music. One is the simple fact that early music has lost its novelty. Back then, hearing a Baroque oboe or a valveless horn was a thrill, like opening a door on an unknown country. These days it’s par for the course. Another factor is that the boost that the end of the era of the LP and the corresponding ascendancy of the CD gave early music has long since dissipated. After the invention of the CD in 1982, the record industry had to persuade thousands of classical music-lovers to replace their LPs of Bach and Mozart with new CD versions. What better way to do that than to convince them those old recordings simply weren’t up to the knocker and that they needed shiny new recordings of properly “authentic” performances by the new early music groups instead. 

The English Baroque Soloists

A third factor in the decline of early music is that it has lost its intellectual authority. It was an article of faith that early music offered listeners an “authentic” experience of old music “as the composer himself would have heard it”. This idea doesn’t stand up to serious scrutiny. For one thing, it “confuses what composers wanted with what they got”, to borrow pianist Charles Rosen’s tart phrase. Who’s to say Bach would not have preferred a modern piano to an “authentic” harpsichord for his keyboard works? Also, the anti-romantic, “cool” aesthetic of early music may not be authentic at all; it may just be us projecting our modern, anti-romantic prejudices on to old music. No one can be free of the prejudices of his or her own era, not even an “early musician”.

In response to these criticisms, early musicians have learned some humility. They no longer claim that what they do is “authentic”; instead they use the much more modest phrase “historically informed”. The fetish for old instruments has disappeared; the doyen of early music performance, Roger Norrington, told me recently that we can play Bach with proper period style on steel pans, which is almost as shocking as the Pope saying contraception might be OK in certain circumstances.

Which brings us to the fourth reason for early music’s decline. Without the ideological commitment to “authenticity” and the right “stuff” in terms of old instruments, early music loses its raison d’être. It becomes watered down to “a knowledge of style, leavened with personal interpretation”, which is pretty much what performance is for any sort of classical musician. The result is that the boundaries between early music and the rest of classical music have dissolved. Musicians working in the “standard” classical world, such as Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic, have borrowed early music’s clothes, and here and there in the work of period-performance musicians, as in Norrington’s recent recordings, one encounters a romantic ambience.  Early music hasn’t disappeared: in fact, it’s ubiquitous. The old groups are still going strong and younger ones, such as the extraordinary Euskal Baroque Ensemble, seem to pop up every other month. But, in a strange way, it’s become invisible.