M4tL Banner

Unit 2 Introduction: Early Music

David John Munroe

David John Munroe (1942-1976)

We refer to the music of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries as music of the common practice era. Music of earlier times is often called Early Music. The interest in performing early music can be dated to the beginning of the 20th century and coincides with the development of musicology as an academic discipline.

The revival of early music depended to a large degree on the ability of scholars and artisans to reconstruct the instruments of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, because they are often quite different from the instruments of the Baroque and Classic Period orchestra. Enterprising scholars like Arnold Dolmetsch (1858-1940) became fascinated with surviving musical instruments in the collection of the British Museum at the end of the 19th century. Some of these could actually be refurbished and played upon, and this made it possible to hear how the music of earlier periods sounded on original instruments.

Playing early music on instruments like the recorder (flute), the shawm (oboe),InformationA shawm is a woodwind instrument from the 12th century which used a double reed to produce sound, just as its ancestor the oboe does. and the sackbut (trombone),InformationPredecessor to the trombone, the sackbut was very similar, except for a smaller bore, and less flare on its bell. gave an entirely new perspective and dimension to what previously had been thought of as arcane. Precursors of the violin (viols) and the trumpet (cornetto) revealed new tone colors (timbre) that had been lost for several centuries. Concerts of early music in London helped to cultivate a new audience for rediscovered art music and a new generation of instrument makers who restored and even replicated old instruments.

Scholarship and performance merged perfectly in the person of David Munroe (1942-1976), an English phenomenon who could play any early instrument that could be found. He and his Early Music Consort of London gave an amazing number of concerts and made many recordings in the late 1960s. Soon a sort of elitism grew up around this kind of specialized performance. Scholars and informed listeners came to view the performance of early music on modern instruments as coarse. This attitude, assisted by the proliferation of recordings, spawned something called authentic performance practice.

Authentic performance is an attempt to recreate music as the composer would have heard it, avoiding superimposing modern values and timbres. Not only do the performers use original instruments, or replicas of them, but they also work from original sources, often manuscripts or early prints from the collections of museums and music libraries. Musicologists assist the performers in interpreting the notation of early music.

The early music movement peaked in the 1970s with the establishment of orchestras dedicated to the performance of 18th century music on original instruments. Several influential conductors, like Christopher Hogwood and Roger Norrington, launched their careers on this repertoire and made many recordings of everything from Handel operas to Mozart concertos, to Beethoven symphonies.

Now, when you go to iTunes to purchase a recording of Beethoven's Fifth, the first decision you have to make is whether you want a modern performance or an "authentic" one. Do you want to hear Riccardo Muti conducting the Chicago Symphony or Roger Norrington leading the Orchestra of the Enlightenment?

Believe it or not, the sound is quite different. A thorough explanation here is beyond the scope of this course, but suffice it to say that the authentic version is a much leaner sound with very little vibrato or rubato and a tendency toward quicker tempos. The number of players is likely to be much smaller in the original instrument version than in the modern one.

If the work in question involves singing, then the differences are even more noticeable. Just listen, for example, to some of the recordings of Handel's Messiah made in the 1960s by major English or American orchestras (London, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, Cleveland) with mainstream conductors and you'll hear opera singers in the solo parts. By contrast, most of the more recent recordings of this work feature a kind of specialized singer with a smaller voice, no vibrato, and much more agility. You don't have to be an aficionado to tell the difference.

This introduction to early music has attempted to describe a paradigm shift. Early music has, in less than a century, been brought out of the museum, onto the concert stage, and into the recording studio. Its performance has generated an industry and a passionate audience. This trend, incidentally, can be traced to the work of the German composer Paul Hindemith, who came to teach at Yale University in the early 1950s and established a collegium musicum there. Today, major conservatories and university schools of music now sponsor early music ensembles, maintain collections of early instruments, and employ faculty dedicated to teaching authentic performance practice.