New Sounds on Old Instruments

The (re-)discovery of Early music

Whether we’re talking about early masters like Orlando di Lasso and Josquin Desprez or about the great classics by Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven: what we understand by »classical music« is basically pretty old in all cases. Even the works of Alban Berg and Anton Webern, who fired the starting pistol for so-called contemporary music, are already nearly a hundred years old in the meantime. So what is actually »Early music« in this context? A look back at the past may help throw some light on the situation.

The invention of »Early Music«

As recently as the era of Johannes Brahms (†1897) and Gustav Mahler (†1911), it was perfectly normal to hear music in a concert that had just been composed, which prompted lively discussions of how good the new work was. But the music landscape had been undergoing a gradual restructuring since the end of the 18th century. The instruments of the orchestra were evolving in leaps and bounds, and the new potential this created led to the composition of increasingly sophisticated works. Moreover, as a symbol of the growing self-confidence of the middle class, new, large-scale concert halls were built in which the new sounds could be heard to better effect.

Bourgeois display of splendour: the old Gewandhaus Leipzig in 1895
Bourgeois display of splendour: the old Gewandhaus Leipzig in 1895 © Wikimedia Commons

Concerts themselves change

Concerts themselves also began to alter in content. A canon of works gradually became established that is still in use today, with concert programmes generally consisting of music from this »standard repertoire«. The sequence overture – solo concerto – symphony became established, and orchestras became increasingly professional in response to the ever more complex compositions. In the course of these developments, the profession of conductor was born: he no longer simply kept time and perhaps appeared as a soloist as well – the modern conductor concentrates his entire attention on the artistic interpretation of the work.

A new team member: The »interpreter«

As the repertoire narrowed, with fewer works being composed, the actual interpretation gained in importance: the focus moved more and more away from new music to the task of coaxing a new reading out of a familiar work. Thus the boundaries between the creator and the interpreter became more closely-defined: the composer supplied the score, while the interpreter’s job was confined to, er, »interpreting« it. The art of improvisation, once a central feature of every concert, gradually fell into disuse from the mid-19th century on. Parallel to this, the star cult surrounding individual soloists like Franz Liszt, to name but one, reached unprecedented dimensions.

Heart-throb Liszt / caricature from 1842
Heart-throb Liszt / caricature from 1842 © Wikimedia Commons

Pushed out to the periphery: Bach and Handel

The music of earlier eras didn’t fit in with the new conditions. The works of pre-Classical composers such as Handel and Bach continued to be played, but they had peripheral status for many years and did not appear regularly on concert programmes. Thus the distinction between »early« music and the »classical« repertoire deemed suitable for concerts gradually emerged.

From a small »e« to a capital »E«

As the 20th century dawned, a fresh breeze began to blow through the world of music. Many people were tired of the star cult surrounding artists and the elitist idea that concerts designed for the bourgeoisie were based on.

Influence of the youth movement

So it came about that the so-called youth movement (mainly in Germany, Austria and Switzerland) began to emphasise the social significance of music. The Hamburg-based music teacher Fritz Jöde, a leading figure in the youth music movement of the 1930s, was one of those who propagated playing music as a community-building activity for everyone. This was obviously a difficult proposition with Beethoven, Brahms or Mahler symphonies, so a new repertoire had to be created.

Songs for everyone – an idea that had consequences

Jöde and his followers found what they were looking for in the folk song – and in the distant past. They discovered, for example, that Renaissance vocal music also lent itself to performance by amateurs, which led to a revival of the genre. Folk songs of every type and hue were written down and published. Parallel to this, scores of pre-Classical music were edited and published, early instruments were rediscovered and collected – and the new discipline of musicology devoted its research attention to these early eras of music history. The term »Early music« became established to denote music written prior to 1750 or thereabouts – the »Early« written with a capital E as the counterpart to the term »Neue Musik« (new music), coined by German music critic Paul Bekker in 1919.

A group of female Wandervögel singing
A group of female Wandervögel singing © Wissenmedia

Search for the original sound :Historic performing practice

With the growing interest in Renaissance and Baroque music and with the birth of historical musicology, there was increasing concern about how this »Early« music might have sounded when it was first performed. Old instruments were restored or reconstructed, and scholarly treatises from these earlier eras were unearthed and read. The fruit of these labours was in turn a growing awareness of the very considerable difference between 20th century performing practice and that of the past. Research and practice interacted to find the original, authentic sound, and in the meantime have broadened their search well beyond the Baroque repertoire.

»The music of any era is best performed on the instruments of its time.«

Nikolaus Harnoncourt

From the muesli orchestra to the gold standard

At the outset of this development, artists who approached Early music in this manner were often regarded as esoteric crackpots. The cliché of the »muesli musician« who set out to save the world, armed with a natural trumpet and a Baroque bow, remained in vogue in some circles until the 1980s. Nonetheless, historic performing practice gradually won social acceptance after the Second World War: in 1953 Nikolaus Harnoncourt founded the Vienna Concentus Musicus, the first ensemble to specialise solely in historically-informed performances of Baroque and pre-Baroque music. It was followed by the Cappella coloniensis in Cologne in 1954, and the Dutch Leonhardt Consort a year later. Up to the present day, many top-class formations focus on performing works in the style used when they were written.

Concentus Musicus Wien with Nikolaus Harnoncourt playing cello (1972)
Concentus Musicus Wien with Nikolaus Harnoncourt playing cello (1972) © Concentus Musicus Wien

A listening comparison :»Traditional« versus »historically informed«

Antonio Vivaldi, The Four Seasons: Winter

Anne-Sophie Mutter, Herbert von Karajan

Il Giardino Armonico, Giovanni Antonini

Johann Sebastian Bach, St Matthew Passion: Erbarme dich

Christa Ludwig, Otto Klemperer

Paul Esswood, Nikolaus Harnoncourt

The trouble with the original sound

»A lot of what we are doing at the moment is pure hypothesis. We really know very little at all.«

Gustav Leonhardt

And that brings us to the next problem: it’s already hard enough to reconstruct the original sound of Late Romantic works like those by Gustav Mahler – we can’t ask him exactly how he intended the music to sound. This applies all the more so to Renaissance composers like Josquin Desprez or Orlando di Lasso, and even to an omipresent figure like Handel, whose music seems nothing if not familiar.

Musical guessing games

Nor was it only the instruments of the Baroque or the Renaissance that differed, in some cases substantially, from their modern counterparts. The playing techniques were different in earlier times, and different rules applied to ornamentation. Moreover, many Renaissance pieces in particular were not even written for a clearly-defined instrument or instruments. How fast should the music be played? How should the volume and tempo be altered? Such information that we take for granted was not included in the score in the Renaissance. And even if tempo markings gradually became customary, they remained very relative until the metronome was invented.

A notation leaving many questions unanswered. Excerpt from a Renaissance composition
A notation leaving many questions unanswered. Excerpt from a Renaissance composition © Public Domain

As original as possible…

The bottom line is: the deeper you go into the subject, the more questions pose themselves. Thus the approach to the idea of the »original sound« has altered as well with the passing of time. In the first half of the 20th century, musicians and scholars were convinced that with enough detailed research it would be possible to reconstruct the authentic sound of »Early music«. But in the meantime, it is generally recognised that the best possible result can only come close to an ideal that is simply unknown to us today. 

Text: Juliane Weigel-Krämer, last updated: 10 Feb 2021
Translation: Clive Williams

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