Concentio Agnorum logo

About Early Music

What’s Early Music?

There are at least two intertwined notions involved in “early music.” One is temporal, and the other has to do with how performers approach the music.

What’s “Early?”

“Early music” is commonly taken to mean Western music from before the Classical period. For those of us interested in Renaissance fairs, it might seem odd that the Baroque should be included in early music, but the division has as much to do with continuity as with age. Symphonies have been performing the works of the great Classical composers since the time they were written. In contrast, consider Johann Sebastian Bach. The widespread peformance of his works today makes it hard to believe, but for nearly eighty years after his death, until Felix Mendelssohn organized a performance of the St. Matthew Passion, Bach was mostly known as a keyboard virtuoso rather than as a composer.

For Classical and later music, then, there’s a tradition of performance handed down from the time the work was written and first performed. It may be like the result of a centuries-long game of “gossip” or “telephone,” but at least it’s there. Early music doesn't have that tradition. So, how do musicians decide how they should perform early music? That gets us into the other notion...

Historically Informed Performance

When people started performing Bach again, they did it under the influence of the aforementioned performance tradition stretching from the Classical through the Romantic era. Heck, it was what they knew; who could blame them? The result, though, was Bach coated with a thick layer of Romanticism, like a musical Tammy Faye Bakker.

Later, though, people started to study what clues survive about the instruments and “performance practice” of the Baroque era, and changing the way they performed because of it. They started performing on replicas of instruments of the time, using temperaments other than the engineering solution of equal temperament, and using tunings other than the (surprisingly recent as a standard!) A=440 Hz. At first people applied the rather hubristic label of “authentic” to the resulting performances, but nowadays the commonly used term is “historically informed.” Until someone invents a time machine and goes back with audio and video equipment, we’ll never witness an authentic performance.

People performing music from the time that interests us have similarly studied surviving instruments, paintings, statues, and documents to try to figure out how people played and sang medieval and Renaissance music in those eras. It’s by no means a straightforward task:

but despite the difficulties, musicologists and musicians are continuing their work, both for purely historical reasons and so that musicians have more information on which to base their performance decisions.

Square to be non-HIP?

From what we’ve written here (especially about the early part of the Bach revival), you can infer something about how we (usually!) prefer to hear early music performed. In a way, it’s contrary to the whole notion of progress, but then, does progress really apply to music or aesthetics?

If you feel like you’re reliving the film colorizing controversy, we don’t blame you.

So... is HIP the One True Way? No. Even if you find out as much as you can about performance practice of the time of the piece you want to perform, you may well decide not to do it that way. (We seriously doubt that The Toys gave any thought to Baroque performance practice before recording a modified Bach minuet under the title “A Lover’s Concerto,” and it sure didn’t hurt how well they did on the charts.) All sorts of things go into performers’ decisions about how to approach a piece of music, including their goals and their intended audience:

Even within the range of historically informed performances and performers, there's a lot of variation. As an example, if you listen to Guillaume de Machaut’s virelai “Foy porter” on the Waverly Consort’s Douce Dame album, you’ll hear a driving version of the song, with the vocalist doubled on a plucked stringed instrument and drums keeping a relentless pace, while Gothic Voices’ The Mirror of Narcissus features a solo vocalist singing “Foy porter” in a far more contemplative manner. Is one of them necessarily more authentic than, or preferable to, the other? The second question is a matter for the listener to decide (or not—both recordings are among our favorites), and it’s not clear that we can know the first. (We should point out that a decade passed between the two albums, and new discoveries and theories turn up in musicology as in any field. Also, take a look at Daniel Leech-Wilkinson’s The Modern Invention of Medieval Music: Scholarship, Ideology, Performance which includes a fascinating study of the varying acceptance of the a cappella and the “voices plus instruments” hypotheses, and discusses how much we can know about how early music was performed and whether the historically informed approach is necessarily better than others.)

A couple of admittedly obvious Gedankenexperimenten will show that HIP isn’t sufficient:

© 2003-2011 Concentio Agnorum