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Saturday morning quotes 2.38: Early Music

February 9, 2013

JackRabbitRagWhat is Early Music anyway?  Is it what one plays or listens to on the radio before 10 am? Perhaps. Is it, as a Google search will indicate, the immature recorded output of a variety of bands who only improved later because they hired better engineers? Maybe.

Early Music is generally considered to be old music that humans  played before the advent of Garage Band, an important turning point after which everyone became a recording artist at the forefront of Rap, and some sort of music – probably performed by rabbits – called Hop Hip.  (Did I get that right?)

To the academic world, Early Music is what came before the Romantic era, or was it before the Classical era, or maybe before they had the Baroque era, or was it the Renaissance? The academic textbook industry flourished as new designations were invented: the Medieval era, the Ars Nova, the Ars Subtilior, the era of Free Organum, apparently a time when moral codes were dissolving.

In practice, Early Music seems to be whatever the most confident authority decrees it to be.  In the words of self-professed polymath and pundit, Orlando Pizzicato, “Early Music is a magnet for non-musical weirdos who place nebulous rules way ahead of the actual making of music – sort of a giant ‘Revenge of the Nerds’ scene.”  But that’s not nice.

At some point, the advertising industry collided with academics and record companies, and they jointly recognized the market potential. Early Music became a commodity.  Slick marketing preyed upon consumers suffering from compulsive collector syndrome, and convinced them they needed to own the complete recorded sets of  Vivaldi’s instrumental concerti, which are available as interpreted by seventy-three different conductors and orchestras (made up of the same 35 musicians sitting in different seats for the different recording sessions).  Recording critics teamed up with record companies and developed the fine art of publishing glowing reviews for their friends, while dispensing vats of bile upon the great throngs of the unapproved and thus un-endorsed.

Early Music is also the name of a journal published by Oxford University Press, sometimes found neatly filed on our bookshelves or, since we tend to compulsively read back issues, found piled in stacks nearly everywhere in our very small house.  The quote is drawn from an opinion piece (“Musicology and make-believe?”, Early Music, volume 14, number 4, November 1986, p. 557) by notable interpreter of early medieval music, Benjamin Bagby:

Many-sided issues (such as the use or non-use of instruments in medieval monophony, the re-creation of a lost musical tradition or style, reconstruction of vocal techniques, and the role of manuscript sources in today’s creative process) deserve honest and fairly-balanced evaluation, not smug comments which lead nowhere.

When a record reviewer criticises a performance of medieval music by stating that ‘those who have an antipathy to the mixing of musicology and make-believe in such proportions will remain skeptical’…he is choosing to ignore the fact that all performers of early music, in whatever repertoire, freely mix their sense of make-believe with their understanding of musicological issues.

By implying that there is a correct proportion in the mixing of these elements, without however giving any specific guidelines or alternatives, the reviewer succeeds only in calling into question the value of make-believe.  What can or should replace the element of make-believe in music?  Wouldn’t we readers be better served by an assessment which evaluates the roles of make-believe and musicology as they contribute to the result?

Given that musicological research can provide the performer with at most an incomplete sketch of early medieval vocal and instrumental traditions, it is irresponsible, in my view, for a music critic (all the more so if he or she is a musicologist) to ignore the simple, uncomfortable fact, hinting instead that there is some unspecified standard of authenticity against which all performances can be measured.

By the way, Early Music is mostly what we perform, and usually in the evening since audiences don’t seem to turn out before 10 am.

One Comment
  1. Susan Sandman permalink

    The image of old issues of Early Music (Oxford University Press) stacked about brought back fond memories of the first journals from the early 1970’s and inspired me to subscribe again. Note: this not Early Music America, but rather an endearing scholarly relative. (The online office is closed for improvements today, so it must go on my to do list.)

    And for a laugh,

    Delft tile - A toy for two lutes

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