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Saturday morning quotes 6.20: Alt-Early Music I

October 1, 2016


“I’m all for democracy, to the point of anarchy…”

– Attributed to Christopher Hogwood (1941–2014), from Catherine Bott, “Reminiscences of Christopher Hogwood”, Early Music, Vol. xliv, No. 1, p. 5.

Choosing a different path from the more conventionally traveled road is a matter of pride for many musicians and listeners who are deeply involved in early music.  Particularly during the early days of the revival, those who were attracted to the more transparent sound of gut-strung fiddles were dismissed by the mainstream as non-serious musicians, and modern masters even claimed that the artistic potential of J.S. Bach’s works for solo violin could not possibly have been correctly realized until said masters arrived on the scene with their more highly evolved instruments, reliable strings, and 19th-century technique.  Some audaciously claimed that Bach himself could not possibly have played his own works for violin.

But any successful  movement demands leaders with a sense of direction and, in the arts, a very thick skin.  Braving the slings and arrows of conventional attitudes may possibly have been a bit easier before the age of the internet and the new yet familiar brand of “viral” mob behavior prevalent in social media platforms.  Nevertheless, stakes were high even in the rarefied world of the arts at a time when important social issues were coming to the fore.

On June 6, 1966 Robert F. Kennedy delivered a speech at the University of Capetown in South Africa, in which he outlined the dangers faced by those who lead, an historically appropriate message that may be applied to our topic.

“There is,” said an Italian philosopher, “nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.” Yet this is the measure of the task of your generation and the road is strewn with many dangers.”

[The first danger was that of] “futility; the belief there is nothing one man or one woman can do against the enormous array of the world’s ills…The second danger is that of expediency; of those who say that hopes and beliefs must bend before immediate necessities…A third danger is timidity. Few men are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery…”

“For the fortunate amongst us, the fourth danger is comfort; the temptation to follow the easy and familiar path of personal ambition and financial success so grandly spread before those who have the privilege of an education. But that is not the road history has marked out for us. There is a Chinese curse which says “May he live in interesting times.” Like it or not, we live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty; but they are also the most creative of any time in the history of mankind. And everyone here will ultimately be judged – will ultimately judge himself – on the effort he has contributed to building a new world society and the extent to which his ideals and goals have shaped that effort.”

As time passed, the early music movement managed to secure a foothold as a subgenre of classical music through the efforts of leaders with a clear vision and the intelligence to have gotten into the game early on.  Christopher Hogwood was just such a person.

“No dogmatic zealot, he was instead driven by a performer’s pragmatism, by a mischievous desire to shake listeners out of complacency, and above all by intellectual curiosity.”

Editorial [Reminiscenses of Christopher Hogwood (1941–2014).], Early Music Vol. XLIV, No. 1. p. 1

But the early music movement did not necessarily gain momentum and a wide audience due to charismatic leadership alone.  The early music movement became a phenomenon largely through the effective efforts of marketing professionals who saw early music as a commodity that would likely sell among the “granola-types” who were less likely to frequent high-brow concerts by the symphony orchestra.  In the age of an increasingly ubiquitous mass media selling the message (for pay, of course), the arts took on a distinctly commercial tone, and those who were successful in early music had the backing of corporate record labels that knew the ins and outs of marketing psychology and just how to target and hook an audience.

Our quotations below are from  Nick Wilson, The Art of Re-enchantment: Making Early Music in the Modern Age, Oxford University Press, New York, 2014.

“Was interest in historically informed performance just another facet of the burgeoning heritage industry? Was the exploitation of early music little more than a commercial ruse, a means of making money by profit-driven record companies? And, more broadly, what does this specific case of cultural production reveal about the integral relationship between high culture and the market?”

– p. x

“Firstly, there is recognition that Early Music has become more than just a parochial approach to performing classical music; indeed, it represents a sizeable commercial phenomenon (a “huge industry”). Secondly, those involved in the early days of the revival were performing in a HIP manner without any formal didactic channels for training in just how to do this. Thirdly, the domination of the early music movement by a “handful of scholar-performers” begs further examination.”

– p. 22

This latter point marks where what began as alternative to conventional classical music became a convention unto itself through slick commercialization, well-managed marketing schemes, and the promotion of “stars”.  Early music became just another flavor of classical music, and the performers who managed to gain success early on retained their position through advocates who formed associations with boards populated mainly by people who could support their efforts with influence and money.

“Already by 1992, for example, Neil Zaslaw was warning of “the dangers of increased professionalism and commercialism that have accompanied the parallel successes of ‘early music’ and Early Music, ” referring here not just to the practices involved in bringing early music to the market, but also to the (academic) discourse that surrounded it.”

– p. 182

“…There has always been a lack of “churn” in the early musician labor market. A very small group of professionals came to dominate the scene, and then remained in place for many years.”

– p. 188

“Artistic decisions are invariably influenced by commercial concerns. Concert goers and many performers, to say nothing of the nonmusicians (appointed for their business skills or their bank balance) who sit on orchestral boards, readily buy into the celebrity status of big-name conductors and soloists. There is a natural inclination, after all, to want to be seen working with “the best.””

– p. 192

“Writing about the pop arts in Britain (1970), George Melly talked evocatively about “the decay of revolt into style,” referring to those exciting years in music, fashion, film, and art, in which “everything changed.” The question we return to…is whether the revolutionary spirit of Early Music has “decayed” into little more than an appropriated style that now belongs to the classical music field, or whether in fact it has managed to retain any of its revolutionary zeal, albeit in a grown up professionalized form?”

– p. 194

This sums up the situation as it stands today.  Our next post will outline alternatives to the 21st-century mainstream conventional industry that is early music.



One Comment
  1. What a pity that profit-driven considerations are ubiquitous and parallels to politics become evident here. The term “granola-types” makes me think of a particular political party that was once founded to take care of the environment. Now that they are established and in charge in some areas, executives start supporting the issues the party had been fighting before (well, at least their horns are still a little “green”).

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