I remember a round table discussion about fifteen or so years ago, in a German city which will remain nameless, where the topic at hand was “Was ist Alte Musik?” or “What is Early Music?”. This is neither the time nor place to list all the various comments, which ranged from defining as early music any repertoire which was performed on instruments other than the so-called “modern” ones, to attempting to delineate its chronological boundaries. I can’t recall what the final decision was, and I confess that I’m not even sure if there was one, given the uselessness of the topic itself. I remember only that the subject starts me thinking, and that the question “Was ist Alte Musik?” is still on my mind.
This was in the early 1980s, and since then much has changed. “Rediscovered” historical performance practice has undergone great developments both in the area of specialized concerts and recordings and on the general music scene. Generally speaking, both the public and musicians have now a greater knowledge of the older repertoire (though it still remains neglected in the conservatory curricula and is often reduced to a superficial study of facts in music history classes). This increased knowledge is in part due to a frantic race for unknown work and world premiere performances, which, although occasionally disappointing in terms of the quality of the music itself or its secondary role as compared to better-known contemporary works). Has unearthed from libraries a great quantity of dusty scores which had lain undisturbed for years. Between rediscovered masterpieces and lesser works destined to be put back on the shelves, we have thus newly found a love for poetics and the pleasure of “wonder” (“Maraviglia”). But above all, we have understood that which we once considered antique and far from our sensibilities is in reality quite a bit closer than we could have imagined.
The question “Was ist Alte Musik?” is nonetheless still of interest, partially because of the musical repertoire which is being proposed with so-called original instruments has snowballed and now includes almost the entire 19th century.
Now, if the term “early music” should include the entire repertoire, that can be played on “original instruments”, we would quickly realize that the works by Brahms performed on a fin-de-siècle Bosendorfer piano would already fit the term. Taking this logic to absurd lengths, jazz musicians who choose to play on saxophones from the ‘30s and ‘40s instead of modern instruments, which are significantly different in the construction and therefore the sound, use “original instruments”. In short, only a small percentage of very recent music would fall outside the term “early music”: an absurd proposition.
Another possibility is to date the music which is considered early and enclose the repertoire within temporal boundaries. Fortunately, no one has yet made such a stupid suggestion. Then, there is the problem of how to identify the interpreters. I am often looked upon as a “specialist”, as if playing old instruments such as the viola da gamba were a sort of branch of medicine in which the “gambist” is comparable to a dermatologist or a dentist. This is an unpleasant fact, since one becomes conditioned by a single unique aspect of an individual musician, excluding either a priori or out of ignorance any other quality of his abilities, knowledge and training. This is typical of our era.
Even the hallowed names of certain concert artists past or present are often associated indivisibly to another name by which they are identified as “being good at that”: “Gould-Bach”, “Bohm-Mozart”, etc. It is certainly true that every interpreter chooses a repertoire, a particular composer, a specific epoch, a geographical or cultural era, or a musical instrument, based (often subconsciously) on his particular artistic inclinations and sensibilities. But we, in this century, have taken the classification of every single thing to the extreme. Never in the past there has been such a need to give names, define periods, classify artistic and musical genres (and even people) as now. Among the many labels given to music, each of which could fill entire pages, we find: pop, or in Italian light music (the term light thus defining both musical and poetical content, excluding any possibility of artistic depth); contemporary music (which must thus be continually updated with city birth records); folk music (it’s not clear where this music begins and where it ends); ethnic music (a horrendous name for classifying Heaven knows what?); and classical music (classical compared to what?); and cultivated music (as if only an elect few might be able to appreciate and understand it; this category contains whatever anyone wants to put in it). At this point one enters the labyrinth of the subspecies. Music can be romantic, pre-romantic, classical, pre-classical, late-romantic, baroque. This last term is the most abused for it contains just about anything, from any period, school, style or taste, regardless of how distant or unconnected they might be. It’s all baroque music. And then there’s pre-baroque music, renaissance, and so on.
Who knows if J.S. Bach knew that he was a baroque musician like Stradella and Carissimi, or if Monteverdi ever considered himself to be a contemporary composer. It all falls under the umbrella of that grand term: Early Music.
It’s easy to be sarcastic, especially when I see what a hard time record stores have in dividing their CDs by category. This phenomenon is symptomatic of a way of thinking and viewing music which is practically a mania on the part of the public, many critics and even musicians themselves, who all too often ghettoize themselves in a completely absurd way. But leaving sarcasm aside, I see in this exasperated use of terminology nothing but barriers and symbolic walls which separate the various musical genres. Instead, we have learned from in-depth studies into the music of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, for example, that the arts were not only complementary to each other and considered “sisters”, but that poetry, theatre, dance and music were in fact all one, almost a single “art-science” which attempted and achieved: expressive heights of disconcerting modernity. It was not, thus, an period which laid out the fundamentals for that which would follow, nor was it a period of primordial experiments. It was a point of arrival in a cultural journey which was never again reached. What is more, together with this Art (with a capital A), which includes poetry, theatre, dance and music, architecture ant the visual arts complete the picture of total expression, an expression which we can experience, grasp and love only after tearing down the many marries which we have built for ourselves. And let me add that the Italian Seicento was not itself prepared by an earlier era of “gestation”, so to speak; in any previous epoch, the confluence of the arts managed to reach absolute heights, and not points of arrival following a development in progress.
In addition, if we speak of music alone, we must keep in mind that in every era, but especially in that which spanned the sixteenth to the middle of the seventeenth century, musical genres absolutely cannot be considered separately. The thread that tied together the court, the street and the church was far too subtle and unbreakable; and this also holds true in poetry as it does in dance and theatre. Moreover, the fact that we live in the 20th century gives us a great advantage over the scholars of the past. With the means and information at our disposal, we can trace a line connecting musical forms of expression (with their diverse shadings and subtleties) as never before. But only if we cease to isolate the genres will we truly understand the fact that what we today call “pop music” was itself a style and genre which was used and exploited in the same way as we do 350 years ago.
For us musicians, it is important to understand how much of the musical practices of our century, which are part and parcel of our personality, can find a correlation to an earlier repertoire. And the answer is bound to shock because in fact there is a great deal. For, an analysis conducted with knowledge and criteria will reveal that in pop music, for example, the techniques of improvisation in jazz are surprisingly analogous to those in early music. And the vocal expressiveness of an aria or madrigal can be found today in modern singers quite familiar to us, but whom we are unable (and it’s our own fault) to associate with other repertoires and periods.
Certainly, the viola da gamba, the lute, the harpsichord, the lirone and other instruments have remained connected to a world, a style and an aesthetic which for various reasons have changed. Beginning with a certain period, the viola da gamba, for example, was no longer current and did not belong to that group of instruments which followed the course of history, such as the violin and other string instruments, or the oboe and other winds. These instruments changed and modified parts and proportions of their structure (without losing their unique characteristics) in order to adapt to the new styles or, on the contrary, to allow diverse and new artistic and expressive means of expression, in line with the changing times. This development is thus not a question of “progress”, according to which the baroque violin was merely as a primitive precursor of the modern one. Nor is it “evolution”., but rather change and adaptation, assuming that we really feel the need to use terms which are in any case somewhat forced. At least it’s an improvement over using terms which are simply wrong.
All I really want to say (since I was asked to write this brief text), is that this is the moment to ban, if not to completely abolish, the term “Early Music”. Early Music is dead, and what remains is Music. Early instruments are dead, and what remains are instruments. We all agree, I believe, that the lute, the viola da gamba ant the harpsichord are instruments, and not early instruments. May I not be misunderstood if I say that this is not a mere formality. For I hope that the “baroque” musician of today will not be seen by the “modern” musician as a specialist or a necessarily inferior instrumentalist. And I hope that the “modern” musician will not be looked down upon by the “baroque” musician with the condescension and presumption of someone who considers himself some sort of expert simply because he uses a shorter bow and four gut strings. The true virtuosos and musicians of talent will last, just as will the mediocre musicians and poor instrumentalists on any instrument: playing all kinds of repertoire from vastly different periods and the most varied possible styles.