EARLY MUSIC: That Other Music Revival

Today New York has a flourishing early-music scene, but just 60 years ago that was not the case. This March alone, concerts were performed here by resident ensembles with names like the New York Baroque Dance Company, the Cerddorion Vocal Ensemble, Musica Viva, the Cisraritanian Consort of Viols, and the New York Continuo Collective, whose notes for a concert I attended describe their goal as to “examine the rhetoric of text, gesture, ornamentation, and phrasing to create a common language for realizing this highly improvised music.”

Pat O’Brien. Photo: Patrick Hinely.

That statement does not quite tell us what makes early music different from the later classical music of the 18th and 19th centuries, so I tracked down the leader of Continuo, lute master Pat O’Brien, in his teaching studio near the Morgan Library and Museum on the east side of town to find out just what makes early music—well, early.

Reading through a number of books and articles that he recommended, and listening to judicious examples of “historically informed performances” of the music of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and Baroque periods, I developed a comparative understanding of early music.

If you listen to the classical music station WQXR or take out a subscription to the New York Philharmonic, you will hear a repertoire that generally begins in the late 18th century and ends in the mid-20th. The core of the repertoire is the music of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Wagner, Verdi, Berlioz, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and Stravinsky, as well as Liszt, Chopin, Mussorgsky, Vaughan Williams, Ravel, and many others. What unites all of these is that the musicians performing their music continue a pedagogical genealogy that goes as far back as Beethoven or Mozart, or perhaps a little further. Then it stops.

There is a near-consensus among musicologists that, despite the fact that European art music has been a going concern for a thousand years, it experienced a great discontinuity from just a few decades before the Industrial Revolution. If music before 1800 was a painting in full color, only the sketchy outlines of its masterpieces seem to have survived past that year.

The event that first heralded this change was the end of the Baroque period, with the death of J. S. Bach in 1750. That is when the tradition of performance practice and teacher-to-student interpretation seems to have died out, or been transformed. We can get a simple understanding of the contrast between early and later European art music if we compare the musical world of Europe in 1600 to that of 1850—one date clearly in the early period and the other thoroughly modern.

During the Renaissance, the lute, a fat-bellied chordophone with double-course string sets, rose to prominence. By the Baroque period it had developed larger and larger variants, which culminated in the sitar-like theorbo. Recorders were designed in sets from small to large, as were viols. Single- and double-reed instruments such as crumhorns and shawms made up another woodwind set. The singing was in unison, and more nasal than what we are used to now.

The Renaissance pitch standard was lower than today, and the temperament was based on the meantone system, which emphasizes perfectly tuned major thirds. (The end of the Renaissance saw the birth of opera, where text finally outranked melody—modal counterpoint.) The ensembles were smaller than in the 19th century, the vocal style was flat, and instruments were softer. Audiences were usually restricted to the upper classes or churchgoers.

By 1750, most of the Renaissance and baroque instruments were dying out. The lute was no longer played, nor was the harpsichord. Side-blown flutes had replaced recorders; horns now had valves; the cello, violin, and viola had replaced the viol family; and the rising mercantile classes were increasingly becoming patrons of classical music.

By the 1800s, conservatories were standardizing repertoires, and the symphony orchestra’s massive “wall of sound” was becoming the order of the day. The tuning system now followed the equal-tempered scale. There was a greater use of vibrato in singing. The piano had replaced the harpsichord and was fast becoming the concert hall–crashing instrument that made Franz Liszt the Springsteen of his day, while Paganini played an upgraded Stradivarius violin that could have been heard across Madison Square Garden.

But just as the Romantic music of the early 19th century took over the soundscape of Europe, its most ardent composers began to rediscover the music of past times. In the 1820s, German composer Felix Mendelssohn rediscovered Bach’s music, and although he played it with the instruments and in the style of his own time, he sowed the seeds of the later early music revival. At St. Paul’s Chapel in Manhattan in 1818, the Handel and Haydn Society performed part of Handel’s Creation. At this same venue in 1831, the New York Sacred Music Society gave a complete performance of the Messiah, but we can assume it was not with period instruments and that the singing style was early 19th century.

It was that grand continental immigrant to the United Kingdom, Arnold Dolmetsch, who launched the modern early-music revival at the beginning of the 20th century. He researched the construction of musical instruments from the Renaissance and Baroque periods and made reproductions of them. He explored their performance practice, believing they sounded different than those of classical and Romantic composers. Dolmetsch caught the attention of Bernard Shaw and was given the blessing of England’s cultural elite. His efforts were mirrored in France and Germany.

Unfortunately, World War II froze this avant-garde interest in old music, and it was not until sometime after the war that the next early-music revival gained full force. In England, one of the greatest innovators was Oxford-trained David Munrow (who coined the term “early music”), whose Early Music Consort toured Britain, Europe, and America extensively. In Spain, Jordi Savall rediscovered the music of the Spanish Renaissance and its reverberations in Central and South America, where you can often hear the influence of African rhythms and Inca melodies.

On this side of the pond, New York’s Noah Greenberg, a former Trotskyist, gave up the Revolution and became one of the guiding lights of the early-music revival of the 1960s with his New York Pro Musica. Greenberg and his associates went back and forth between New York, London, Amsterdam, Germany, and Switzerland, which had all become centers of early-music scholarship and performance.

When I had run all this history by Pat, he took out his lute and said, “That is more or less the way it happened, but it is deeper than that. First of all, early music as a movement gave rise to what is now called Historically Informed Performance. Simply put, we try to play Beethoven on the instruments that Beethoven used and interpret his manuscripts the way he did. You can be sure that his piano did not sound like the ones we play today.”

He paused, then said, “But there is a deeper level, and it is that early music—that is, the music before 1800—is a way of curating a surviving historical artifact. In order to make a performance work, we need to replicate old instruments, look at texts, and then, as we play, imagine what the music might have sounded like. We cannot be sure, but we have to make an effort, and it is that creative musical effort from which the sounds emerge. For it to work, it has to have what the Renaissance courtier Castiglione called sprezzatura, ‘effortless grace,’ but believe me, it takes a lot of work and it does not always succeed.”

He continued, “I think the great discontinuity that we are talking about was the breakdown of that preindustrial tradition of learning a repertoire as the apprentice of a master. With the rise of the conservatory and the paid lesson, that link in the chain was broken. We now try to reinvent or reimagine it. That is why we aim for authentic performance practice. At the same time, it is a fallacy, as we have to eventually use our intuition and creativity to render a living, breathing performance. It all started with what I call a ‘tilt towards the text,’ when composers broke away from the medieval and Middle Eastern notion that music was part of wider sets of meaning, connected to the planets and the music of the spheres. The Renaissance and Baroque traditions made the text prominent, and each period explored and played with the human agency behind the text.”

Like many middle-aged players and singers of early music, Pat came to it independently, as it was not systematically taught at universities and conservatories in the ’50s and ’60s—though that has changed now.

“I come from a small town on Long Island,” Pat said, “but my school had a great choirmaster, and I first got a taste of early choral music at school. Yet I was at first a student of Reverend Gary Davis and played American folk music from the Anglo- and African-American traditions. So my first interest was really the folk music revival. I was also fascinated by South American protest music and an early fan of bossa nova, whose political overtones are rarely known here. Then, one fateful night, I was watching Walter Cronkite’s The Twentieth Century, and I heard a commercial that had classical guitar pieces from the lute repertoire of the Spanish Renaissance. The rest is history.”

Pat is a master of the Renaissance lute, the Spanish Renaissance guitar, the baroque lute, and the North and South American classical and folk guitars. He is a scholar of early manuscripts and has studied with many other musicians in the early-music field. He is probably the most sought-after teacher of early music in New York, and was recently approached by Juilliard to teach the first plucked-string players in the Juilliard Baroque program. He told me, “Julliard recently got a grant of $20 million for their Baroque program. That is probably the first time that the words ‘$20 million’ and ‘early-music’ have ever appeared in the same sentence. This is a watershed event. I told them that I had no ‘early-music’ degrees from universities or conservatories, only experience. They didn’t care. I have taught a great many players here and abroad over the years, and they want a program well grounded with some local teachers and some internationally based teachers. In adding instruments of the lute family to their program, they will be moving some of their focus fifty to a hundred years earlier, to what we might call the golden age of the lute’s contribution to baroque ensemble music—a little closer to Monteverdi than Bach.”

It is possible that one day the Baroque, Renaissance, and medieval repertoires will draw the same amount of public interest and money as the Romantic and classical composers who dominate the concert season today. In 200 years, scholars may trace this trend back to the day when Juilliard hired Pat O’Brien.


Geoffrey Clarfield

GEOFFREY CLARFIELD is the Consultant for Research and Development for the Alan Lomax Archive at the Association for Cultural Equity (ACE) in Manhattan.