Capturing early music: an essay by Albert Edelman

Holland Baroque celebrates its 10th anniversary: a time to look back and to think ahead.

Holland Baroque invited Albert Edelman to reflect on the future of early music. His essay 'Capturing early music' has been published in the Holland Baroque anniversary magazine and is now also available for download in English:

Holland Baroque - Essay Capturing early music - Albert Edelman.pdf

See and read the whole magazine here.

Capturing early music

An essay by Albert Edelman

It came as a shock. During one of his first concerts in the Netherlands, Vincent Dumestre performed Emilio de’ Cavalieri’s Lamentations. With nothing but light and shade, his Poème Harmonique evoked the atmosphere of the original liturgy for Holy Week. Musically-keen student that I was, I had never heard anything like this before. Buzzing viols, wreaths of ornaments and unearthly voices filled the room. As candles were extinguished one by one and night took hold of the Utrecht Pieterskerk, everything came together: the space, the repertory, the musicians
 and their instruments. And I knew, even in that single concert, that I had converted to early music forever. I’ve been living in that world for almost twenty years now, but the longer I walk its winding paths,
the more I wonder what my faith is all about.
 What is the heart, the mystery of early music? Prophets abound, as they do in any religion, but in search of certainty, early music lacks a holy text – indeed, one might say its texts are too sacred. 
What about its sanctuary? There are plenty of those as well, ranging from small chapels to gigantic cathedrals, but which missals are used for singing there? And how do musicians and audiences live their faith from day to day? In other words: what about the performances? Does the early music movement rightly boast of its curiosity, or did we, long ago, walk blindly into the trap of a new orthodoxy? Where can you
 hear the heretics, the heathens, the dissidents?
 Now that Holland Baroque is reflecting upon ten years of eccentric adventure – though looking ahead is more in their nature – I want to try and paint a picture of early music today. I ask the question that can’t be asked often enough: what exactly are we doing?

Looking back
The term ‘early music’ has an illustrious history. Interest in the musical past has always existed:
 it was rare for earlier repertories to be simply jettisoned and erased. Instead, one style followed another, sometimes quickly, often gradually, with the hinges inhabited by cross-grained composer-performers, teeming with new ideas and ideals. The dominant style would then operate alongside the iconoclasts for a while, until a new shift announced itself. Still, such parallel movements were nothing compared to the active focus on the past that originated in the 18th century and became dominant from the late 20th century onwards. A famous example is the original Academy of Ancient Music, established in 1726 for the ‘regular and deliberate’ performance of early music, and in which countless famous musicians from London participated. The network of performers, builders, editors, teachers and scholars now clustered under the umbrella term ‘early music’ has a number 
of fathers and mothers, headed by the multi-instrumentalist and builder Arnold Dolmetsch and the pianist and later also harpsichordist Wanda Landowska. In the early 20th century,
 they resolutely tackled music predating 1750, in other words, a repertory excluded from the canon of ‘great music’. While the mainstream in those days hardly looked further back than Bach, they championed a performance practice and a
 body of instruments that had drifted out of the picture from the 19th century onwards. If their defence of historical repertory was not entirely peripheral, it would take another half century before the movement captured the centre of attention. In the vanguard was the generation of Gustav Leonhardt, Frans Brüggen and Nikolaus Harnoncourt, soon to be followed by Ton Koopman, Skip Sempé, the musicians of Musica Antiqua Köln and the Kuijken brothers – not forgetting William Christie, who almost single-handedly recreated the sound of the French baroque. Having started their careers mostly on modern instruments, they reacted – often fanatically – against the prevailing musical culture, most notably against the ‘modern’ emphasis on legato, vibrato and long lines, illsuited to the detailed rhetoric of the baroque. Incidentally, this issue only manifested itself when someone came forward with a plausible (historically informed) alternative.

The impact of this first generation of ‘new’ baroque musicians can hardly be overestimated. Soon enough, every owner of a record player embraced their performances as pre-eminent references. Not all of their students were such brilliant, original musical spirits, but by copying the new sound, approach and playing techniques, many gained access to a market that couldn’t get enough of those echoes from a bygone world. As a matter of fact, Gustav Leonhardt warned against short-sighted copycats: by blindly following the pioneers, they would perpetuate their ‘faults’ as well as their successes – a consideration that is
all the more pertinent now that the great names of yesteryear are passing away. Leonhardt advised young musicians to continue voicing
 their own responses to the sources. Another risk is the fear of interpretation or ‘Romantic’ emotion, causing musicians to recoil to the point where music becomes devoid of personality. In The End of Early Music, Bruce Haynes describes this phenomenon as ‘strait style’ or, more mockingly, ‘sewing-machine baroque’. That fear may be understandable. After all, the password of the early-music approach had always been ‘authenticity’, and in its overly strict meaning this term leaves little room for personal expression. By using historical instruments or copies, and by performing music according to the customs of its time – in terms of playing technique, insofar as this can be reconstructed, and sometimes also in terms of context – we would approach the ‘truth’: the original sound of the music. On the one hand, those elusive compositional intentions are pursued by music scholars, immersed in an ever-growing body of sources. Some of them would do better to avoid the stage; conversely (and surprisingly), not all of them are actually interested in the sounding result. None of this detracts from their amazing work, which has shed light on the field in the past few decades. On the other hand, a small number of musicians are conducting fundamental experiments themselves, in order to approach the question of authenticity (partly) from their musical practice.

But even the most ground-breaking musicological research needs performers, and those performers yearn for audiences. In the centre of that triangle, promoters build an indispensable bridge as market-makers. From the mid-20th century onwards, the nucleus of early music was long to be found at festivals. This is where artists
 met each other and their audience, where they forged new plans and showcased what had 
been discovered or developed through the 
years. In the Netherlands, the (Holland) Festival Oude Muziek Utrecht took a leading role, while Boston became a mecca for early music in the United States. In Belgium, the MAfestival (Musica Antiqua) in Bruges and Laus Polyphoniae in Antwerp set the tone – and this is leaving aside
a variety of festivals elsewhere. Observing the audience explosion at festivals and the growing presence of ‘historical’ performances in the media and on the record market, concert halls could
 not stay behind. They made room, mainly for baroque orchestras, while modern orchestras 
felt compelled to invite guest conductors with a historically informed background when dealing with baroque and even classical repertories – or to stop playing those altogether. By now, several former baroque orchestras have expanded
 their repertory into the 19th and 20th centuries, providing many specialised musicians with a unique opportunity to play this ‘late’ music.

But is it enough for early music to have made its way from the margins to the mainstream? We seem to have reached a point where promoters are losing themselves in the popular and spectacular, without taking responsibility for the development and monitoring of talent. What is the current state of experiment, challenge
 and avant-garde, those impulses that have
 always shaped the movement? The rest of 
the mainstream has its competitions, special (international) series and slick TV shows, but in
the world of early music, such initiatives – if they exist at all – rarely acquire the same prestige. It speaks for itself that established names attract a faithful audience: after all, they are the main trunk of the early-music tree. But who’s taking care of the buds? One must also keep in mind that today’s twenty- and thirty-somethings weren’t around when the pioneers (re)invented a lost sound.
 Of course young people are standing up and presenting themselves in their own ways, now
 that the shock of novelty has subsided. These people want to prove they have more to offer than truthfully playing the notes. They claim a different, more personal approach than that of the pioneers and their followers, maybe as an alternative 
for the current mainstream of early music. In short, they want their own opportunity to bring authenticity to the audience. Such opportunities do exist, but on a scale that is still too small (and even diminishing in the Netherlands). If we want to keep early music alive, we need to cultivate each of its branches. An unwatered tree will soon stop yielding fruit.

Since its inception, the movement has stood for one thing above all others: diversity. Its strength lies precisely in the fact that uniformity was, and is, completely alien to early music. In the 1960s, 
a handful of rebels claimed their own niche. That rebellious spirit still remains: while early music may have found its place in the limelight, there is so much left to say. Ideas and approaches are too divergent for everything to be left to a single clan of performers. Against that background, musicians and promoters must join forces. With their expertise on audiences and artists alike, concert halls
 and festivals are well-placed to challenge both parties. Model programmers are always on the lookout for those artistic ingredients that lead to the next surprising listening experience, without being blinded by appearances. This approach automatically eliminates dry, uninspired or technically-deficient performances – including those by celebrities. But in my opinion, the bar could be raised even higher. This would benefit not only the hypothetical concertgoer of the future, but especially the current, aging audience, which could do with some stimulation beyond its acquired taste.

Emotional language
The issue of historical authenticity will always provide fuel for debate. Some still consider 
the approach a way of banishing music to the museum; others act as style police, their ‘early-music rulebook’ always at hand. But one thing 
is for sure: the truth does not exist. Fortunately, we’ve come to realise that old paper – for all the wealth of scholarship – doesn’t tell the whole story, and that those who blindly believe in the sources are bound to hit a brick wall. We can never listen with the ears of days gone by, if only owing to the astonishing amount of music within our reach. And if coincidence or intuition led us to touch the right historical chord, we would even fail to notice it, for sheer lack of surviving witnesses. But that doesn’t matter. After all,
 we make music for each other and ourselves, 
in the present. Even if we no longer understand music’s specific dialect, we can hear its emotional language deep inside us. It’s up to us to start the conversation. We should reserve the stage for those who can communicate. Let’s find the talents who have something to say, artists with a story that touches and engages the audience. Let’s support musicians who deploy historically informed expertise as a source of excellence, not as an end in itself. Let’s invite creators who can start
 a dialogue between the past and the present, who stay true to themselves, with a personal authenticity. Only then will the idea behind the ‘concert’ endure: experiencing a unique musical moment together.

Albert Edelman is artistic coordinator at the Concertgebouw Brugge, Belgium. Building on his experience at the Utrecht Early Music Festival he is working on the future of the Historically Informed Performance Practice and classical music in general. Albert worked as a translator and classical singer. Since his early youth he aspires a career as a professional tourist.

Translation: Katherina Lindekens

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