04 Oct 2007

HAYNES: The End of Early Music — A Period Performer’s History of Music for the Twenty-First Century

Once upon a time, there was something known as early music. This was not so much a repertoire, a musico-historical epoch, as an attitude, a counter-cultural group.

There was classical music, the boring old standard-repertoire taught at conservatories, and played in the same old way by people who fetishized the lineage of their teachers, and their teacher’s teachers, and then there was early music, the music of Bach and his predecessors, played by amateur performers (often musicologists) on “old” instruments (recorder, harpsichords, viola da gamba), something which fit right in with the reclaiming of folk music and folk instruments by the hippie resistance to manufactured mass culture.

At the same time Albert Ayler and John Coltrane were exploring the outer limits of free jazz, and Jefferson Airplane combining psychedelics and folk-rock, amateur ensembles with krummhorns, sackbuts, shawms, and other dead instruments were reviving centuries of forgotten repertoire from Machaut onwards. Early music managed to be cutting edge by going deep into music which had been only of interest to historians, and transgressive by suggesting that this music and the music which followed did not belong only to its self-anointed priesthood, which seemed to be only mumbling half-understood inherited formulas, with no sense of the enlivening spirit within.

Time passes, and nothing from 1967 seems very current anymore, with the possible exception of Purple Haze. The amateur (and hippie) tinge to early music was washed away by decades of musicians who managed to perform early music professionally on period instruments, and with an historical awareness of the performance issues involved. Their success drew the barbed words of musicologist Richard Taruskin, himself once an amateur performing-musicologist, pointing out the lack of authenticity involved in this recuperation of both unknown and well-known repertoire. The End of Early Music may be seen as a response to the criticisms of Taruskin and others.

Oboist Bruce Haynes is one who has been involved with historically-informed performance for decades, since the first successes of four or five decades ago, and unlike the younger Taruskin, whose recordings are safely entombed on LP in music libraries, his recordings are still commercially available. His survey of the history and issues involved with period performance is compulsively readable. Though the volume has the standard scholarly apparatus of notes and bibliography, there is nothing of the dry-as-dust scholarly compendium about it. An innovation which is particularly useful is the provision of sound examples at the publisher’s site, even if means that the book can be best used with your network-enabled computer close at hand.

The notion that concert-going has become a secular ritual substituting for more explicitly religious rites has become widely accepted, but Haynes goes farther in looking at the amount of fetishism and ritual involved in musical interpretation and consumption in general, disassembling the various fetishes we take for granted as part of musical experiences – the notion of the canon, of absolute music, of genius, of score-fidelity, and others. Evidently I sympathize with Haynes’ position, but even so I think it must be clear to any reader that he has done his work well.

Tom Moore

[This review has been cross-posted to Biddle Beat, The official blog of the Music Library at Duke University.]