Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Early Music -- What is it?

“Early Music” is a phrase of convenience. It covers several centuries of vastly different styles and performance techniques. 

Today we use the phrase “classical music” to mean not just the Classical composers Haydn and Mozart, but also all the Romantics from Beethoven to Brahms; the Impressionists like Debussy; the 12-tone school of Schoenberg and Webern; the 20th century giants Prokofiev and Bartok; the Minimalism of Glass and Reich; and the list goes on. The range and diversity of the last 250 years of classical music is enormous.  

The range and diversity of the previous 750 years is just as great.

About 1000 years ago the modern system of musical notation was developed. Medieval music had its own characteristics, from modal plainchant to motets to the melodies of the wandering minstrels.  As the Middle Ages slid into the Renaissance, music played a key part in this rebirth of European culture. Madrigals, polyphony, and new instruments were all evolving. Six hundred years into the journey, Baroque composers were inventing opera and oratorio, were composing for a vast spectrum of instruments, and were selling music like hotcakes to the growing class of educated amateurs. 

 The year 1760, give or take a decade, is generally where we shift out of “Early Music” and into conventional classical music. The reason for this date is largely because of the instrumentation. The recorders and lutes of the Renaissance, and the harpsichords and viols of the Baroque, by 1760 had been almost entirely replaced by the modern strings and winds we still find today in the modern symphony orchestra. The main reason it’s easier to find a concert of modern music is not that there is more, or better, of it available, but that more people play the violin, the piano, or the clarinet, than play the theorbo, the clavichord, or the crumhorn.  

Find a great theorbo player, though, and you’ll never go back.  

Sample some early music during the month of February, at the Cincinnati Early Music Festival.  For a complete listing of events, go to www.catacoustic.com/season/

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