Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Cincinnati Early Music Festival, February 2014


Imagine a world without Bach.  A world that reacted to his death by putting his music aside in favor of the composers who came after him.  A world where children are not taught to play his Inventions, where orchestras never perform the Brandenburg Concertos, where you have never heard the Toccata in d Minor.  
It really happened.

It turns out that genius alone is not enough to ensure that a composer is remembered, that his works continue to be performed centuries after his death.  In our modern publishing and recording era, even the most mediocre artists live on in the ether, side by side with the greats, and in earlier centuries a similar dynamic was at work:  the afterlives of the greatest composers and the weakest were all at the mercy of chance and the accidents of birth. The question of which music got neatly published and catalogued, ready to be picked up and played, and which was lost behind the bookcase, had less to do with the worthiness of the music and more to do with where one was born, and how uncertain were the times one lived in.  

Vive la Révolution!
In France, for example, most pre-Revolutionary music was condemned in the 1790s for its association with the aristocracy, and was shelved.  This is all the more shameful because until then France had had a rich musical heritage, going back to the earliest written music, up to an extraordinary flowering during the Baroque era.  Much of this stunning French music is still just returning to the repertoire.  

In Italy, a decrepit publishing industry was the greatest hindrance to composers.  As long as they were alive to hand copy their music for their performers, well and good, but the music was rarely made available for sale to the public. The city-states also jealously guarded their citizens’ achievements from their rivals; as a result of these two realities, music did not become widely disseminated.

Compared to the chaos of Revolutionary France and the chronic chaos of Italy, the German-speaking areas were relatively peaceful, productive places to pursue a career in the arts. Nevertheless, when Bach died in 1750, his music dropped completely out of the public eye.  Bear in mind he was writing Baroque music at the very twilight of the Baroque era, so he quickly came to seem old-fashioned.  His music was complicated and not always accessible to the amateur.  New instruments were suddenly replacing the old ones—harpsichords were starting to vanish as people bought the new pianos; viols were superseded by modern strings; recorders were drowned out by new, louder winds.  Within a decade or two of his death, no one had heard of Johann Sebastian Bach.  His sons were quite popular, but people didn’t know it had been a family business.

The brothers Bach:  C.P.E., J.C., W.F., J.C.F
Bach benefited from the modern publishing technology of his region—once Felix Mendelssohn starting poking around in 1829, he was able to find quite a bit of Bach still in print, studied by scholars.  Mendelssohn’s enthusiasm for his exciting new discovery spread when he began staging performances, and so Bach crept back into the public consciousness.

Antonio Vivaldi
 Here’s another once-forgotten name that may surprise you:  Antonio Vivaldi.  Acclaimed in his lifetime, 1678-1741, when he died his compositions were also laid aside.  New composers came along who preferred to stage performances of their own work.  And in a country without mass publishing, neglect led to an obscurity even more profound than Bach’s work ever experienced.  By the mid-20th century, virtually no one had heard of or played Vivaldi for 200 years.  Yes, your grandparents very possibly never knew of him, and never heard The Four Seasons; Vivaldi managed to find his way back into the repertoire only in the 1970s.

 Bach returned to us after 80 years.  It took Vivaldi over 200.  Who else is out there?  What are we missing?

One of the great aspects of the early music adventure is the real possibility of discovery.  Composers are out there who are not well known by the public—you could easily attend a concert and fall in love with a composer, or a style, or a historical period, that you had completely missed until now.  And “new” music continues to emerge that no one alive has ever heard.

Josquin, Monteverdi, Byrd, Tallis, Galuppi, Dufay
 Why have an Early Music Festival?  When great paintings are found, we put them in museums, and we throw open the doors and invite everyone to come and see them. When great music is found, it must be performed. So we get ourselves organized, throw open the doors, and invite you to come and listen. Come and risk falling in love, risk learning something new, risk having your life changed by the experience.  The Cincinnati Early Music Festival will present music by composers you probably know, like Bach, Telemann, and Monteverdi, and by composers you may not know, like Machaut, Tallis, and Rossi, and even some music that no one knows, music that has just been found and wakened after centuries of slumber.

You think you know music, but you don’t know this music. Keep your world view flexible, walk on the wild side. Join us in our adventure of discovery.

The adventure begins February 1. A complete list of events is available at

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