Amateurs, Professionals, and the British Early Music Movement
Many aspects of the British early music movement (“Early Music”) continue to intrigue. One thinks of the authenticity debate; the relationship between high culture and commerce; the incubating role of the BBC; or even what I refer to as “re-enchanting art”—the capacity we have of discovering “old” music through performance, as if for the first time. One fascinating aspect that all too often gets overlooked is the role of the amateur. By the 1960s the territory of classical music performance had become deeply divided. The increasing dominance of the music “profession” had effectively severed ties with everyday music-making, tradition and ritual. A gulf had opened up between performing classical music “just for the love of it” and the serious “business” of classical music concert performance. It would not be overstating things to suggest that such a gulf remains to this day.
Though characterized as an ideological movement born out of a scholarly obsession with recreating the past, Early Music appealed to amateur musicians, not least because it offered an exciting “new” world of sound. There was also the possibility of getting up-close and personal with the fascinating instruments that produced these sounds. In the infant years of the early music revival, “early” really meant early. A whole array of bizarre medieval and Renaissance instruments—cornetts, crumhorns, dulcians, nakers, rebecs, regals, sackbuts, and many other “buzzers and whiners” dating at least as far back as the 14th century—was suddenly let loose on an otherwise fairly conventional audience, conjuring up altogether “other” times. The sound of a familiar Bach concerto played at Baroque pitch on period instruments prior to many of the “original” instruments being mastered, was shockingly new. This aural landscape was genuinely exciting for many musicians who had come to feel classical music performance had lost its way. The performances and subsequent recordings of medieval, Renaissance, and early Baroque music by the likes of Michael Morrow’s Musica Reservata and David Munrow’s Early Music Consort of London (founded “to present authentic and uninhibited performances”) in the 1960s, were crucial in catalyzing interest in historical performance. But more than this, amateur musicians quickly found themselves being able to join in, as copies of old instruments became increasingly widely available. Before long it was possible for enthusiasts to construct affordable historical instruments from DIY kits, encouraging an even closer allegiance with this form of music-making. Such “early adopters” of early music were central to its subsequent success—forming its audience and fan-base.
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