More from the Stone Age of Early Music Performance


Back on June 26, 2017 I presented a Historic Radio Special on The Early Music Show, consisting of ‘early’ recordings of early music, beginning with the barely audible spectacle of a Handel oratorio captured on wax cylinders in 1888 to a formative solo disc of countertenor Alfred Deller singing a Thomas Morley tune, made around 1950. During that broadcast I stated that there would be a future follow up, and the time is upon us; Son of Historic Radio Special will air at 7 pm on Monday, September 17 on WTJU’s The Early Music Show.

David Munrow (1942-1976), the “Pied Piper” of the Early Music movement.

I have long held a fascination with the historic trajectory of early music performance, and have witnessed distinct changes in it within my own lifetime. When I attend an early music concert here in Charlottesville in 2018, I am struck by how different it is from my first contact I made with this music in the 1970s through recordings made by David Munrow. Moreover, I am struck by how different it is from early music groups that were playing just 20 years ago.

Performance styles within early music are constantly evolving, as is the approach to repertoire – sometimes these days you are as likely to hear a song by Bob Dylan or the Beatles at an early music concert as you would Guilluame de Machaut, depending on the forces and theme of the program.

Through 1950, recordings of period instrument performances of early music are so rare that they almost do not exist. This is simply a result of the instruments themselves not being available; they were in museums and private collections and there were very few luthiers or harpsichord manufacturers, let alone producers of totally obsolete instruments like the Vielle or lute-harpsichord.

Most harpsichords in this time were loud instruments with a metal frame in the manner of a piano; often the piano itself was used to play early keyboard composers or in continuo settings. Lute music was merely adapted and played on the Spanish guitar; guitar virtuoso Andrés Segovia was a major proponent of this practice and shunned the original lute as an unnecessary antique with too many strings.

Nevertheless, music of the Baroque, Renaissance and even medieval eras may be found on records made before 1950. The ‘Stone Age’ of early music recording is dominated by Handel and Bach, with some figures of the French Baroque running a distant second.

Violinist-composer Fritz Kreisler confused the issue by using the names of long-dead, forgotten composers to sign his own work just so that his name didn’t appear on the concert program too many times. But in January 1915, he and violinist Efrem Zimbalist, Sr. waxed the Bach “Double” Concerto with a string quartet, the first-ever recording of a Bach concerto. In 1916, cellist Pablo Casals made his first recordings of individual movements from Bach’s Cello Suites; he wouldn’t get around to waxing the whole set until the 1930s, in a series of subscription recordings.

Subscription sets, specialist labels and recordings made for educational purposes were the first reliable vehicles for early music on records. The Roycroft label of the late 1920s introduced renaissance madrigals to the catalog; in the early 1930s, European boutique labels such as Lumen, L’anthologie Sonore and L’Oiseau Lyre stepped forward to address the long-neglected area of pre-1750 literature.

The advent of World War II killed off all of this activity, but at war’s end, it came charging back. With the introduction of long-playing 33 1/3 rpm format in 1948, there was practically an explosion of early music recording afterward.

Once we get to 1958 – and a recording that will be featured on “Son of Historic Radio Special;” “The Play of Daniel” by New York Pro Musica under the direction of Noah Greenburg – early music recording has finally entered its Bronze Age. Replicas of wooden flutes, frame drums, lutes and other instruments endemic to the early music movement were being made and available at last.

In 1952, RISM (Répertoire International des Sources Musicales) was established, making it easier to locate musical manuscripts and early prints, and decreasing the need for reliance on often incorrect, or difficult to read, modern editions of early works.

It was a brave new world for early music, and yet in 1958, it was only getting started. Son of Historic Radio Special reflects my personal absorption with very old recordings of early music composers and my long-held interest in collecting them. But in a broader sense, it explores where we’ve been with early music, and what it sounded like when the very term ‘early music’ did not yet exist.

The Early Music Show — Son of Historic Radio Special
Airs September 17th at 7:30 PM
on WTJU-FM

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