Early music – most commonly defined as the Western art music composed from the medieval period to the dawn of the Baroque era – is arguably enjoyed on a more widespread scale than it has ever been. With a dizzying array of festivals, institutions and period ensembles, it seems like more people than ever feel like pulling on some hosiery and returning to the Olde Worlde – musically speaking, that is. In this week’s At Home Guide, we take a look at the major currents of Early Music as it existed back in the day, and how its revival became a worldwide movement that fills today’s concert halls – all illustrated by concert videos from the ever-growing Bachtrack At Home archive.

The Concert, 1623
© Gerard van Honthorst | Public domain

The Medieval period, the Renaissance and the dawn of a musical era

The medieval period of history is generally seen as starting from the fall of the Roman Empire and going up to around 1400. As such, the musical history of this 1000-year period would be far too large a subject to cover in this humble section. But some important innovations during these years are especially important in allowing us to understand how art music evolved into what we know it as today. For example, it was during this time that the systems of music notation that we use today began to develop. Furthermore, the foundations for conventions such as counterpoint and polyphony were laid by the monastic vocalists of Europe during this time. These early composers tried adding extra parts to the previously monophonic chant forms which had comprised liturgical music up to that point. Prominent medieval-era composers, such as the 12th-century mystic Hildegard von Bingen (see a small selection of Bingen’s work performed here by the Adolf Fredriks Gosskör) and the 13th-century poet Guillaume de Machaut wrote largely for the human voice rather than instruments. However, instrumental writing was on the rise due to innovations in printing: as the Middle Ages progressed, more instrument builders were able to publish designs of their handywork.

The first widely recognised era in classical music history, however, is considered to be the Renaissance, a period which began in the 14th century and saw huge change in all areas of European life and culture. Music, of course, was one of those areas. Polyphonic writing – the use of simultaneous but independent melodic lines – truly took off during this time, with composers like those of the Franco-Flemish school, led by Josquin des Prez, adding increasing levels of polyphonic complexity to their settings of Catholic liturgy. You can see a small excerpt of music by one exponent of this school, the Swiss composer Ludwig Senfl, performed here by the vocal ensemble Wishful Singing.

The polyphonic seeds of the 14th century reached fruition in the second half of the next century. In the Netherlands, the likes of Orlande de Lassus (considered now to be amongst the most important of the Franco-Flemish composers) wrote prolifically in both sacred and secular forms, riding the wave of religious turmoil that followed in the wake of the Reformation. Check out this performance by the Huelgas Ensemble, featuring a set of de Lassus’ secular Italian madrigals, which illustrate both the increasing cosmopolitanism and secularisation of Renaissance music. England produced its own share of notable composers during this period. This concert by the Dunedin Consort illustrates this artistic fertility, with works by Henry Lawes (a friend of the writer John Milton), Thomas Weelkes – himself the most prolific composer of Anglican services during this time – and Orlando Gibbons, a composer perhaps most remembered for his keyboard works. Arguably the most famous of them all though is Thomas Tallis, who composed and performed for four generations of British monarchs, from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I. Indeed, his primacy amongst English composers of the time is illustrated by how he, along with his fellow composer William Byrd, were given a 21-year monopoly by Queen Elizabeth, which allowed them exclusive rights to publish polyphonic music. Tallis was also one of the first composers to reflect the content of the words in the music of his vocal compositions, something which can be heard in this performance by Gli Angeli Genève of Tallis’ first setting of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, part of the liturgy of the Catholic Tenebrae service.

Thomas Tallis, engraving by Niccolò Haym
© Wikimedia Commons

As the Renaissance progressed and the Baroque period of composition began to rear its head, the baton for innovation was arguably passed to Italy and the Venetian School of composers. There, composers such as Claudio Monteverdi and Giovanni Gabrieli straddled earlier polyphonic forms and affected a move into the use of basso continuo accompaniment. See selections of Gabrieli’s music, along with works by the German Baroque composer Heinrich Schütz, performed here by the Gesualdo Consort and the Arp Schnitger and Oltremontano ensembles. In terms of musical genre, the Baroque period is considered as the end point of Early music.

Bring it back, sing it back

The Early Music revival as we know it today can be traced back to as early as the 1720s, when the composer Johann Pepusch set up his Academy of Ancient Music in England. The academy studied works by the likes of William Byrd and the madrigalist Thomas Morley, whose music you can see performed here by the Belgian vocal ensemble Vox Luminis, a group dedicated to performing choral music from the 16th century onwards.

Later, in 1829, Felix Mendelssohn conducted a version of Bach’s St Matthew Passion, a concert that is considered an important milestone in Early Music revivalism (in the revival movement, as opposed to the generic term Early music, all works composed prior to the Classical period are considered “Early” due to the difference in instruments and performance practices). It is important to remember, however, that at this stage musicians and conductors were not interested in performing the music in the way it would have been when it was first composed. Performers still used contemporary instruments and edited the works according to their needs.

It wasn’t until the early 20th century that academics began to study music from periods such as the Renaissance more closely. One such scholer was Arnold Dolmetsch, a French musician builder who set up shop in London. Studying the designs of past masters, he painstakingly reconstructed instruments such as the lute and harpsichord and published the landmark work The Interpretation of the Music of the XVIIth and XVIIIth Centuries. What’s more, he pored over treatises on music performance from the Baroque era and beyond. The notion of an “authentic” performance of Early music had officially been ushered in. Institutions dedicated to the study and performance of Early music, such as Paul Sacher’s Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, sprang up, laying the groundwork for the next big wave.

Beginning in the postwar years and reaching fever pitch in the 1970s, this surge of interest in the revival of pre-Classical performance practices was led by enthusiasts largely in London and Basel. English countertenor Alfred Deller championed the performance of Early vocal works, while instrument builders such as Otto Steinkopf set to work building such seemingly alien period instruments such as the crumhorn and the shawm. Meanwhile, ensembles such as Michael Morrow’s Musica Reservata and David Munrow’s Early Music Consort did much to popularise early- and pre-Baroque works at home and abroad.

In the latter half of the 20th century, Early music revivalism had its fair share of proponents, who ensured that the movement went from the fringes to the mainstream of concert repertoire. The conductor Christopher Hogwood formed his own Academy of Ancient Music, a Cambridge-based ensemble that specialises in the historically-informed performance of Baroque music. Elsewhere, the Catalan viol player Jordi Savall i Bernadet continues to spread medieval, Renaissance and Baroque music with his period ensemble Hespèrion XXI. Meanwhile, annual festivals such as the Utrecht Early Music Festival, which began in 1982, and the Innsbruck Festival of Early Music, allow larger audiences access to the world of authentically performed Early music. 

Ensemble Correspondances
© Molina Visuals

These days, there are a wealth of proficient and dedicated Early music groups out there. The French ensemble Capriccio Stravagante, founded in 1986 by Skip Sempé, is known for its reconstructions of Renaissance and Baroque instrumental music. Watch them, along with Vox Luminis, perform a selection of works by Monteverdi here. Even more specialised are the Austrian period ensemble Ars Antiqua Austria, who are expressly devoted to the performance of works from the Early music repertoire of their homeland. Watch them perform works by the Austrian composers Biber and Aufschnaiter here. In the UK, vocal ensemble The Sixteen dedicates itself to breathing new life into antiquated choral works – see this stunning performance of works by Tallis, the Renaissance composer Robert Carver and the Scots organist Robert Carver for proof. Even more novel is the work of the Dutch recorder quintet Seldom Sene, who perform works in both the Early and contemporary repertoires. This performance, from the 2014 edition of the Internationaal Van Wassenaer Early music contest, is particularly interesting, placing works by Bach and Tallis alongside those by the Elizabethan-era composer Anthony Holborne and Spanish Renaissance composers Antonio de Cabezón and Cristóbal de Morales. The young group Ensemble Correspondances, which was formed in 2009, is also well-known for its faithful reconstruction of sacred music from 17th-century France. Watch them perform at the 2016 edition of the Utrecht Early Music Festival here.  

Whether due to the dizzying complexity of modernity, or because of our innate fascination with the past, more people are seeking to play and enjoy music Early music in ways befitting of the intentions of its composers. With the work of ensembles like those mentioned above, perhaps we are closer to getting a clearer picture of music from the distant past.