In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, as far as I can tell, people played only contemporary music. Since then, it seems, there has been a complete turnaround, and only contemporary music is not stylish. Beginning in the 18th century, interest in old music has developed gradually, erratically, but inexorably, despite some resistance from musicians and music-lovers.

Throughout the 19th century, the past was a source of inspiration in the arts, from Greek revival furniture and architecture, through Gothic revival, through the Anglo-Catholic revival in the Anglican church (which encouraged old church music as well as old liturgy, vestments, and architecture), to the Rococo revival, and even to revivals of revivals (“Centennial revival” furniture, a hopeless mixture of styles from the past). The works of the past were, however, viewed through a definitely contemporary lens.

In music, the text had never been the last word for performers. The Baroque composers simply wrote notes, and not even all of those. Training and good taste were supposed to guide performers in the elaboration of those texts. In the 19th century, composers’ marks became more detailed but were still treated as guidelines. Editors freely added tempo marks, dynamics, and articulation without concern for identifying their additions as such. Performance traditions, usually transmitted from teacher to student rather than codified in textbooks, were equally susceptible to distortion. Within remarkably few generations, knowledge of earlier performance practices had faded.

Opposing forces were at work, however, particularly in Germany, where the discipline of musicology was burgeoning, producing, for example, elegant, scholarly editions of Bach. University curricula began to include early music and to encourage student performances. A few concert artists began to be interested in how early music had originally been played and to perform it in public.

During the 20th century, both scholarship and performance of early music have gradually progressed. The 1950’s saw a flood of important books and editions. For those of us who were not scholars, a shocking lag often separated the publication of these books and our discovery of them. The work of the musicologists took years to affect the commercial music publishing industry, and even longer to reach pedagogical literature. Even in the 1950’s and early 1960’s, when I was a student, we usually played from old editions in which editorial alterations were indistinguishable from the composer’s marks. We rarely discussed editions, buying whatever was in stock. Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart, and even Chopin were all published in heavily edited disguises. Now small-town piano teachers like me routinely buy urtexts when possible and worry about choosing the most scholarly editions for students. We ask questions about articulation and style that did not occur to us a few years ago. We are more likely to offer our students choices, or even dilemmas, than to say, “Play it this way.” We are, to be honest, often uncomfortable with our ignorance and rarely confident of our solutions. I, for one, however, find the exhilaration of the process outweighs the discomfort of the uncertainty.

Reprise: The Extraordinary Revival of Early Music is an odd, hybrid book with the admirable goal of “showing real people making music.” The first half is text, general chapters on the history and development of the movement and chapters devoted to specific heroes: Arnold Dolmetsch, Noah Greenberg, Thomas Binkley, the Harnoncourts, the Kuijken brothers, Frans Brüggen, and Gustav Leonhardt. The second half is photographs (some elegant, some pedestrian) of people mentioned in the text. This section seems like a cross between a high-school yearbook and a fan magazine. I think only dedicated fans will find it a compelling reason to own the book. The text, written by, Joel Cohen, head of the Boston Camarata, will be of interest to a larger group of people.

I assumed that I would like this book, written by a respected performer in a field which fascinates me and which has changed the way I teach and play. From the beginning, however, I found it annoying in several ways. The prose, for example, is both coy and casual and often quite purple. Cohen seems to have assumed that his first choice of words would suffice. After the first page, I began to watch for offensive words and phrases. He was cute: “We are, of course, aware that the dulcian and the isorhythmic motet are no longer the common household objects they never were. . . . ” His phrases jarred: “the now plethoric discography,” “living actualizations of many masterpieces,” “to autofinance his own orchestra.” Occasionally, particularly toward the ends of chapters, his prose became positively lurid: “As the twentieth century lurches and heaves toward its final decade, uncertain whether life or death is its goal, every sign of hope and renewal has more than ordinary importance.”

As I read, small annoyances began to be overshadowed by major doubts about the book’s underlying assumptions. I often stopped reading altogether while I puzzled out my reactions to casual generalizations. Cohen sees the early music revival too simply as part of the modernist rebellion in the arts in the early 20th century. The terms he uses to describe this rebellion reflect a crude view of society in which the traditionally trained musician and the ordinary concert-goer are ignorant, narrow-minded, and moved by the worst possible motives. He describes the avant-garde as a reaction to “the malaise in our cultural establishment,” “the deadening effects of too much standardization and repetition on our creative spirit,” and “the dominant values of the concert world.” They rejected a “quasi-religious reverence toward a fossilized musical repertoire.” It is ironic that he also describes the attraction of early music in the language of religious rebirth: “There is something in the depths of the early music repertoire that invites us to change our values, to alter our lives. . . . If you give it a chance, the music of the distant past will turn you around and make you a different person.” Early music has “created a psychic space for self-affirmation.”

Clearly there was an element of justifiable rebellion in the early music revival, and like any rebellion, it often met with rejection, though (as I have tried to show) it also met with appreciation and acceptance. If Cohen’s attitude is representative of the movement, it practically demanded rejection. Listen to the arrogance behind his imaginative reconstruction of the effect of the early music movement: “a threat to the local music teachers . . . ” “Too risky for a conservative music school!” The early musician “will corrupt the youth and give them wrong ideas of what great music is supposed to sound like! She will tamper with our most precious cultural relics; she will make them unfamiliar again! And by making those relics unfamiliar, she will rob them of their quasi-liturgical power. I told you those damn fiddle players were a bunch of atheists!”

Secure in their own salvation, early music specialists were perhaps not very diplomatic. To derogate what conservatory musicians have been taught by teachers they love about music they love is to invite distrust if not hostility. Several years ago I was told by a member of the piano faculty of a major university, “None of us [pianists] dares to play Bach anymore.” On the other hand, I know students at a conservatory which simply ignores the early music movement who happily play Bach on modern instruments, with love and great beauty. Neither the pianists nor the conservatory students have benefited from the early music revival, perhaps because of the way the movement presented itself.

Cohen’s scathing descriptions of traditionally trained musicians are enough to make one marvel, even though he may simply be reflecting pervasive cultural stereotypes: “For every Theresa Stich-Randall there were battalions of imperial sopranos anxious to turn Bach and Handel into offensive weapons against the clients in the last row.” Because of the early music revival, “‘tenderness of expression’ has replaced the philosophy of frontal assault.” After admitting the need for humility, he says, “I am not trying to bring back the bad old days. I make no case for the thumping pianist, the megalomaniac conductor, or the glass-shattering concert soprano.”

This book does the early music revival and musicians in general a major disservice. Cohen feels that early musicians are morally superior: “Rarely does one find such sincerity and dedication in the commercial concert circuit.” My experience has been less extensive, but very different. For years I have attended master-classes and workshops with concert performers. Almost without exception, they live to serve the music. Some are arrogant, some not, but for almost all, the music comes first, and dedication is part of the job description. Cohen’s denigration of commercial concert artists seems unnecessary. You would think he was describing a lost cause, not a triumph.

Looking back on the book, the pervasive attitude of denigration is what I remember most—not Cohen’s graceful and tolerant descriptions of the real visionaries of the movement, not his intelligent appreciation of the role of amateurs in the movement, not his genuine knowledge and perception about the music itself Careless assumptions, careless prose, and careless hyperbole have turned a potentially fine book into a mediocre one. This is a book to borrow from the library.


[Reprise: The Extraordinary Revival of Early Music, by Joel Cohen and Herb Snitzer (Boston and New York: Little, Brown) $25.00]