Early Music Movement
In recent years the early music movement, which advocates performing a work as it was performed at the time of its composition, has taken on the character of a crusade, particularly as it has moved beyond the sphere of medieval and baroque music and into music from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries by composers such as Mozart and Beethoven. Granted, knowledge about the experience of playing old music on now-obsolete instruments has been of inestimable value to scholars. Nevertheless, the early music approach to performance raises profound and troubling questions.
Early music advocates assume that composers write only for the instruments available to them, but evidence suggests that composers of Beethoven’s stature imagined extraordinarily high and low notes as part of their compositions, even when they recognized that such notes could not be played on instruments available at the time. In the score of Beethoven’s first piano concerto, there is a “wrong” note, a high F-natural where the melody obviously calls for a high F-sharp, but pianos did not have this high an F-sharp when Beethoven composed the concerto. Because Beethoven once expressed a desire to revise his early works to exploit the extended range of pianos that became available to him some years later, it seems likely that he would have played the F-sharp if given the opportunity. To use a piano exactly contemporary with the work’s composition would require playing a note that was probably frustrating for Beethoven himself to have had to play.
In addition, early music advocates often inadvertently divorce music and its performance from the life of which they were, and are, a part. The discovery that Haydn’s and Mozart’s symphonies were conducted during their lifetimes by a pianist who played the chords to keep the orchestra together has given rise to early music recordings in which a piano can be heard obtrusively in the foreground, despite evidence indicating that the orchestral piano was virtually inaudible to audiences at eighteenth-century concerts and was dropped as musically unnecessary when a better way to beat time was found. And although in the early nineteenth century the first three movements (sections) of Mozart’s and Beethoven’s symphonies were often played faster, and the last movement slower, than today, this difference can readily be explained by the fact that at that time audiences applauded at the end of each movement, rather than withholding applause until the end of the entire work. As a result, musicians were not forced into extra brilliance in the finale in order to generate applause, as they are now. To restore the original tempo of these symphonies represents an irrational denial of the fact that our concepts of musical intensity and excitement have, quite simply, changed.