Daily RC Article 23

Early Music Movement


Paragraph 1

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.

Paragraph 2

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.

Paragraph 3

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.

Topic and Scope:

Early music; specifically, the movement to have music performed as it was performed when it was written. Purpose and Main Idea: The author’s purpose is to explore the “questions” raised by this movement (which she describes as resembling a “crusade”), and that the questions are “profound and troubling”  conveys her main idea.

Paragraph Structure:

Paragraph 1 describes the early music movement, shoots it a little barb by way of the “crusade” reference, grants that the movement has been of value, and then presents the main-idea sentence that the rest of the passage follows up on: the “profound and troubling questions” raised by the movement. One would expect that what follows would explore at least some of those questions, and since two paragraph s follow, it’s not surprising that those questions are two in number.

To make the structure even clearer, the author supplies the nice “continuation” Keyword phrase “in addition” at the beginning of paragraph 3 to essentially say “that was one problem; now here’s another.”

Paragraph 2 explains that demanding that a piece be played on instruments available during its composition carries with it a built-in problem: What if a piece was composed with instruments in mind that hadn’t even been invented yet?

In that case, performing the piece today on the earlier instrument that was available to the composer at the time would seem to degrade the artist’s vision. Beethoven’s first piano concerto is cited at length as one such piece.

Paragraph 3 poses a different “troubling” issue, expressed generally in lines “In addition, early music advocates …….” and illustrated by the tempo issue. The gist of it is that the conducting ” The discovery that Haydn’s and Mozart’s…..” and setting “And although in the early nineteenth century the first……” of original tempos were both determined by different historical conditions from ours; and denying that amounts to “inadvertently [divorcing] music and its performance from . . . life”—something the author finds troubling and obviously opposes.

The Big Picture:

  • Strive to become a good anticipatory reader. Consciously anticipate that when an author calls something “a crusade,” s/he may turn out to be critical of it. Consciously anticipate that when something “raises profound and troubling questions,” almost immediately those questions (at least one main one, and possibly even more than one) will be raised and addressed. Stay ahead of the author rather than several steps behind.
  • The Beethoven example in paragraph 2, and the two tempo examples in paragraph 3, are pretty technical for non-musicians to understand. Content yourself with understanding them in broad outline (as discussed above), and delve deeper only when the questions seem to demand that you do so.

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