The End of Early Music: Introduction

The End of Early Music is a 2007 book by the late great historical oboist Bruce Haynes. Subtitled "A Period Performer's History of Music for the Twenty-First Century," this book was in many ways the inspiration for Musicker. In this series of blog posts, I re-read the book, offering chapter-by-chapter recaps as well as some of my own thoughts and reactions. The subsection titles are Bruce Haynes's. This first offering covers the introduction. All Recaps


Universal literacy and the canonism and "text-fetishism" that came with it led to a separation of composing and performing. Musicians from the pre-Romantic era composed and performed as a matter of course, and improvisation formed a bridge between the activities. As a result, written music was intentionally "thin," or sparsely notated, to allow for the necessary (but changeable) final ingredients to be added by the performer.

 Bruce Haynes

Bruce Haynes

I'm with you, Bruce, on the composition-improvisation-performance continuum in rhetorical music, and it makes sense that written music would be "thin" in that kind of environment. I wish, however, that you'd expanded on how and why exactly universal literacy led to canonism. It's the opener of your book, and understanding the origins of canonism would be really helpful. Perhaps you'll circle back to it later.

The Romantic Revolution:

Romanticism is the barrier separating contemporary musicians from Baroque. From 1789 (the French Revolution) through about 1840, major changes in instruments and approaches amounted to an abrupt break from the previous tradition.

Canonism and Classicism

The Romantics brought music into line with literature, architecture, and graphic arts, which all held models from Classical antiquity (ancient Greece and Rome) as ideal. However, since no actual Classical music, in the ancient sense, existed, a new canon was begun, and we've called it "classical music" ever since. Evidence includes the appearance of concert halls in the 19th century lined with busts of the "great" composers. Musicians were transformed from craftsmen into heroic artists. The "Classical Canon" today is pervasive, even in HIP circles - look at the number of Messiahs that take place every year - and is built around the idea of performing a small number of works over and over again. Even the concert dress and performance venues are straight out of the Romantic era.

I must quote Bruce's excellent list of the "basic assumptions of Classically oriented musicians:

  • great respect for composers, represented by the cults of genius and originality,
  • the almost scriptural awe of musical "works,"
  • an obsession with the original intentions of the composer,
  • the practice of listening to music as ritual,
  • the custom of repeated hearings of a limited number of works."

All of these tendencies are clearly derived from a Romantic-era urge for canonization, and particularly when applied to pre-Romantic music, are anachronistic. Which is not to say they are bad - I've found wonderful insights into all kinds of music in my career by approaching works in this way - but it is rather shocking to see myself so thoroughly called out.

Musical Rhetoric

The pre-Romantic system of making music was fundamentally different from that which we use today, and can be summed up in one word: rhetoric. Rhetoric, in the public speaking sense as well as the musical, is the way that a performer can move an audience, as well as himself, to experience specific emotions. Much like today's popular culture of movies, television, and music, rhetorical music was intended to be ephemeral - affecting and moving but not necessarily returned to again and again. Romanticism, by contrast, tends to dramatize intense personal moments experienced by the artist-composer, which are observed and appreciated by the musicians and the audiences.

"Scare Quotes" for Authenticity

The word "authentic" was a common one in the first decades of HIP (beginning in earnest in the 1960s) but after many insightful Richard Taruskin articles in the 1980s, it usually appears now in quotes, as if to acknowledge its futility. That a HIP ensemble, attempting to revive performance practices extinct for 200 years, should have higher claim to the word than a symphony orchestra which has been continually performing the same music for 200 years, is of course dubious. The difference, however, is in the attempt at authenticity - the results of various attempts have a chance of being truly serendipitous.

Haynes rejects Taruskin's objection to HIP's apparent moral high ground. Different music from different times requires different approaches and sometimes different instruments, in contrast to the mainstream contemporary approach of one style fitting all music. Is "one style fitting all music" a bit of a harsh verdict on contemporary music-making? Bach harpsichord concerti are performed and recorded regularly on concert grand pianos - is this any less ridiculous than performing a Brahms piano concerto on a harpsichord?

Serendipity - the surprising and delightful discovery of something that works - is they key. In HIP that chance at serendipity comes only from repeated attempts at something that seems impossible. That moment of realization - of going far enough away from one's comfort zone that things start to work again in an entirely new way - is as worthy a goal as any level of authenticity to a period.

The End of Early Music

It is silly that we qualify the instruments in HIP with modifying names - baroque flute, baroque bassoon, and particularly baroque violin. The instruments already existed and then evolved (or didn't, in the case of the violin). There really isn't anything "Early" about Early Music, so Haynes claims a more appropriate, more descriptive term for pre-Romantic music and performing style: Rhetorical Music.

I will be following Haynes's model and will refer to pre-Romantic music as "Rhetorical music." It's such a simple and clear and honest term; I hope it catches on to wider use.


Christopher Small coined the term "musicking" in 1998 as an activity that includes

all musical activity from composing to performing to listening to a Walkman to singing in the shower - even cleaning up after a concert is a kind of musicking.

Haynes finds the term particularly useful when considering Rhetorical music and the Rhetorical era, when performers were also composers and teachers and writers and theorists, and the same Rhetorical principles infused all of this musicking. I like the term enough to name this project after it.