The End of Early Music: Chapter 1

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 second offering covers chapter 1. All Recaps

When You Say Something Differently, You Say Something Different

"Style Is That Which Becomes Unstylish"

Coco Chanel: La mode, c'est ce qui se démode

Coco Chanel: La mode, c'est ce qui se démode

As in fashion, musical style changes at a rate roughly corresponding to its formality. The most formal dress for a fancy event has changed very little in a hundred years, just as the appropriate music for a graduation or a wedding has changed very little. On the other hand, casual weekend wear style changes every season, as does much popular music. Haynes compares the canonism of contemporary classical music with business wear - changing only in minute details like lapel width and number of vents - but in essence the same suit and tie from 100 years ago. Before Romanticism and Canonism, however, concert music was much less stable.

I like the clever implication that Bruce makes here. If "style is that which becomes unstylish" and we currently have a situation where the dominant style of musicking is largely unchanging, that's basically the same as not having a dominant "style" at all. Contrast with the pre-Romantic approach, which was ever-changing and therefore Stylish!


In the pre-Romantic era, the appetite for the new and different was insatiable. In Italy in the late 18th century, music was barely printed, since it would be out of fashion by the time it was ready for publication. In 1773, Charles Burney wrote that J.S. Bach, just 23 years deceased, was a figure from

the Gothic period of the grey contrapuntists.

Mattheson was happy to criticize Corelli, and Von Uffenbach was skeptical of Lully. It's tempting to look back at these writers (really, these Musickers) and laugh at their irreverence for the great masters but the clear overarching story is that innovation was king for hundreds of years before the Romantic revolution. J.S. Bach, one of those great masters himself, is on record being astonished by the rate of change in musical taste.

As an aside... I'm really, really tired of hearing that classical music was "the pop music of its day." This little tidbit comes up so often, particularly in educational programs, and I just don't know that a.) anybody from this day and age cares, or b.) that it's actually, you know, true. In any case, music from the rhetorical era was constantly changing, as is the pop music of today, so score one (but only one) for that annoying saying...

More Beethoven-y than you. (Kidding, Leon!)

More Beethoven-y than you. (Kidding, Leon!)

Back to business: after the 18th century, Romanticism was the dominant style (can we call it a style?) and mainstream musicians to this day emphasize the conservation of this great romantic tradition. We even learn it in conservatories (all founded in the 19th century). More than a few pianists make a point to trace their "lineage" back to Beethoven. Innovation takes the back seat.

Bruce Haynes ends this section with an intriguing little insight that is destined to be expanded upon - that the Romantic tradition of performing is much less pure than most musicians assume, and that it is helpful to call out the 1960s as a rough inflection point. Around that time, music started to splinter - increased ethnomusicology raised awareness of geographical style, the beginnings of HIP raised awareness of rhetorical style, and the mainstream thoroughly embraced a style Haynes differentiates from the Romantic, and instead calls "modern."

Eating the Cookbook

The way a piece of music is heard is highly dependent on the performers and the specific performance of that music. As obvious as that may be to musickers, it is not a universal belief. The Grove Dictionary of Music defines improvisation as

the creation of the final form of a musical work as it is being performed

but Haynes points out, and I must agree, that it is difficult to imagine any kind of music that doesn't fit that description. I need to quote his follow-up, since it refers back to a confusing moment in the Introduction:

I would guess that whoever wrote these words believed, like a number of theorists these days, that a piece could reach its final form without being performed. It is amazing that anyone could mistake a piece of paper for music, but that's what happens when you get super-literate.

Ouch. But we've come around again on universal literacy causing canonism and text-fetishism. Marks on a page being confused for music. Those marks on a page aren't music, just as a recipe in a cookbook isn't dinner. Performers (and chefs) matter.

Chronocentrism: "Music as Tradition"

It was the dominant view from the Romantic revolution at least through to the 1960s, that music was an unbroken lineage. The musicians of a time would have inherited certain traditions from their teachers, and their teachers' teachers, and had a sense of ownership and a certain freedom with the music of the past. This is how Mendelssohn came to lead a massive force of 200 performers in Bach's St. Matthew Passion or how Wagner came to make multiple (sympathetic) corrections to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

The tradition was there, so how could it be a problem?

I love the next circle-about by Bruce Haynes: the fact that ethnomusicology and historically-informed performance both took great leaps forward in the 1960s was no coincidence. Both reflect a wider trend in society towards pluralism - a common interest and sensitivity toward countries, cultures, and times not our own. The fact that traditionalists remain is clear, but their "mainstream" is shrinking rapidly as a whole plethora of new areas are expanding. The historical approach - that of questioning and inquiry and expansion of knowledge - is growing, while the "inherited tradition" isn't. It's an exciting time!