by Nick Wilson
Many aspects of the British early music movement (“Early Music”) continue to intrigue. One thinks of the authenticity debate; the relationship between high culture and commerce; the incubating role of the BBC; or even what I refer to as “re-enchanting art”—the capacity we have of discovering “old” music through performance, as if for the first time. One fascinating aspect that all too often gets overlooked is the role of the amateur. By the 1960s the territory of classical music performance had become deeply divided. The increasing dominance of the music “profession” had effectively severed ties with everyday music-making, tradition, and ritual. A gulf had opened up between performing classical music “just for the love of it” and the serious “business” of classical music concert performance. It would not be overstating things to suggest that such a gulf remains to this day.
Though characterized as an ideological movement borne out of a scholarly obsession with recreating the past, Early Music also appealed to amateur musicians, not least because it offered an exciting “new” world of sound. There was also the alluring possibility of getting up-close and personal with the fascinating instruments that produced these sounds. In the infant years of the early music revival, “early” really meant early. A whole array of bizarre medieval and Renaissance instruments—cornetts, crumhorns, dulcians, nakers, rebecs, regals, sackbuts, and many other “buzzers and whiners” dating at least as far back as the fourteenth century—was suddenly let loose on an otherwise conventional audience, conjuring up altogether “other” times. The sound of a familiar Bach concerto played at Baroque pitch on period instruments prior to many of the “original” instruments being mastered, was shockingly new. This aural landscape was genuinely exciting for many musicians who had come to feel classical music performance had lost its way. The performances and subsequent recordings of medieval, Renaissance, and early Baroque music by the likes of Michael Morrow’s Musica Reservata and David Munrow’s Early Music Consort of London (founded “to present authentic and uninhibited performances”) in the 1960s, were crucial in catalyzing interest in historical performance. But more than this, amateur musicians quickly found themselves being able to join in, as copies of old instruments became widely available. Before long, enthusiasts could construct affordable historical instruments from DIY kits, encouraging an even closer allegiance with this form of music-making. Such “early adopters” of early music were central to its subsequent success—forming its audience and fan-base.
It would be wrong, however, to imply that amateur musicians began their love affair with early music only in the 1960s. In the first decades of the 20th century, an appetite for performing “old” music was already being satiated in a variety of informal gatherings across Britain. The most famous of these performances were undoubtedly the ones held by the Dolmetsches. It is striking that even today, Arnold Dolmetsch's pioneering work as a performer, instrument-maker, and scholar is labeled as “amateurish.” As one early music performer puts it, Dolmetsch was met with “the patronising indifference of the majority of the music profession.” He was surrounded largely by amateur musicians and instrument-makers at his Haslemere workshop, and what he was doing was regarded by many as unnecessarily specialized for its time, and too cut off from the professional music mainstream.
There is no doubt that the 20th-century early music revival owes much of its initial success to its ability to embrace the amateur musician. Arguably, this is just one particular facet of Early Music’s distinctive capacity to “join up” rather than to separate. Early musicians have been required to overcome many things, including unbridgeable barriers to past traditions and performance practices, and a fallible knowledge of composers’ intentions; They have also had to rely on working with instrument-makers, scholars, musicologists, and record company executives. However, in playing their part, amateurs unwittingly collaborated in Early Music’s professionalization and even its inevitable closure and narrowing in terms of repertoire covered. It is striking how little instrumental music from the Middle Ages, for example, now finds its way both to the concert hall and across the airwaves.
The word “amateur” remains strongly divisive. While etymology reminds us that its meaning is derived from having a love of something (amator : “lover”), there is an enduring connotation of enthusiasm matched by lack of technical proficiency. Amateurs are often contrasted with professionals not just because the latter group earn money from their work, but because they are skilled and have reached a level that the former can only dream of. The unfolding story of Early Music admonishes us against readily jumping to any such simplistic conclusions.