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What is Early Music?

The perennial question: "What is early music?" Help Harmonia in the beginning of our search for an answer.

portrait of chopin

Photo: Louis-Auguste Bisson

Frédéric Chopin (only known photograph). His compositions may or may not be "Early Music."

Anyone who loves, buys, performs, and/or attends concerts of Early Music will be able to tell you what “it” is.

The question, “What is early music?,” appears to be a simple one, but the answer is complex and tends to vary wildly from person to person.

Back in September, I shared a link related to a Chopin article which drew an immediate and clear-cut answer from a fan on the Harmonia Facebook page:

“Baroque music is not early music. Medieval music is early music. Chopin is definitely not early music.”

Another fan agreed:

“Chopin not early music, even my beloved Baroque is not—it has its own place in the history. It should be pre-Baroque.”

One fan didn’t care for the pervading view and went with “Early music is anything before 11 am.”

The exchange between fans reached two-dozen comments, clearly it was a subject about which people felt strongly. But it didn’t necessarily answer the question.

There is one place we can look to for light on the subject—Wikipedia:

“Early music is commonly defined as European classical music from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, sometimes also including the Baroque.”

Yes, but…

Does the definition of Early Music only “sometimes” include baroque music? Can it include Classical and Romantic music?

What do you think?

Bernard Gordillo

Bernard Gordillo was born in Managua, Nicaragua, and raised in New Orleans. He holds degrees from Centenary College of Louisiana, the Early Music Institute at Indiana University, and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama (London). Bernard also writes and hosts the Harmonia Early Music Podcast.

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  • deemery

    Part of the question is whether we need to draw a distinction between “Early Music” that gets played and “Historically Informed Performance” on how music gets played. Chopin on a fortepiano brings out this distinction, I think

    Now I tend to think of Early Music as a music category, e.g. for shopping purposes, where I'd believe it to be roughly music before 1600 (and that date is purely arbitrary!!!) So we need to figure out what we're using the term for as a starting point for defining it.

  • http://twitter.com/campra Albert Edelman

    Working for the Utrecht Early Music Festival in the Netherlands, my (our) boundaries are perfectly clear: we embrace as 'early music' anything performed within HIP. Our concerns are the same that the early music pioneers had, namely questions of instruments and how to play them, source material and its interpretation and most of all, how to connect all this (in itself ultimately theoretical) knowledge to a modern audience. Musicians who deal with these questions with (some) success are invited to join the discussion during our festival, which is easily the largest early music festival in the world. This explicitly includes music many would consider 'late', starting naturally with Baroque but extending to the early Romantic period, and perhaps even further.

    But there remains the issue of nomenclature: why consider 'early music' to be two periods with perfectly usable names of their own, but exclude the Baroque, or why make 'early music' and 'HIP' synonymous? Personally, I think 'early', and especially its translations in other languages (think 'oude', 'alte', 'ancienne') is more of a burden, with its negative connotations of being out of date. Add to this the rather sectarian approach of many and I wonder: what's it all about? Should we really fight turf wars and try to defend some pretty random terminology, or should we continue the exciting work that has been done right from its first coinage? After all, as it is with centuries and their clear-cutting but fundamentally false appeal, styles (because this is what we're talking about, no?) are never completely distinct. All musical history asks us is to listen with an open ear.

  • annakim925

    Well…It is difficult to definate “Early Music”. But I think early means not only the period-such as Medival, Baroque, but also include the before our time. So you might think, 'Oh, so Chopin's music is also early music.' That's not definitely true as you said.
    My point is the musical instruments. Before 20th or 21th century, there were musical instruments which was almost same in this time. But when we think about between 16-18 centrueis, we can imagine that there was a totally different things. Lute, harpsichord, oboe da caccia and so on..These were not invited in contemporary. These were created in 'early time'
    However, I cannot explain the case with Baroque music played by modern intrument. Anyway, I can conclude that early music is related to historical performance. That must be separate from any other classical music. This field is the independent part.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1692624102 facebook-1692624102

    I tend to think of Early Music as Medieval and Renaissance music, for as a student, if was music that was not often covered in standard classical training or musc history courses, or high school music classes, (though some choirs may occasionally do some Vittoria). Baroque to modern was very well represented to the typical instrumental student, Early Music was the music from before then and rarely played. However, the Early Music movement did encourage other practices as HIP and original instruments, starting with Baroque music, and creeping into later periods, to the point that Early Music America had an interesting article about 19th century period opera technique. Such practies should not be discouraged. But when I go to an Early Music Concert, I'm still expecting Medieval or Renaissance Music, (possibly Baroque). Perhaps the term Historically Informed Performance is a better term for later periods using original instruments and performance techniques?

  • http://kittybriton.multiply.com/ Myscha

    Pooh! Semantics! If you want to be finicky, I would say Early Music is anything from the plainsong of the mid-1100's to the days of J.S.Bach and G.P.Telemann. The distinction should be made between Early Music and Historically Informed Performance which can be a presentation of music from any age making full use of scholarship concerning instrument construction and performance practice.

  • http://kittybriton.multiply.com/ Myscha

    Pooh! Semantics! If you want to be finicky, I would say Early Music is anything from the plainsong of the mid-1100's to the days of J.S.Bach and G.P.Telemann. The distinction should be made between Early Music and Historically Informed Performance which can be a presentation of music from any age making full use of scholarship concerning instrument construction and performance practice.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1565830322 Eddie Konczal

    I would roughly define “early music” as that music which was composed in the days before the conceptualization of standard repertoire and historically informed performance practice. This would probably extend to the mid-to-late Baroque.

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