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As the Scottish artist Charles Rennie Mackintosh once remarked, ‘there is hope in honest error, none in the icy perfection of the mere stylist’, a phrase that is applicable in more ways than one to the history of the early music movement in the UK. In the 1970s early music was the musically-literate teenagers’ rock-and-roll; it was pioneering, adventurous and hip (rather than HIP, of which more anon). We mastered the dance-steps in Orchesographie, collected London Pro Musica editions and built our own crumhorns without a care in the world. Now, it is not only a profession with a formal career path but is also celebrated as one of the most influential movements informing the performance of classical music in the last half-century.

Nick Wilson maps 40 years of work in England (meaning mostly London) and, unusually, examines the phenomenon from the point of view of the industry as a whole, taking a dispassionate look at the commercial aspects of early music-making and its dissemination through performance, broadcasting, recording and publication. It covers issues such as the professionalism of what began as a largely amateur craze, the gigantic personalities who created and sustained the demand, and the central question of how the forensic search for ‘authenticity’ mellowed into the concept of Historically Informed Performance (HIP). Of greatest interest are the all-too-brief, alas, verbatim accounts from movers and shakers such as Trevor Pinnock, Andrew Parrott, John Eliot Gardiner and Peter Phillips.

Wilson does not claim to be exhaustive; nevertheless, there are important omissions. He barely mentions the mutually creative interface between early and traditional music (a trip to Scotland might have been illuminating) and the even more profound impact that HIP and musicological discoveries have had on composers and contemporary music. While – wisely – he does not speculate too much about the future, he might perhaps have acknowledged the current fantastically rich and varied HIP scene across Europe.

So, to whom will this book be helpful? If you are contemplating forming your own ensemble and becoming a ‘cultural entrepreneur’ you should read it. If your aim is to be an employed player or singer, a cog in machines energised by creative directors, you might also want to reference this book in respect of the pioneering work of Harnoncourt and Leonhardt, Morrow and Munrow, from whom there is still so very much to learn, not least in the vibrant, exhilarating manner in which they made their discoveries and opened the flood-gates to a great deluge of musical possibility.

REBECCA TAVENER Read the full review on Agora Classica


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