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By way of introduction the author gives an account of his own professional operatic debut in the early 1990s. He describes a reworking of Monteverdi’s Orfeo wherein he sang to the accompaniment of a pair of saxophones and a bank of synthesisers! This, then, is a broadminded, enthusiastic and contemporary view of early music and, importantly, one that manages to be light-hearted. For example, Wilson cites Michael Morrow’s description of Anthony Rooley’s Consort of Musicke as ‘mouse music for vegetarians’ which sounded like ‘squeaking in the wainscotting’.

Wilson’s book is timely in that the year of writing (2013) marked 25 years since Nicholas Kenyon convened a symposium on the theme of authenticity and early music at the Oberlin conservatory of music in Ohio in 1988. Here, Wilson points out that since then the definition of early music has shifted. ‘This book is about the ongoing transformational relationship with the music of the past,’ he writes, while giving credit to David Munrow (1942-1976) for familiarising the term ‘early music’ in British musical culture.

During the 1950s and early 1960s, ‘early music’ denoted that of the medieval and renaissance periods; by 1970 it had come to refer to music composed in the baroque era or earlier; by the early 1980s, historically informed performance (HIP) of works by Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and others broadened the field.

In chapters discussing the professionalisation of early music, the influence of institutions such as the BBC, the record companies, and the entrepreneurialism of early music pioneers, Wilson, a lecturer at King’s college, London, writes about one of the most interesting and influential movements in 20th-century art music.

Wilson doesn’t evade old controversies, however threadbare they may seem to the modern reader. These include the view (one that still holds in some quarters) that HIP musicians are essentially failed modern players and, in the matter of the demand for original instruments, the question of whether to copy or to improve. The debates range widely.

A welcome publication.

JOHN ROBERT BROWN Read the full review on Agora Classica

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