The Revolution is Over
Musical fundamentalism: Christopher Hogwood said music should be performed in a style true to its period (photo: James Franklin/Gresham College)
Early music, like most successful revolutions, came in waves. It began with a slow recognition that the music most people loved was not necessarily what the composers wrote. Three disgruntled groups joined to form a movement. Academics called for a performance style that was true to its period. Orchestra players resented the monolithic certainties of all-powerful conductors. Rank amateurs experimented with organic instruments and authentic pitch. Around the midpoint of the last century, the spark caught fire.
Two wounded British soldiers imagined the revolution. Neville Marriner, a teenage violinist in the London Symphony Orchestra, found himself in a hospital bed in 1944 next to Thurston Dart, a mathematician.Dart convinced Marriner that Bach and Mozart ought to sound lighter and quicker than the blast obtained from modern symphony orchestras.
Marriner, who played for Toscanini, Furtwängler and Karajan, put Dart's theories into practice in the mid-1950s with a gathering of disgruntled players that he formed into the Academy of St Martin in the Fields. Rehearsals were more debating society than session time. Relieved of maestro control, every player in the band was a world authority on his or her instrument. Blows were traded over ideological minutiae. Variations came thick and fast. A young man on the harpsichord declared they should give up modern instruments and play on gut strings, lutes and crumhorns.
The harpsichordist was Christopher Hogwood, a Cambridge student of Dart's. He was an ally of the charismatic David Munrow, a flautist who kicked down barriers between classical and medieval music, dragging our ears back towards the dawn of human music in a series of BBC broadcasts and recordings. Munrow favoured peasant flutes. Hogwood demanded an earthier symphonic sound. Marriner voted down his instrumental fundamentalism, calling it "macrobiotic" and "popular with the open-toed sandals set". It was a Lenin-Trotsky moment. Hogwood went off to form an Academy of Ancient Music on period instruments, working his way through major symphonic cycles on Decca, while Marriner plied his smoother style on Philips.
The 1960s and '70s were the glory days of revolution. Nikolaus Harnoncourt, a cellist in the Vienna Symphony Orchestra who bought antique instruments in junk shops, joined the Dutchman Gustav Leonhardt in a compendious record project on Telefunken. British batons — John Eliot Gardiner, Roger Norrington, Trevor Pinnock — drove the bandwagon harder and faster. Some, in Orwellian fashion, showed signs of the very maestro authoritarianism the revolution had sworn to resist, justifying their dictatorship with a Taliban-like literalism and a promise of future happiness.