I recently found a stack of old issues of Goldberg magazine, and I’ve been reading through them voraciously. The magazine is extraordinarily well done—informative articles, lavishly illustrated, etc.—but its high-end price tag and narrow focus had kept me from digging in until this seeming manna from heaven arrived. Said with the greatest respect, Goldberg is in some ways an anti-NewMusicBox, a publication devoted exclusively to early music, mostly from Europe. The reason I thought it might be worthwhile to talk about this adamantly non-new music publication in our adamantly pro-new music web magazine is because I’ve been ruminating over their definition of early music and thought it might spark some new ideas in our ever-evolving attempts at defining new music.
According to the editorial staff at Goldberg, early music goes back as far as archaeologists can dig up manuscripts and even allows for historical conjecture. (One issue even features a rave review of a disc recreating Ancient Egyptian music; no written music from Ancient Egypt actually survives.) While the beginnings of early music are messy, the end point is extremely tidy and convenient: 1750, the year that Johann Sebastian Bach died.
To me, it seems preposterous to give so much weight to one man, even someone as undeniably great as Bach was. Handel and Domenico Scarlatti, both born the same year as J.S.B. (1685), each lived further into the 1750s. According to Goldberg‘s definition, their late works disqualify as early music, as does most of the mature music of Bach’s numerous composing sons, all of whom are hardly classical-romantic standard repertoire. The period instrument movement’s exploration of the repertoire of Haydn and Mozart has made a compelling case for the music of the latter half of the 18th century to fall under the early music rubric. And the ongoing incursions by some ensembles further and further into the 19th—most recently Philippe Herreweghe’s probing accounts of Bruckner symphonies—makes the early music cut-off point of 1800 seem arbitrary as well.
So when does early music really end? Perhaps when new music begins. When is that? Ives and Schoenberg have been dead for more than half a century, and their music still frequently gets called “new music.” I couldn’t imagine their music ever being called “early music,” at least not in the lifetime of anyone reading this paragraph today. I like to think of new music beginning with the advent of recorded sound—which would theoretically preclude the need for reconstructing appropriate period performance practices—but that would take it as far back as 1877. I frequently hear people refer to Debussy, Satie, and Ravel as new music, or at least precursors of it. But then again, there are period instrument recordings of Debussy songs and an extremely revelatory set of Ravel’s complete piano music performed by Gwendolyn Mok on an Erard, all of which make a compelling case for impressionism to be folded into early music.
Truth be told, there is no way to come up with a clear and fast rule for determining a cut-off point or a starting point. Ultimately, if you want to keep an open mind and open ears, early music is as impossible to define as new music.