Classical music
from Flanders

Early music in Flanders

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Today, the term ‘early music’ covers a wide range: all music composed since yesterday. That is at least how Jos van Immerseel, a well-known and important figure in the early music scene, describes it. This demonstrates that the term early music comprises an ever wider repertoire. These days, even the historical performance of 20th century music is already considered early music. Early music – a term more charming than ‘old music’ – has always received attention, as we can see throughout the history of music.

The growing interest since 1950 to approach early music in a historically correct manner has thoroughly shaken the music world. In Flanders, the Musica Antiqua festival (MAfestival) in Bruges has been a pioneer since 1965. In the seventies, Utrecht followed suit with an even bigger and more diversified festival, while in many places across Flanders smaller initiatives surfaced. In the eighties, the other concert organisers joined in, with Antwerp setting a tone of its own with the Laus Polyphoniae festival (since 1993), focusing solely on polyphony.

The growing interest since 1950 to approach early music in a historically correct manner has thoroughly shaken the music world.

(c) Mirjam Devriendt
(c) Mirjam Devriendt

The performers’ world had already started approaching early music in a historically informed manner in the 1950s and 1960s; and in Flanders, the Netherlands, England and Austria ensembles were created that focused exclusively on this kind of music. A number of big names are still setting the tone internationally. In the beginning, the interest mainly went to music from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and Baroque eras. English musicians mostly took an interest in the very early periods, while in Flanders and the Netherlands Baroque music gained a special place next to prominent performances of the early repertoire. The historically informed performance practice really boomed and lead to many festivals and concert series all over the world. But it mostly resulted in a growing number of recordings being launched. The established performance practice suffered a major setback that also reverberated in symphonic orchestras. When the old music repertoire was expanded to the music of the Classical era, the symphonic orchestras were forced to focus more on the Romantic repertoire, until the historically informed performance practice put a spoke in the wheel of the fixed performance practice. Maybe not with the same level of dominance as in the early days of the historically informed performance practice, but at the very least serious questions were raised about the performance of 19th century (and later 20th century) music. One thing is for sure: since the surge of historical performances (nowadays mostly called historically informed performance) no one can perform an early composition without a critical approach. The merit of the movement is definitely that its adherents have tackled many dogmas and have taken a very different approach to performance practice, from the perspective of sources and testimonies.

The ‘founding fathers’ of this performance practice gathered their knowledge mostly through private study and a self-critical mindset when approaching early music. One cannot underestimate the influence of a number of young musicologists who raised pertinent questions with regard to the approach of historical sources. At both the universities of Leuven and Utrecht (with among others STIMU) pioneering research was carried out, and the influence of these people sometimes remains  neglected when discussing the early music movement. The Flemish Centre for Early Music, Musica – created by a number of musicologists/musicians – developed into an important agent in the early music world.

One cannot underestimate the influence of a number of young musicologists who raised pertinent questions with regard to the approach of historical sources.

In addition to organising concert series, festivals (including the Day of Early Music festival in Alden Biesen), masterclasses and all sorts of courses, this organisation gave birth to various ensembles (including Capilla Flamenca). Musica founded a sister organisation, the publishing house Alamire. Starting in 1980, this publishing house went on to release the renowned music periodical Musica Antiqua (18 volumes sinds 1983) as well as a series of facsimiles and professional publications, spread worldwide. After 2000, Musica (now an Impulse Centre for Music) broadened its focus and early music became a subdivision of the organisation. The Alamire publishing house published less and less material and today it only releases sporadic publications and spreads the old, unpublished funds. However, the Alamire Foundation was founded, a joint venture between the University of Leuven and Musica, where research and the spreading of early music are part of its core mission.

Today, this organisation is located in the House for Polyphony on the Park Abbey site in Leuven and it has taken over various of the old Musica tasks. The research they carry out in the womb of the university is gaining more and more international attention and creates a constant flow of new injections into the early music movement. Furthermore, they also organise concert series and provide academic support to performers who need it.

When it comes to Flanders, there was also another very important phenomenon which explains the rise and boom of early music: the role of Pieter Andriessen, musicologist and Radio 3 producer at the time. He stimulated the historically informed performance practice with beautiful and well-produced radio series which he assigned to the performing musicians (e.g. René Jacobs and Paul Van Nevel). On top of that he assigned compositions and big financial injections to national and international performers to develop very specific programmes which he then broadcasted on Radio 3. The enormous popularity of his programme Musica Antiqua was legendary in the eighties and nineties. Later, the interest at the radio station dwindled, the budgets were cut and more and more expertise disappeared until the historical music vanished almost entirely from the station now known as Klara. A radio station as a catalyst for an entire music movement: today one can only dream of it in the case of Klara, now only a shadow of what it meant for the sector at the end of the previous decade.

Obviously, it was important that the performing musicians received enough new stimuli. These were mainly provided by the pioneers themselves. The following generations could find stimuli at institutes where the historically informed performance practice played a central role. The Schola Cantorum Basiliensis had been working in that field for years and provided, among others, the basis for a number of important forerunners like the Studio der frühe Musik ensemble.

In The Hague, Amsterdam, Brussels, Barcelona, Geneva, Paris, Lyon, Bremen, London, everywhere departments for early music sprung up within the classical conservatories, and there was a boost of the number of musicians working with early music. This resulted in countless new ensembles, all trying to grab a spot within the concert circuit. Many were called but few were chosen. This had absolutely nothing to do with the technical qualities of these musicians, because everyone agrees those qualities have increased over the years. The thing was many of these performers lacked charisma and above all authenticity. Studying the sources and delving into the material was usually lost on them, since they mostly wanted to be on stage. But this way they made the same mistakes of which the classical musicians were accused before.

Everywhere departments for early music sprung up within the classical conservatories, and there was a boost of the number of musicians working with early music.

The concert organisers preferred the well-known names to attract a crowd and this threatened the succession of the pioneers. A number of these big names, like Gustav Leonhardt and Nicolaus Harnoncourt, have passed away since then. And the great Flemish pioneers are all in their seventies by now. Does this mean the early music world will come to an end when these important players are gone? Many are wondering what the future will bring. However, hard work is being done and early music definitely still has a future.

(c) Mirjam Devriendt
(c) Mirjam Devriendt

The current perception might have something to do with the slowly fading early music programmes at the conservatories. While leading figures like the brothers Barthold Kuijken and Sigiswald Kuijken used to play an important educational role in various institutes, without these teachers there is a void which the conservatories have used to slowly limit the early music programmes or even repeal them.

In Flanders for example, there is no such thing as a proper training in early music anymore. Abroad, some institutes are still hanging on, but there are many complaints about the quality of the teachers who focus too much on the technical side of things and too little on the critical study of the source material. This means early music is destined to become part of the classical conservatory training once again and there is no reason anymore to keep a separate department alive.

What is the future of performing musicians, especially those who specialised in historical performance? While in the 1980s and 1990s there was still a large demand for musicians in the growing number of Baroque and Classical orchestras, these vacancies were filled one by one, and musicians specialising in historical instruments had less and less opportunities to find a job. This automatically lead to a setback for the education programme and the number of people interested in this specialisation. Musicians who did choose to specialise were often not the most interesting performers due to a lack of true enthusiasm and conviction. As mentioned before, this had a big influence on the concert organisers who played it safe by choosing the old established names. It created the perception that early music would suffer a silent death after the loss of these big names and after various performance styles were taken over by classical orchestras and ensembles.

However, it is not all doom and gloom, and such a negative perception is partly exaggerated, depending on the zeitgeist. The record labels that at the time had given a serious boost to the so-called ‘boom’ of early music also suffered because of the general malaise in the music industry, so musicians struggled to find a label. Nowadays, musicians often have to invest their own money in recordings and many therefore opt to release their recordings themselves, sometimes including an edition on their own label. This is not only a problem for early music, but also for many performing musicians. The absolute top still gets opportunities, but lesser gods have to fend for themselves. However, this masks a true opportunity: those who provide high-quality, original, innovative and convincing work on a steady basis can still get a place on the big concert stages. For musicians wanting to specialise further in historical performance, the demands will be just as high, which can only lead to top performers. We have been seeing them finding their place all over the world, however slowly.

Nowadays, musicians often have to invest their own money in recordings and many therefore opt to release their recordings themselves, sometimes including an edition on their own label.

Will Flanders still play a role in this field in the future? It will depend on individual musicians to show the same drive as the pioneers who put Flanders on the map. However, we cannot doubt it: the new generations will show themselves, maybe in a different way, but the best ones will demand their place. We often forget that even figures like the Kuijken family, Van Immerseel, Van Nevel, Jacobs and Herreweghe had to fight to get a spot within the concert circuit. Their approach was considered nonsense and they were called naive and incompetent. Today no one would dare to say this, not even the high priests of the Classical and Romantic performance practice.

(c) Mirjam Devriendt
(c) Mirjam Devriendt

The historically informed practice has found its own place in the music circuit. Now it is up to the new generations to build upon this further and to add enough quality and originality. Maybe a lot has been said already about the old masters and there are countless interesting recording as historical witnesses. Still, it will always be the performance itself to set the standard, and an audience of listeners and melomaniacs will use it as a point of reference. However interesting a recording may be, experiencing a live performance will always be something completely different. And in the future this will remain the indicator for experiencing music.

Most likely, the repertoire will only expand more and the early music narrative will change. But there should be absolutely no doubt that the thousands of years of music history will always have a place in the concert repertoire, just like museums and archaeological sites remain witnesses of the originality and zeal of the past.

Herman Baeten
Herman Baeten studied musicology and for a number of years worked as a music teacher and as a conductor and performer of early music. He founded Musica, of which he currently is chairman, and co-founded Alamire Music Publishers. He is also the author of several studies on music theory.
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