15 Apr 2014

Book Review: Early music in the modern era

Nick Wilson, The art of re-enchantment: making early music in the modern era (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), $24.95 / £16.99

It may seem odd to invoke a quintessentially Romantic 19th-century German philosopher when discussing the early music revival of the latter half of the 20th century, but Schopenhauer’s endlessly quotable phrase seems more appropriate at this moment than ever: ‘The first forty years of life give us the text: the next thirty supply the commentary on it’ (Parerga and Paralipomena, vol.i, 1851). The formation of several leading early music ensembles in 1973 provides a central point of reference for this new, and very British, study of the early music revival by Nick Wilson, whose reading of such a ‘text’ sets out a striking yardstick for the next 30 years of ‘commentary’.
The three main aims of Wilson’s monograph are to ‘document the cultural history of the early-music movement in Britain from 1960 onwards’, to ‘explain just how early music provided an alternative to the classical mainstream’ and to ‘cast fresh light on the entirely pivotal relationship between “doing art” and “being authentic”’ (p.5). Even one of these points would have been a huge task for a single volume, and Wilson is himself aware of necessary truncations in his narrative and often points them out to the reader himself. I will come on to a specific example of this presently, but first it is useful to consider the scope of the book. Despite frequent nods towards continental and American influences, Wilson restricts his argument to the early music revival in Britain. This is likely to raise eyebrows, but the alternative—as shown many years ago with Harry Haskell’s groundbreaking The early music revival: a history (London, 1988)—would have been a lens so wide-angled as to do little more than whet the reader’s appetite. Wilson had to draw a line somewhere, and perhaps we should think of this line not as implying …

For the Full Text of the review please refer to Early Music Magazine:

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