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The Art of Re-enchantment

Nick Wilson

Oxford University Press

ISBN: 978-0-19-993993-0

288 pages | 20 illustrations, 6 tables | Price: £16.99

The Art of Re-enchantment

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 synthesizers!

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, Morrow said, sounded like 'squeaking in the wainscotting'.

Wilson's book is timely in that the year of writing (2013) marks 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, in The Art of Re-Enchantment, 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 familiarizing the term 'early music' in British musical culture.

During the 1950s and early 1960s, early music - which denoted music primarily of the Medieval and Renaissance periods, usually no later than 1640 - by 1970 had come to refer to music composed in the Baroque era or earlier.  By the early 1980s, early music performances of works by Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and others were increasingly frequent, to the extent that today such pieces have become more widely labelled as Historically Informed Performance practice, or HIP. In such a study Wilson could have begun at the point where musicians in the Middle Ages began copying out troubadour songs from earlier manuscripts, or with the Bach revival credited to Mendelssohn, or with the work of Arnold Dolmetsch, or Wanda Landowska.  But he didn't. Commendably, though such earlier pioneers merit a mention, Wilson takes a 21st Century view.

In chapters discussing the professionalization of early music, the influence of institutions such as the BBC, the record companies, and the entrepreneurial rĂ´les of leading 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, in what the publishers claim to be the first comprehensive cultural history of the modern British early music movement.

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

Published in Classical Music Magazine, March 2014. Used by kind permission. Reproduction  forbidden.

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