Nick Wilson The art of Re-enchantment: Making Early Music in the Modern Age. Oxford UP,2013. xiii + 293pp, £16.99 ISBN 978 0 19 993993 0

In the past twenty years or so there are have been a number of books  tracing the development of the modern early music revival and issues raised by it, notable among them Harry Haskell’s The Early Music Revival: A History (1988), Authenticity and Early Music, ed. Nicholas Kenyon (1988), Bruce Haynes’ brilliant The End of Early Music, its teasing title causing a flurry of ruffled feathers at the time of its publication in 2007, and, most controversially of all, the collection of Richard Taruskin’s articles published as Text and Act (1995).

The newest entry to the field takes a rather different approach in several respects. Firstly, Nick Wilson restricts his survey to the early music ‘movement’ in the UK, a decision that results in providing only an oblique view of such pioneers as Harnoncourt and Leonhardt, while the major role played by Sigiswald Kuijken in such matters as violin technique is ignored. It could also be thought ill advised to have adopted such an insular approach at a time when the focus of some of the most important activity in the field has shifted away from Britain to mainland Europe, especially France and Italy. This concentration also results in a failure to note the major role played by British artists such as Nicholas McGegan (mentioned only for starting the RCM’s postgraduate programme) in mainland Europe and the USA.

More disconcertingly still, Wilson, a lecturer in creativity and arts management at King’s College, London has interleaved his narrative with passages and even whole chapters (Chap 3) of discursive, densely opaque philosophical argument peppered with often arcane references, sometimes to quotations of no more than two words. I must leave others better qualified in the discipline to consider the merits of much of Wilson’s argument, but having doggedly waded through acres of inelegant writing find it difficult to escape the conclusion that there is much here that is pretentious, irrelevant and weighed down by tautology. Far too often generalised assertions like the opening of Chapter 7, where Wilson tells us, ‘Knowledge, whether of a musicological, historical, creative, entrepreneurial, artful or performance related kind, is fundamental to early music’, fall into the context of classic examples of what the less scholarly term a ‘statement of the bleedin’ obvious’. Unlike most in the early music world today, the author is obsessed with the word ‘authenticity’ or more accurately ‘authenticities (the word has five entries in the index, with 42 sub-headings), in particular in relation to Taruskin’s charges against the early music movement’s adherence to the purity of the written note, the concept of ‘Werktreue’. In fact of course the principle of ‘the work’, let alone Werktreue, is a misnomer across acres of early music, especially in the minefield of opera (a genre barely touched upon by Wilson). While because it exists in a carefully prepared and detailed contemporary score we might legitimately (though with caveats) consider Monteverdi’s Orfeo to be a musical ‘work’, his L’Incoronazione di Poppea is manifestly not ‘a work’.  The fragmentary existence – in the sense of musical information as well as literally in this case - of such an opera makes it impossible to determine or produce what would constitute an ‘Urtext’ or musical ‘work’.  Wilson’s suggestion that a musical work becomes a musical work only if it is not only composed but also performed, discussed and written about is therefore surely a suspect legacy of 19th century thinking, since, contrary to his assertion, a previously unperformed opera by, say, Cavalli has never ceased to ‘exist’, even though its physical existence is restricted to a partial score that cannot be performed without the input of an editor, whose efforts will still not produce ‘a work’, since other possibilities exist.    

A great strength of the survey of the development of the early music scene in Britain is Wilson’s consideration of the whole spectrum, concerning himself not just with artists but the interlinked phalanx of instrument manufacturers, editors and publishers (including generous – and well-deserved - praise for CB), record companies and business. Even those of us who have been there from the start and think we know a fair amount about the early music world, will find much of interest in the anecdotes and reminiscences of those at the sharp end of administering early music, frequently the directors of ensembles, who have had to accumulate business knowledge in addition to artistic skills in an arena where state funding has played little or no part. Wilson quite rightly lays much of the credit for the impetus of the revival at the door of Michael Morrow and David Munrow (who, it seems, had little time for each other), but seems unaware that the reason for the subsequent decline of interest in much of their chosen repertoire can be attributed not so much to the absence of these charismatic figures, but the limitations of a repertoire, which unlike that of the medieval and Renaissance vocal ensembles that continue to thrive, conspicuously lacked music of substance. Indeed, as Wilson notes, at the time of his tragic death Munrow had recognised this and was preparing a move forward into the Baroque. Otherwise, it is a weakness of Wilson’s appraisal that his over-dependence on artists he has interviewed results in significant lacunae: there is no place for mention of Lina Lalandi’s influential English Bach Festival, which did so much to introduce the operas of Handel and Rameau (not to mention  Baroque dance) to audiences, splendid pioneering work particularly fondly remembered now that the ENO and others have seen fit to return the production of such operas to the dark ages; no recognition of the huge significance of Kent Opera’s revolutionary staging of the Monteverdi trilogy; and equally no recognition of the heroic part played by Peter Holman in the revival of English 17th and 18th century music. Individual artists who will every reason to feel aggrieved that the substantial part they have played is not acknowledged include Paul McCreesh and Philip Pickett.

In general Wilson is happy to follow the familiar evolutionary path in the development of the modern early music revival, which might be typified by Eliot Gardiner’s original cautious approach to the adoption of period instruments, which, as an anecdote of CB’s recalls (p. 164), was not going to happen for him ‘until the players are technically good enough’. In fact, despite what we are told by lazy critics, what we have arrived at today is not a nirvana that can look smugly back on the 1970s as some kind of Neolithic age in the development of historical performance practice. Wilson, who very rightly hails the achievements of those who over nearly 50 years have brought a new way of looking at early music, is also prepared to admit that there is still much to be done, though without necessarily saying what. Among many things he might have mentioned that early music has not achieved (and not only in Britain) can be included the acceptance among all but a very few to recognise that there is no universal Baroque way of setting up and playing strings (Wilson himself consistently refers to an all-embracing generic method of Baroque string playing); a disinclination to recognise the critical importance of training in the art of extemporisation; and the continuing lack of ability among a large majority of singers to perform a proper trill. Research is much needed on such questions as appropriate pitch and the effect it has on performance, appropriate performance space, appropriate performing numbers, tempo -- where the current mania for very fast contrasted with very slow is almost certainly extremely un-HIP - and so forth.

As I’ve tried to convey, The art of Re-enchantment is a complex, at times frustratingly indigestible book. Anyone involved with or interested in early music in Britain will most likely want to see it, for they will certainly find much that is enlightening. Whether or not they will want to devour it whole is quite another matter. 

This review is also published in Early Music Review (February, 2014)

Enter supporting content here