About Early Music

About Early Music

One way to define Early Music is to say that it is music before your own time—or beyond the scope of your own first-hand experience. Of course, by this measure it could include all music before 1950 (or 1980 depending on your personal biography). More generally, it refers to music from before the time of our accepted norms of classical music performance—say, before the year 1800. By either definition it is obvious that there is a lot more “early music” than any other kind of classical music.

Over the past fifty years or so, the musical world has experienced a sea change regarding the knowledge and performance of music before 1800. This began (as did the Boston Early Music Festival itself) with an emphasis on the rediscovery of extinct musical instruments and their playing techniques, such as lutes, harpsichords, recorders, and others. As time passed, this branched out to become a world-view that encompasses many aspects of the historical and cultural settings that gave birth to the music. The exploration has been not only of how instruments and performance styles had evolved and changed, but it has also striven to understand the contexts of how composer, musician, and audience all interacted with the music. The field now contains not only musicians and instrument makers but also historians of music, theater, dance, and more.

With the rise of Early Music, there has sometimes been a tension between the adherents of “modern practice” versus the innovators in the Early Music camp. Arguments about whether Bach sounded better on the piano or the harpsichord, or whether an orchestra of period instruments was better at representing the music of any composer up to and including Mozart, were fought out in the concert hall and the music conservatories. There may still be some die-hard doubters, but the desire to explore music as it may have originally sounded has won over musicians and audiences alike around the world.

—Stephen Stubbs, Artistic Co-Director

BEMF and Early Music

Since 1980, the Boston Early Music Festival has been at the forefront for excellence in the field of Early Music throughout North America. The biennial Festival brings together the finest performers, scholars, and instrument makers who represent the  cutting edge of discoveries in the field. Across four decades, BEMF has evolved with the field, expanding from its original role as a presenter of artists and ensembles to become ever more identified with its own opera productions and concert performances. Since 1997, under the leadership of Artistic Directors Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, BEMF has produced a Baroque opera as its centerpiece at each Festival, with the unique mission of discovering the lost jewels of 17th- and early 18th-century opera. Many of these productions have been North American premieres by important composers often unknown to modern audiences. With the addition of Gilbert Blin as Opera Director, Robert Mealy as Orchestra Director, and Melinda Sullivan as Dance Director, the BEMF artistic team is now experiencing a “golden age” of opera production, which is also represented on a series of GRAMMY-winning and GRAMMY-nominated recordings.