Vital Signs

Bach at the Barricades

In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, as far as I can tell, people played only contemporary music. Since then, it seems, there has been a complete turnaround, and only contemporary music is not stylish. Beginning in the 18th century, interest in old music has developed gradually, erratically, but inexorably, despite some resistance from musicians and music-lovers.

Throughout the 19th century, the past was a source of inspiration in the arts, from Greek revival furniture and architecture, through Gothic revival, through the Anglo-Catholic revival in the Anglican church (which encouraged old church music as well as old liturgy, vestments, and architecture), to the Rococo revival, and even to revivals of revivals ("Centennial revival" furniture, a hopeless mixture of styles from the past). The works of the past were, however, viewed through a definitely contemporary lens.

In music, the text had never been the last word for performers. The Baroque composers simply wrote notes, and not even all of those. Training and good taste were supposed to guide performers in the elaboration of those texts. In the 19th century, composers' marks became more detailed but were still treated as guidelines. Editors freely added tempo marks, dynamics, and articulation without concern for identifying their additions as such. Performance traditions, usually transmitted from teacher to student rather than codified in textbooks, were...

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